Valentino Rossi finished the 2003 season exactly as it began it - with victory. The Italian, riding in what is expected to have been his Honda farewell, claimed his ninth win of the year today at Valencia after absorbing pressure from Sete Gibernau for 25 of the 30 laps, whereupon he raised himself to a record breaking pace which the Catalan couldn't follow.

Yesterday's final qualifying session of the season had ended with a familiar result as Rossi pulverised the lap record and took pole by 0.670secss from Gibernau.

The Spaniard, riding at the scene of his debut victory two years ago, tried valiantly to provide the thousands of fans already packed into the circuit with a home pole, but Rossi was not to be denied and the Italian's pole time was also enough to clinch the BMW Award for the MotoGP Best Qualifier 2003.

Meanwhile, Loris Capirossi broke the Honda hegemony at the top of the time sheets, qualifying third fastest on the Ducati ahead of Nicky Hayden, who had been quickest in the morning free practice.

However, fourth place represents a first front row start of the season for Hayden, who stood on the podium for the first time two weeks ago at Phillip Island and came into today eager to hold fifth place in the championship today, as he faces pressure from Tohru Ukawa and Troy Bayliss.

Carlos Checa had his sights set on beating Gibernau to claim the affections of today's 120,000 sell-out home crowd after qualifying fifth fastest on the Yamaha. The Spaniard beating former team-mate Max Biaggi and a surprise effort from Aprilia rider Colin Edwards, back on the second row for the first time since qualifying seventh at Assen. Alex Barros completed the second row, whilst Ukawa and Bayliss round off a top ten separated by less than two seconds.

But after being embarrassed in final qualifying, Rossi's rivals were left a lot happier after this morning's warm-up session - which saw the top four covered by just 0.156secs in full race trim: The session was once again led by the 'Austin Powers' liveried Italian, but Hayden was just 0.038secs behind - while the fellow Hondas of Biaggi (looking to have finally found a set-up at the eleventh hour) and Gibernau were well within touch of the #46.

When the red lights went out for the final time in 2003, it was Capirossi who led the 23 rider field into the slightly off-camber 90-degree left hander that is turn one, with Rossi, Hayden, Biaggi, Gibernau, Checa, Ukawa Edwards, Barros and Bayliss in close pursuit.

Capirossi led the Honda foursome until lap two, when the tiny Italian ran wide and was forced to yield into the following turn, while the top six (Rossi, Capirossi, Hayden, Gibernau, Biaggi and Checa) were visibly beginning to drop Barros, Edwards et al.

Lap 3 and Hayden, having been forced to defend against Gibernau while at the same time targeting Capirossi ahead of him, was sent sliding down the road at low speed when his rear tyre broke away at a tight left hander. The Kentuckian sprang to his feet to remount his stalled V5, and after a bump start from the marshals rejoined a distant last.

Meanwhile, in even greater trouble were Japanese riders Nakano and Ukawa, who collided one lap later at the same turn - ending their season, and possibly GP careers, prematurely.

Back up front and Gibernau raised the crowd volume by an octave as he neatly seized second from Capirossi on lap 5 of 30, and the pair would soon pull a 1sec gap over Loris, Checa and Biaggi - but the Roman would keep his own hopes alive by dislodging former team-mate Checa two laps later, as the Yamaha rider began to fade.

What had looked like developing into another Rossi/Gibernau battle was soon a four way affair as Capirossi and Biaggi joined the fight - Sete blasting ahead (or had Valentino let him by?) for the first time along the start-finish straight on lap 10. However, Gibernau certainly seemed to think Rossi was playing games, and let the Italian back ahead one lap later. This time Rossi really began to push, his Repsol machine shaking under the strain of harsh acceleration.

Rossi's attempt at breaking the Catalan would come to nothing as the Telefonica rider beat his best lap times to remain on The Doctor's rear wheel, although the pace was beginning to tell on Capirossi, who began to slip back as he focussed his attention from catching Gibernau, to defending third from Biaggi.

Further behind, the Valencia fans were being treated to a repeat of the 2002 World Superbike season as Edwards and Bayliss battled all-out for seventh (2.5secs behind Barros). The Texan - in his Aprilia farewell - would trouble the Aussie right to the flag, despite Troy outbraking him into turn one at the halfway stage.

But up front the race was now a clear Rossi/Gibernau battle, with barely a tenth separating their lap times as Rossi fought to end (?) his Honda career with a victory, while Gibernau was upholding Spain's hopes - and signalling his intentions to replace his rival as Honda's number one next season.

The pair were so close on track that they seemed at times to be toying with each other, Rossi at one point glancing back to check his advantage - and being waved at by Gibernau! Rossi then tried to surprise Sete by suddenly cranking out new lap records as he tried to break his opponent's rhythm, only for Gibernau to initially respond with fast laps of his own as he tried to stay in touch.

This time, however, Rossi's charge was relentless, and with six laps to go he had built his lead to over a second for the first time in the whole event. That would become 2.5secs by lap 27, then slip slightly to a still comfortable 1.9secs as the final lap began.

Eventually, Valentino would wheelie his way to victory by 0.681secs, then congratulate Sete before each went their separate ways for the post race celebrations: Gibernau would stop to greet his home fans and collect a Daijiro Kato flag, while Rossi was mobbed midway around by fans of his own - before doing what must surely have been the longest burn-out ever.

Vale then returned to parc ferme to find some of his Repsol team wearing afro wigs (to continue the Austin Powers theme) - and the race winner would soon put on his own wig for the podium celebrations.

Rossi's victory means he has now equalled the all-time record of 22 consecutive podiums in the premier-class, held by Giacomo Agostini; has set a new record points total for a season; has helped Honda equal their most wins in a season (15); has matched Regis Laconi's 2000 record of scoring points in sixteen premier-class GPs in one season (Nakano's hopes of joining him eneded today) - and can also now claim to have won at every circuit on the GP calendar.

Meanwhile, Capirossi had crossed the line 10-seconds after the top two to also end an excellent year as it began for he and Ducati, with a podium. Countryman Biaggi finished an uneventful fourth, ahead of Checa and Barros.

Despite his mid-race pass, Bayliss would end the race just 1.2secs clear of Edwards for seventh, whilst Abe and Tamada completed the top ten. Roberts took top Suzuki honours with 11th, just ahead of the ever determined McWilliams. Hopkins, Kiyonari (in his last MotoGP race) and Haga (on his final ride with Aprilia) completed the points.

Regardless of his fall, Hayden collected top rookie honours for 2003 - by two points over Bayliss - although the American would finish out of the points today, in sixteenth, after his accident.

Finally, Rossi gave no indication of his future in the post race press conference and the wait for official announcements now begins...

Full results to follow...

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



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