Valentino Rossi has won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans after successfully holding off arch rival Sete Gibernau by just 0.3secs after a tense finale in which the Catalan, having recovered from some poor opening laps, charged through the field to split the leading Gauloises Yamahas.

Dense mist and fog had delayed the morning warm-up, with the track containing substantial damp patches by the time the MotoGP riders began their belated 20-minute session - which went on to see a heavy accident for Max Biaggi, resulting in the Roman being stretchered off to the medical centre.

Fortunately, the sore Repsol Honda rider was able to take his eighth place on a dry - but very overcast - Le Mans starting grid several hours later; the 21-rider line-up led by a front row of Gauloises Yamaha team-mates Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards plus Movistar Honda's Marco Melandri while Sete Gibernau, Nicky Hayden and Shinya Nakano completed row two.

But several minutes before the green lights went out the race was declared 'wet' - meaning that, unlike at Estoril, no white flags would be needed before a bike swap could take place should rain, which had haunted the event all weekend and remained a very real possibility, return during the race.

When the green lights did disappear it was Hayden who shot to the front into the fast turn one, but Edwards outbraked his fellow American around the outside to slot into the lead as the field threaded its way through the right-left-right first chicane.

But one man not emerging from the other side of the chicane was Carlos Checa, who fell from his Desmosedici after clipping Biaggi and then collected D'Antin's Roberto Rolfo as the class rookie tried to avoid the fallen Spaniard - the Italian would rejoin.

Accompanying Checa on the DNF list before the end of the opening lap was Team Roberts rider Shane Byrne; the Brit being left in obvious pain by a heavy off and was carried away on a stretcher for further examination at the medical centre.

Suffering to a lesser degree was Byrne's good friend John Hopkins, who had been forced to pit even before the start with mechanical problems and returned in last place riding his spare Suzuki.

Meanwhile, Rossi and Gibernau were just sixth and seventh at the end of lap one - behind Edwards, Hayden, Capirossi, Melandri and Nakano - and while Rossi worked steadily up the order, Gibernau remained in seventh for the next four laps, then dropped to a low of eighth, before beginning his impressive comeback

Gibernau would cut past Barros on lap five, Nakano on lap six, then take two laps to overcome combative new team-mate Melandri for fifth position and the lead of the 'second' group - who were now fast catching fourth placed Capirossi.

Further ahead, Rossi would break the American one-two after Hayden ran a little wide early on lap 8, allowing Vale to slot into second behind the sister Gauloises machine.

Rossi then appeared content to shadow Edwards, but was given a wake-up call when Gibernau burst into third, past a fading Hayden, on lap 16 - Sete was just one-second behind Rossi, who now needed to dispose of Edwards fast and use the former double WSBK champ as a blocker.

But before he could do so Gibernau was right on Rossi's rear wheel, creating a three-way battle for victory and when Rossi finally made his first real attempt to pass Edwards - diving cleanly inside, but then running wide - Gibernau took advantage and seized second place from him at the following corner, the #15 firmly blocking an attempt by Rossi to hold the outside line.

However, with Edwards still delivering a near faultless ride, Gibernau faced the same problem as Rossi - his attempts to find a way past the M1 in front leaving the door open for Rossi to recover the position, which he duly did with a sudden pass.

Edwards continued to lead with 8 laps to go, but then made his only real error of the afternoon. With the finish now in sight, Rossi was more anxious than ever to pass his team-mate and dived inside the race leader on the first apex of a double right hander - it was a clean move, but Edwards gave the six-times world champion a little more room than he needed...

Sete didn't hesitate to punish the 'Tornado' for his courtesy - following Rossi through as the trio aimed for the second apex. An immediate shake of the Texan's head indicated he knew he'd been 'mugged'.

The top two then broke away and while Gibernau ultimately wasn't able to pass Rossi for victory, his tyres sliding too much on the final lap, he did succeed in pushing the Italian right to the finish - and forcing Rossi to ride at no less than 100%.

Indeed, both riders recorded their fastest lap of the race on the last lap - but Rossi's was 0.2secs quicker. A sincere shake of the hands afterwards confirmed that mutual respect has been restored, on track anyway.

Edwards held on to take a well deserved first podium for Yamaha, some 5.5secs behind Gibernau, while Melandri - who had dropped back to seventh in the middle stages - won a tough duel with Biaggi for fourth.

Hayden finished one place - but a massive 14-seconds - behind his team-mate, while Capirossi, Nakano, Elias and Bayliss completed the top ten.

Bayliss was the only Camel Honda to finish after Alex Barros fell heavily from eighth on lap 13; the unlucky Portuguese Grand Prix winner's body language suggesting some form of injury as he lay next to his prone RCV.

Meanwhile, the dry weather prevented home hero Olivier Jacque from the chance to repeat his Shanghai heroics, but OJ did bring his ZX-RR home in eleventh place on what is expected to be his final Kawasaki ride.

Rossi now leads the 2005 MotoGP World Championship by an increased margin of 37-points over Melandri heading to his home grand prix at Mugello, while Gibernau's second place means he has now advanced to third in the standings - just 5-points behind his young team-mate.

French Grand Prix:

1. Rossi
2. Gibernau
3. Edwards
4. Melandri
5. Biaggi
6. Hayden
7. Capirossi
8. Nakano
9. Elias
10. Bayliss
11. Jacque
12. Xaus
13. Roberts
14. vd Goorbergh
15. Rolfo
16. Hopkins
17. Battaini



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