And superstitious '12+1' world champion Nieto - six times ruler of the 50cc class in addition to seven 125cc titles - played a central part in Rossi's post-race celebrations.

The Spanish legend of the '60s, '70s and '80s - dressed in special leathers saying 'Bravo Valentino' - took control of Rossi's victorious Fiat Yamaha on the slow down lap, while The Doctor sat behind him waving a '90 +90' flag.

Rossi's next record-book target will be the four wins he needs to match countryman Giacomo Agostini's all time premier-class record of 68, although Ago's total of 122 wins in all classes will take some beating.

Sunday was also a dream day for the Yamaha factory, which swept all three podium places. Rossi finished almost five seconds clear of injured team-mate Jorge Lorenzo - who rode an incredible race after slipping back to tenth on the opening lap - with Colin Edwards third for the home Tech 3 team.

By contrast, Dani Pedrosa saw his repeated attempts to take the lead thwarted and was eventually shuffled back to a disappointing fourth position, while world champion Casey Stoner dropped out of the podium fight when a mechanical problem five laps from the finish ruined the Australian's perfect record of 22 point scoring rides for Ducati.

Add in some frantic battles throughout the field, plus a mid-race rain shower, and there was more than enough to keep the vocal French crowd entertained for the full 26 lap distance.

Rossi had been only sixth through turn one, as Stoner and pole sitter Pedrosa took the early advantage. Pedrosa's rivals had feared the Repsol Honda rider might escape if he broke clear in the early stages, but Dani was unable to find a way past Stoner - and came close to losing the front of his RCV when he finally attempted to dive inside on lap four.

The 2007 world championship runner-up saved the head-shaking incident, but ran wide and was promptly attacked by Rossi. Pedrosa put up a stiff resistance, but the Italian confirmed the move at the following turn.

Rossi then spent three laps behind Stoner, and saw his first attempt to overtake the #1 firmly rebuffed when Casey ran the seven time world champion to the edge of the track. But on lap eight Rossi made a neat victory pass up the inside of Stoner on the entry to an off camber left hander, and had built a three second lead by the halfway stage.

A light rain shower saw the mechanics spring into life in pit lane, but it wasn't heavy enough to require a change of bikes - and the uncertain conditions only seemed to help Rossi build his untouchable lead further en route to becoming the first double winner of 2008.

After a cautious start, Lorenzo joined the fight for second - alongside Pedrosa, Stoner and Edwards - late in the race.

The MotoGP rookie overcame his double ankle fractures - and two practice falls - to snatch fourth from Edwards on lap 20, take third when Stoner struck problems along the main straight a lap later, and inflict a satisfying pass on arch-rival Pedrosa for second later in the same lap.

Lorenzo later mounted the podium on crutches, before sitting on a chair, having been the top Michelin rider in the French manufacturer's home event.

Edwards demoted Dani to fourth into the first chicane on lap 22, by which time Stoner's lifeless Ducati was being pushed down pit lane. Earlier rain meant the Qatar winner could change to his second Desmosedici - fitted with race tyres - and at least reach the chequered flag, but 16th place meant no points.

Rizla Suzuki's 2007 event winner Chris Vermeulen rode a strong race to sit just 1.5secs from fourth position by the halfway stage, but dropped away during the second half of the race to finish 11secs from Pedrosa.

Andrea Dovizioso was almost within striking distance of the Australian at the flag, having collided with fellow rookie James Toseland early in the race - an incident that sent the double World Superbike tumbling into the gravel for his first GP non-finish.

John Hopkins held seventh at the midway stage, but was forced into retirement when his Kawasaki shed its chain. Loris Capirossi went on to secure the position, with Nicky Hayden, home hero Randy de Puniet and Shinya Nakano completing the top ten.

Marco Melandri suffered mechanical problems right from the start, but took advantage of the rain to change bikes and collect the final world championship point.

Meanwhile, just three points now separated the world championship top three, with Rossi leading the standings for the first time in 2008 heading into his home Italian Grand Prix, while Lorenzo and Pedrosa are tied for second.

Stoner's non score has dropped the Australian a worrying 41 points from the lead.

French Grand Prix:

1. Rossi
2. Lorenzo
3. Edwards
4. Pedrosa
5. Vermeulen
6. Dovizioso
7. Capirossi
8. Hayden
9. de Puniet
10. Nakano
11. Elias
12. de Angelis
13. Guintoli
14. West
15. Melandri
16. Stoner