Max Biaggi won a breath-taking Pacific Grand Prix today at Motegi, the Roman Emperor holding off Valentino Rossi in the early stages, then benefiting from a mistake by the world champ that left the Repsol rider to fight back from ninth - while a controversial high-speed collision would decide the final podium place in what was arguably the most exciting race of the year so far.

Final qualifying had seen the Biaggi snatch a fairytale home pole position from class rookie Tamada, the Italian denying the Japanese with a scorching record lap for his third pole of the season.

Other than a brief flirtation with second place by Yamaha rider Carlos Checa midway through the session, the top positions remained largely in the hands of Honda riders, and the home factory swept the top five positions on the grid in the late push for times.

Whilst Tamada lost out on pole, second place represents his best ever gird position and his first front row start. Valentino Rossi made a late challenge but could only manage third, whilst Sete Gibernau was fourth fastest despite improving on his provisional pole time.

It was only a late effort from Gibernau that denied Nicky Hayden his first front row start. The American rookie led the session with just ten minutes remaining before conforming with a best ever grid position of fifth. After crashing his Ducati on the first lap, Loris Capirossi recovered his rhythm at the end of the session and broke onto the second row in sixth, ahead of Yamaha pair Checa and Alex Barros.

Marco Melandri was the victim of Barros' late effort, watching from the garage as he dropped back to ninth place after the chequered flag had been waved. The Italian youngster is joined on the third row by Troy Bayliss, Tohru Ukawa and Shinya Nakano.

Morning warm-up saw a Repsol Honda one-two as Rossi led Hayden - but Tamada was again a factor, taking third in the session ahead of Gibernau and pole sitter Biaggi. With Rossi, Hayden and Tamada being covered by just 0.088secs in race trim - and the all-Honda top five by 0.3secs - this afternoon's grid gathered with even more anticipation than usual.

When the lights disappeared it was Gibernau who grabbed the holeshot, while Bayliss, Checa and Hopkins were all lost in a turn one collision, which also involved Colin Edwards. Meanwhile, Biaggi had slotted into second ahead of Hayden, Rossi, Capirossi, Tamada, Barros, Ukawa and Jacque.

Rossi dispatched Hayden by the end of lap one, and the reigning world champion was soon all over the back of Biaggi, with race leader Gibernau not getting away either. Biaggi grabbed the lead briefly into turn one on lap two, before Sete retook the position... only for Biaggi to take a second bite one turn later.

Meanwhile, with the top four beginning to break away, Tamada crucially found a way past Capirossi under braking and was quickly able to catch the all-Honda battle at the front.

Despite taking the lead, Biaggi wasn't able to take advantage of having Gibernau between himself and Rossi, and the Roman would soon feel the heat when on lap four the #46 squeezed past Sete and began to put the Camel Pramac Pons rider under severe pressure.

Over the following circulations, the all-Italian top two began to pull a small gap over the sick Gibernau, but it was fifth placed Tamada who was the fastest man on track - the Japanese now desperate to get past Hayden.

Then a shock that would have even the Japanese fans on their feet: Rossi out-braked himself into the tight right-hand turn one on lap seven and was forced to run through the gravel before rejoining the circuit - dropping the world champ back to ninth (behind Melandri) and 8.6secs behind race leader Biaggi. The expressionless faces of the watching HRC bosses in the Repsol pits said it all - 'and he wants how many millions for next year...'

While Rossi planned his revenge, and he still had 16 laps to make what would be a fantastic comeback ride, Tamada was keeping the home fans on edge - slicing past Hayden for third on lap eighth, as he set his sights on Gibernau 0.7secs ahead, with Biaggi a further 1.3secs clear.

However, Rossi was past Melandri, Capirossi and Ukawa for sixth by lap nine, and then took Barros one lap later, leaving the Italian with a 4secs gap to close to fourth placed Hayden. Meanwhile, Tamada took Gibernau - briefly - at the same time, only for the determined Catalan to fight straight back... allowing Biaggi to stretch ever further away by a few tenths each lap.

Tamada, watched by the still present Hayden, continued his onslaught of the Telefonica rider up to - and beyond - the halfway point, but main news was that by lap 13 (of 24) Rossi was within 2.4secs of Hayden - and 6secs of Biaggi, could he do it...?

The 24-year-old Superstar caught the thrilling three-way fight for second by lap 16 - but with Biaggi 3.5secs clear he couldn't afford to be polite in working his way through the trio - and was just millimetres from torpeding Hayden as he outbraked himself yet again.

The #46 kept on the track this time, while the watching fans gasped, and at last found himself inheriting a bit of luck soon after when he followed Hayden past Tamada, after the Japanese (looking down on power to his rivals) made yet another desperate bid for second.

Rossi then took Hayden a lap later, with Gibernau lasting just a few more turns before losing second to the angry Italian. That put Rossi with a 5secs gap between himself and arch rival Biaggi - with just 5 laps to go.

Those numbers made the task look impossible, and Rossi instead found himself having to defend his newly taken position from a charging Sete, who against expectation was able to stay with Vale after being passed - while Hayden and Tamada were still in touch.

Onto the penultimate lap and Biaggi was riding faultlessly up front to keep his commanding 5secs lead intact, while Rossi, Gibernau, Hayden and Tamada were still inseparable. Tamada muscled past Hayden towards the end of lap, the pair swapping paint through the underpass, while Rossi could forget winning - he now needed all his skill to hold second.

The Italian was quick through the first part of the lap and was able to pull a slight lead, while Gibernau was soon to become the controversial victim of a Tamada attack. The Japanese was giving everything he had to claim a home podium and heading onto the back straight the Pramac Honda rider tucked in behind Gibernau, slipstreamed alongside him and then - this is where things get controversial - the pair collided at high speed.

Sete survived the ensuing 'wobble' from his RCV, but couldn't stop in time for the tight, right hand, turn at the end of the straight - and was forced through the gravel. Tamada had no such problems and duly took a home podium, behind Rossi and a jubilant Biaggi.

Indeed, Max was visibly ecstatic at finally taking his first 'on track' win of 2003 - and in front of the Honda bosses after a faultless ride. Rossi was visibly pained to finish second - but he'd also ridden a fantastic race after his earlier mistake, was easily the fastest man on track, and had extended his point's lead over Gibernau.

Despite the last lap, Tamada was naturally delighted with his hard earned third - and gave the home fans renewed hope of a future first premier-class champion, whilst ensuring himself of a MotoGP ride next year.

Hayden also enjoyed himself and was seen beaming from ear-to-ear as he discussed the race with Mick Doohan in the Repsol pits afterwards. Sete wasn't so pleased - and stopped just after the flag with a face like thunder. Makoto can expect a 'friendly' visit later...

Further back, Melandri was top Yamaha in sixth, while Capirossi brought the lone Ducati home in ninth after a 'quiet' day.

Ryo claimed 11th on the development Suzuki, with Haga top Aprilia in 13th. Aoki brought the lone finishing Proton Kr home in 15 for its first ever GP point, two places ahead of Pitt's Kawasaki (McCoy pulled in with mechanical problems). Edwards, Moriwaki wild-card Serizawa and WCM's David de Gea completed the finishers.

However, shortly after the race, it was announced that Tamada had been stripped of his third place finish because of his collison with Gibernau (see seperate story), moving Hayden to a career best third.

Hopkins was also in trouble, being banned from the next round at Malaysia for starting the first turn accident (again see seperate story).

Full results to follow...

1. Biaggi
2. Rossi
3. Hayden
4. Gibernau
5. Melandri
6. Barros
7. Ukawa
8. Capirossi
9. Nakano
10. Ryo
11. Kiyonari
12. Haga
13. Jacque
14. Aoki
15. Roberts
16. Pitt
17. Edwards
18. Serizawa
19. de Gea



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