SUZUKA: MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi stormed to victory in the season-opening Japanese Grand Prix yesterday, completing a hat-trick of victories at Suzuka.
The Italian’s win was overshadowed though by a horrific crash involving Japanese rider Daijiro Kato, who was rushed by helicopter to an intensive care unit with serious injuries to his neck and back.
Rossi led from the fifth lap of the 21-lap race and crossed the line in 44:13.182 just moments before his Honda ran out of petrol, forcing the 24-year-old to hitch-hike his way back to the pit-lane.
Max Biaggi finished a distant runner-up, more than six seconds behind his arch-rival, while Loris Capirossi ensured a podium sweep for Italian riders by taking a historic third place for Ducati on their MotoGP debut.
Rossi, who opened a huge lead over Biaggi and Capirossi from the eighth lap, has now won an astonishing 51 of the 109 grands prix he has contested.
“It was a good fight at the beginning with Capirossi and the 25 points are very important for the championship, but we are just praying that Kato will be okay,” said a sombre Rossi.
Kato lost control and skidded off on the second lap at a fast right-hand corner, completely writing off his Honda.
Initial tests showed the 26-year-old had “serious” injuries, including head and neck trauma, as well as respiratory problems, according to race officials.
Italian Marco Melandri broke his ankle, nose and femur at the same spot in practice on Friday. Rossi called the right-hand bend “too dangerous” over the weekend.
Biaggi, who would have overtaken Australian Mick Doohan as the all-time leading points scorer in grand prix racing with victory at Suzuka, clocked 44:19.627 on his return to Honda.
“The clutch was jumping around on the last lap but I got control of the bike to finish second, so it is a great welcome for me at my team,” said Biaggi.
Capirossi, who jumped out to an early lead after starting from 15th on the grid, took third in 44:21.391 to cap a successful day for Ducati in the Italian factory’s first premier-class grand prix since 1972.
Teammate Troy Bayliss, the 2001 superbike world champion, finished a creditable fifth in his first MotoGP race in a time of 44:36.281.
But it was Rossi, starting from pole position, who dominated again in dry conditions after two days of rain-soaked qualifying.
“It was a difficult weekend but the conditions were better today.
“There are a lot of new people this year but I see the same guys on the podium,” said Rossi, who ran away with the inaugural MotoGP title in 2002 with 11 grand prix victories. – Reuters