Valentino Rossi has taken a textbook victory over Sete Gibernau in today's Catalan Grand Prix; the world champion shadowing the leading home hero until three laps to go - when he coolly overtook, set a new lap record and went on to win his fifth race from the opening six rounds of the 2005 MotoGP season.

Saturday's qualifying session had seen the under-pressure Gibernau raise hopes of a home victory with a new pole record as he edged out charging young team-mate Marco Melandri by just 0.053secs.

Runaway championship leader Rossi completed the front row despite encountering tyre problems midway through the session and not getting the most from his best lap, while countryman Max Biaggi ran out of time to make a final tyre change and would start from fourth.

Biaggi's Repsol Honda team-mate Nicky Hayden and Ducati rider Loris Capirossi would join the Roman on row two, with Colin Edwards, Carlos Checa and Alex Barros completing a top nine separated by 0.8secs.

Morning warm-up had seen Gibernau and Rossi effectively equal at the top of the timesheets - Gibernau lapping just 0.037secs quicker than his arch-rival - with Hayden 0.184secs in third and immediately ahead of Melandri (+0.33secs), Barros (+0.331secs) and Biaggi (+0.398secs). But who would last the distance in what was expected to be one of the toughest tyre races of the season?

When the red lights went out, the Movistar team-mates held their top positions at the head of the field into turn one - ahead of Biaggi, Hayden, Capirossi, Rossi and Barros - while start of the season went to Roberto Rolfo, who hurled his Ducati from 17th on the grid to an amazing 8th at turn one.

Meanwhile, Melandri wasted no time in getting around Gibernau, with Rossi also on the move and up to third within a few turns - then took second, from Melandri, as he followed Gibernau past the #33 at the end of the back straight.

The front row trio would continue to trade positions fearlessly - culminating in Gibernau actually clipping race leader Melandri's rear wheel under braking for a tight left hander on lap 3: Sete would pick his RCV up and run wide, but it only cost him one position as Rossi slotted into second.

But it was far from a three-rider race with Barros, Hayden, Biaggi and Tamada also soon in contention, forming a hectic seven rider strong early lead group.

After 5 of the 25 laps, the definitive pattern would begin to form when Rossi and Gibernau forced Melandri from the lead - for the final time - under braking for turn one; the pair then pulling slightly away as the young Italian formed a momentary bottle neck as he hauled his machine back onto the racing line.

Gibernau then took the lead from Rossi at the same spot one lap later, while Tamada's hopes came to an early conclusion as he lost the front of his Konica Minolta Honda at high speed through the right hander that leads onto the back straight, the frustrated Japanese sliding out of sixth in a cloud of dust.

By the halfway point, Gibernau held an effectively non-existent 0.4secs lead over Rossi, with Hayden now almost two-seconds behind but heading the tough battle for third over Melandri and Barros. Biaggi had dropped off the back of that pack and was left circulating around 1.5secs in front of eighth placed Colin Edwards - neither factory rider would make much of an impression on the afternoon.

A relative lull in the action then followed as riders stabilised their positions and sought to conserve the relentless tyre wear. Michelin competitors seemed to suffer the least, but the Bridgestone teams (Kawasaki, Suzuki and Ducati) were dropping severely off the pace - and both Hofmann and Hopkins would pit for new rears just after the halfway mark.

As the laps counted down a feeling of inevitability seemed to silence the 106,000 strong crowd; Sete was leading, but Rossi was looking far too comfortable in second and it was only a matter of when, not if, he would make his move - and there was nothing Gibernau could do about it.

On Lap 21, Rossi ran slightly wide at the end of the back straight, but had soon returned to Gibernau's rear wheel. The incident confirmed two things; firstly, that Rossi was testing the limits to find the location of his upcoming pass - or to discover how hard he could push once a pass was made - and secondly, the speed with which he closed back to Gibernau showed that his pace was much higher... but what did Sete have in reserve?

We would find out two laps later when Rossi finally played his cards. The 26-year-old superstar got a superb exit out of the final turn, tucked into Gibernau's slipstream then eased past the Catalan into turn one. Indeed, if Gibernau had a top speed advantage over Rossi it was hard to find during this afternoon's race.

Predictably, Rossi then threw everything he had into breaking the #15 from his wheel tracks - setting the fastest lap of the race in the process. Rossi's tyres also looked to be in a better shape than Sete's (the only difference in terms of compound chosen was that Rossi had opted for a harder front) but he was still only 0.271secs ahead at the end of the lap.

But in truth Gibernau had nothing left with which to challenge even though he began the last circulation of the Circuit de Catalunya 0.367secs behind the flying #46. His only hope was a slipstream down the home straight, but his RCV just never seemed to close up much on the M1 ahead on either of the straight-line sections.

Rossi duly held on to complete a hard fought, if somewhat clinical, victory by 1.094secs at the flag to surely end any realistic title hopes his Honda rivals may have had. The Doctor now holds a huge 58-point lead over Melandri and perhaps as worrying for HRC is that Gibernau rode a great, mistake free, race (his brief contact with Melandri aside).

In other words, Sete didn't hand the race to Rossi - Valentino took it and if the GP had been run ten times over the result would almost certainly have been the same. Today was one of those days when - perhaps unlike at Jerez, Shanghai and Mugello - Rossi appeared unbeatable. To put it simply, the best rider won.

However, it may well be time for Gibernau to consider changing his race tactics and letting Rossi lead more in the middle stages to stop the spate of late race 'muggings' - but it's hard to criticise the only man capable of stepping up to Rossi's challenge.

Meanwhile, the Catalan fans may have been denied a home winner, but the battle for third kept them on the edge of their (grandstand) seats right to the finish, with Melandri, Hayden and Barros throwing moves at each other as and when the chance arose.

All three took turns to the lead the fight in the closing stages, but Melandri was ahead with half a lap to go. Barros then tried to deny the former 250cc world champion by outbraking him at the end of the back straight, but Marco squared the turn off and cut back inside.

He then kept his head through the final section of fast right handers to finish almost 7secs behind team-mate Gibernau and just 0.3secs in front of the Camel Honda. Hayden was the biggest loser, breaking the timing beam a mere 0.069secs from his former team-mate to record fifth after having led the battle with four laps to go.

Almost four-seconds behind Nicky was his team-mate Biaggi, while Edwards slipped to almost seven-seconds from the Roman - and nearly 19secs from his race winning team-mate. Expect post race tales of tyre trouble from most riders...

A huge 23-second gap then separated Edwards from former World Superbike title rival Troy Bayliss, but the Aussie did at least have the pleasure of beating - amongst others - both factory Ducatis. Indeed, Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano (ninth) and Fortuna Yamaha's Ruben Xaus (tenth) would also cross the line in front of the top Desmosedici of Carlos Checa.

Catalan Grand Prix:

1. Rossi
2. Gibernau
3. Melandri
4. Barros
5. Hayden
6. Biaggi
7. Edwards
8. Bayliss
9. Nakano
10. Xaus
11. C. Checa
12. Capirossi
13. D. Checa
14. Rolfo
15. Roberts
16. Byrne
17. Hofmann
18. Ellison
19. Battaini



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