Valentino Rossi clinched his third consecutive premier-class crown in the style this afternoon at Sepang, the Italian superstar comfortably beating Sete Gibernau to claim his fifth motorcycling world championship at the age of just 24.

Qualifying saw Rossi turn up the heat on his MotoGP rivals after taking the tactical decision to switch to a qualifying tyre just after midway through the session, rather than waiting until the end, as is usual practice.

That move took the pressure away from the Italian, and he set a scorching new lap record to start today's race - where he was expected to be crowned world champion for the fifth time - from the optimum position.

Carlos Checa came closest to threatening Rossi's superiority with a late charge to second place, improving his provisional time by around two seconds, despite crashing into team-mate Marco Melandri early in the hour. Makoto Tamada dropped one place from provisional second to third but starts from the front row for the second successive race, just ahead of last year's winner Max Biaggi, who starts from fourth.

Shinya Nakano continued his impressive qualifying form to seal his seventh second row start of the season in fifth, whilst Loris Capirossi dropped from the provisional front row to qualify sixth. Sete Gibernau, needed to take nine points from Rossi to keep his slim title challenge alive, qualified seventh fastest, with Tohru Ukawa completing the second row in eighth.

Nicky Hayden dropped to ninth, just ahead of fellow American Kenny Roberts who continued to impress on the Suzuki. Troy Bayliss was eleventh fastest for Ducati, with Yamaha rider Alex Barros completing the third row in twelfth.

Morning warm-up was led by Gibernau, by a fraction from Biaggi, but the main news was the weather - it was wet again, with lap times around 15secs slower than optimum, and although the track would soon dry after the session finished, it robbed the riders of vital test time.

Nevertheless, Rossi finished the session third; 0.5secs behind the top two, with Barros, Hayden, Roberts and McCoy completing a cosmopolitan top seven, while - as suspected - Olivier Jacque was absent as a result of his Friday fall, and wouldn't take part in today's race.

Into this afternoon, and when the lights went out at a scorching hot Sepang - the later start, due to the F1 finale, only adding to the heat problems - it was Checa who got the best jump from the front row, but by turn one Gibernau and Capirossi were ahead of the Fortuna machine.

All but Barros made it through the tight right/left turn one, the Brazilian pirouetting gracefully across the track in a low speed fall after an unseen tangle, before remounting, while WCM's Chris Burns would later be given a jump start penalty, then later retire, as his unbelievably tough rookie GP season continued.

Meanwhile, Checa turned heads as he slipstreamed past Capirossi on the long straight leading into the hairpin, giving a running order of Gibernau, Checa, Capirossi, Rossi, Biaggi, Hayden, Bayliss, Ukawa, Nakano and Haga as the field crossed the line for the first time.

Rossi was soon past Capirossi, then took Checa a lap later, to sit directly behind the man he needed to beat for the championship - Gibernau, the Telefonica rider once again putting his qualifying troubles behind him with a strong early race pace.

By contrast, Capirossi was being shuffled further down the order as Biaggi took fourth from him on lap 4, leaving the #65 to contend with a threatening Hayden, while Max now focussed on former team-mate Checa. With Capirossi continuing to slip further back, the top four - separated by 2.7secs - were able to pull a 2.5secs lead over the Ducati rider by lap 5 (of 21).

Checa's challenge to the leading Hondas would end soon after as he was dropped by the top two, and in turn lost third to Biaggi, the Camel Pramac Pons rider now needing to find 2.4secs to catch Rossi. Max's day would soon get a lot worse however, when Rossi neatly out-braked Gibernau, on lap 8, to lead the field for the first time and raise the pace still further.

The Repsol rider's speed soon began to tell and at the midway point Vale held a 1.5secs lead over the #15, while Biaggi had only gained 0.2secs on the Telefonica liveried machine ahead.

But grabbing most of the attention by that stage was the thrilling battle between Capirossi and Hayden - the young American putting his formative dirt track years to good use as he got his factory Honda in all sorts of interesting shapes under hard braking and acceleration.

The AMA Superbike champion's efforts paid off on lap 12 when, after being foiled on several previous efforts, Hayden surprised Loris with a sudden, but clean, dive inside. Checa was then next on the #69's list, the Spaniard being just 0.5secs up the road as the M1 rider fell further from the 'spread-out' RCV trio ahead.

Checa lasted just three laps before he had an orange V5 being thrown inside him, but the Spaniard twice cut back to retake the position and would hold firm heading into the closinhg stages.

By that point, Gibernau was still clearly in fighting form, sliding his factory spec machine in ever longer drifts as the laps wound down, dropping Biaggi by over 5secs, and remaining within 2secs of champion elect Rossi - close, but not nearly close enough to pull off any sort of overtaking move.

Ultimately, Gibernau would never trouble Rossi and the Italian looked as dominating as ever as he completed his final lap as a double premier-class champion. He would become a triple MotoGP class king two-minutes later, but crossed the line without any visible celebrations...

However, he had a plan. The Doctor braked hard and pulled tight up against the pit wall, stopping right alongside his Repsol team, before dismounting to climb the pit wall and celebrate with his championship winning crew - some, if not all, he may start the 2004 season without if rumours are to be believed.

Rossi then returned to his overheating RCV to complete the lap - well almost complete the lap... his fan club were waiting at the back of the circuit in the famous Brno prison outfits, and he duly stopped to celebrate with them, collect a special championship winning t-shirt, a flag (with a '5' over the 46) and even a new helmet (a black and white chequered flag type design, with five stars, over his usual yellow).

The podium that followed was equally eye-catching with Gibernau, and arch-rival Biaggi, both sportingly showing no sign of personal disappointment as they attempted to drown the 24-year-old in champagne in front of the 'Vale - Vale' chanting crowd assembled beneath.

Almost missed in the celebrations was that Hayden mugged Checa for fourth on the last lap, while Capirossi rode a lonely race to sixth ahead of Ukawa, Nakano, Bayliss and the unusually 'quiet' Tamada - the Japanese never recovering from a poor start.

The fast starting Haga gave his hopes of a 2004 ride a boost by beating team-mate Edwards, while Suzuki rider Roberts faded from tenth on the grid to fourteenth at the flag. Barros rode an impressive comeback to take the final point, while Pitt was top Kawasaki in 16th, one place ahead of McWilliams.

Full results to follow...

1. Rossi
2. Gibernau
3. Biaggi
4. Hayden
5. Checa
6. Capirossi
7. Ukawa
8. Nakano
9. Bayliss
10. Tamada
11. Melandri
12. Haga
13. Edwards
14. Roberts
15. Barros
16. Pitt
17. McWilliams
18. Aoki
19. McCoy



Loading Comments...