Valentino Rossi stands on the brink of winning the 2001 500cc World Championship after Max Biaggi crashed out of the lead of today's Pacific Grand Prix, handing victory - and a 67 point lead - to the Honda rider, with three rounds left and a possible 75 points available.

Loris Capirossi had upstaged championship rivals - and fellow countrymen - Rossi and Biaggi to take pole in yesterday's second qualifying session (his third this year) and a new circuit record in the process.

With West Honda Pons teammate Alex Barros taking third on the grid, Sito Pons' team looked like having every chance of adding to their one GP victory this year, by the Brazilian at a wet Mugello, with Capirossi certainly deserving to break his 2001 duck in Japan.

Nevertheless, Biaggi and Rossi completed an explosive 500cc front row (in second and fourth places respectively), while Shinya Nakano was the top Japanese rider in fifth, ahead of Friday pace setter Roberts, his teammate and Valencia winner Gibernau and reigning 250cc World Champion Jacque.

When the red lights disappeared it was Biaggi who shot ahead from the front row - but Roberts had made another storming start to push the Italian wide into turn one and take the lead. However, Biaggi was having none of it and retook the lead shortly after, while Rossi worked his way up to second ahead of the American, with Barros fourth, Capirossi fifth, Gibernau sixth and Abe seventh.

Rossi was soon starting to crawl all over the rear of Biaggi's #3 YZR500, but the Honda hero must have been aware of the need to protect his large points lead and not take any unnecessary risks that would hand points - and hope - to Biaggi.

Biaggi and Rossi began to eek out a small gap over the next few laps and by lap 5 the duo were 2secs ahead of new third placed man Barros, with Roberts losing a further place when Capirossi charged underneath him a few corners later.

Vale continued to shadow his adversary, aware of the mistakes the Roman Emperor has made in the last few races when under pressure, when amazingly Biaggi lost the front of his machine as he exited the underpass towards the end of lap 7 and slid at high speed into the gravel, where his YZR dug in and somersaulted itself into pieces.

Biaggi quickly got back on his feet and ran after the shattered machine, but it was clearly unridable and the Roman was left to make the lonely walk back to the pits, his title chances now all but over; if Rossi won the race the Nastro Azzurro star would need to score just 8 points out of a possible 75 in the three races remaining.

Joining Biaggi in the gravel was Nori Haga, the Red Bull Yamaha rider having set an impressive pace during the morning warm-up, but once again enthusiasm got the better of physics and he would record another DNF.

Lap 11 of 25 and Barros was beginning to close slightly on Rossi, to reduce the gap to 1.4secs, but Capirossi couldn't keep up with his teammate and was now 2secs behind, while Abe (who had started in just 16th place) was now all over the back of Roberts' Suzuki in the battle for fourth - a position he would take one lap later.

By lap 16 Rossi had halted Barros' charge - and even begun to stretch his advantage slightly to 2secs, with Abe the fastest rider on the track as he sought to catch Capirossi for the final podium place at his home Grand Prix.

Lap 18 and Roberts was continuing to fall back, with Gibernau, Ukawa and Nakano taking fifth, sixth and seventh from the World Champion in quick succession as the frustration of a strong early showing being followed by a degradation in performance once again affected Roberts.

Into the last three laps and Barros was still in touch with Rossi, but the difference remained close to two seconds, with Capirossi a further 7secs behind and pacing himself to take the final podium place and hold off the hard charging Abe.

By the time he began his final lap, Vale had pulled out a few more tenths over Barros, the Brazilian having given all he had before easing off slightly in the closing stages when the cause seemed lost.

Capirossi duly took third ahead of Abe with the only real last lap surprise being Sete Gibernau's Suzuki developing an engine problem that dropped him back down the field, and he would eventually finish in ninth behind his teammate.

Full results to follow...

1. Rossi
2. Barros +2.607secs
3. Capirossi +9.765secs
4. Abe +13.951secs
5. Ukawa +21.994secs
6. Nakano +22.279secs
7. Checa +27.332secs
8. Roberts +27.607secs



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