Long time race leader Sete Gibernau came agonisingly close to claiming his - and Suzuki's - first MotoGP victory today in atrocious conditions at Estoril.

With rain pouring down all morning this afternoon's Grand Prix would be a case of survival of the fittest, but having taken the lead in the early stages the Spaniard looked to have Rossi beaten as the final laps wound down - only to spat unceremoniously from his #15 machine at one of the slowest corners on the track, handing the runaway championship leader yet another maximum points haul.

Starting from pole had been Carlos Checa who made the most of yesterday's wet/dry final qualifying session to secure his first ever MotoGP pole, holding off Honda heroes Daijiro Kato and Valentino Rossi, while the two stroke of tough racer Alex Barros completed an explosive front row.

Heading the equally competitive second row was Brno winner Max Biaggi, confident of a strong race set-up, with Jeremy McWilliams sixth after benefiting from a tow off Rossi, while Capirossi sat in seventh one place ahead of Repsol rider Tohru Ukawa - but a lot would depend on the start... and the weather.

By race morning Estoril had been completely covered by dense dark cloud that soon spilled its contents consistently over the Portuguese track for all three of today's MotoGP events.

Nevertheless it would be the same for everyone and when the red lights disappeared it was Barros who made the best attempt at feeding the 200+ horsepower through his rear rubber, while Checa made a terrible start after too much wheelspin.

But by the end of lap one the Suzuki's were the main gainers, with Gibernau into the lead and teammate Kenny Roberts also into the top four, both from third row starts.

On lap four the atrocious weather claimed Regis Laconi, who had been storming through the field superbly on the ill handling Aprilia. Meanwhile the order up front was: Gibernau, Rossi, Roberts, Ukawa, Checa and Barros the top two stroke on a day when weather conditions meant that they would never have a chance of matching the 4-strokes smother power delivery.

Men on the move in the lead pack were Ukawa (up to third) and pole sitter Checa who was rapidly reeling in Kenny Roberts, while Gibernau made a break up front.

Lap 8 and the oft injured Ukawa out dragged his Repsol teammate along the home straight, while Loris Capirossi's race came to a premature end when he fell from his NSR500 after losing the front. Fortunately he appeared not to have damaged his already injured wrist.

He wasn't the only Honda victim on that lap either as Daijiro Kato - who admits to hating the wet - got into a nasty 'tank slapper' on his RCV, which eventually spat him off and into the gravel from 12th.

Back up front and Gibernau was looking more and more confident as he set fastest lap after fastest lap to extend his lead to 3.5secs by lap 10 (of 28), while the Honda teammates banged bars for second as their RCV's slid uncomfortably around the 4.182km track.

Rossi finally muscled his way through one lap later - just in time as far as the Italian was concerned as Roberts and Checa had now joined the fight - and Sete's lead was nearly 6seconds ahead of him.

Checa moved ahead of Roberts into turn one of lap 13 after a brave outbraking manoeuvre completed off the racing line. Checa soon proved that he could potentially win the race as he pulled right up onto Ukawa's exhaust within a few corners.

Also threatening was Rossi, who having broken free from Ukawa managed to put in a lap a massive 1 second faster than leader Gibernau - the fight was on.

Meanwhile, Checa's charge resulted in the Spaniard taking third from Ukawa on lap 15, and he set his sights on closing the 5secs gap to Rossi now that he was in 'clean' air.

But at the sharp end Gibernau, surely realising that this may be his one and only chance for victory in 2002 on the development Suzuki, had begun to pin back his throttle a little more at every corner - and succeeded in halting the Honda riders assault with new fastest laps of his own to keep the gap stable at around 5 seconds.

Behind the top five, Biaggi and Barros were locked in a fight for sixth, with the Brno winner unable to shake off the West Honda Pons rider after putting an early pass on the Brazilian.

A two-stroke rider putting in a less sparkling performance was Shinja Nakano who joined his Gauloises Tech 3 teammate by falling at the painfully slow chicane.

The Gibernau/Rossi duel continued for laps 16 - with both equally on edge, spectacularly backing their rear wheels into the turns - but they were amazingly closely matched and were unable to force the other to concede.

Into the closing stages and still the battle raged - with Rossi now closing slowly but surely on the Barcelona native to get within 3secs of the #15 machine, with just four laps to go - although he didn't have enough outright speed to win, Rossi's best chance was to pressure Gibernau into a mistake...

...That happened on lap 25 when Gibernau's sterling effort came to an end as his Suzuki's rear swung round on the entry to the chicane - spitting the Spaniard off and hard onto the tarmac, before sliding agonisingly slowly into the gravel. It looked as though he may have been able to remount his ride, but the fall - combined with the agonising disappointment - meant he stayed motionless in the gravel.

Rossi now held a 22 second lead over Checa as the race wound down with Ukawa third, Roberts fourth and Biaggi still battling with Barros for (now) fifth - as the rain intensified.

Rossi duly cruised to the line to be greeted by his fan club further around the circuit as the Italian celebrated in style a difficult victory. Checa took second, with Ukawa completing the podium in third, ahead of Roberts - while Barros beat Biaggi with his fastest lap on the race on the final circulation.

"I'm happy for victory but so sorry for Sete," said Rossi sportingly in the post race press conference.

Full results to follow...

1. Rossi
2. Checa
3. Ukawa
4. Roberts
5. Barros
6. Biaggi