By Dan Moakes
May 8 2003
The Portuguese Grand Prix was set to deliver a rare win for Suzuki, with Sete Gibernau taking advantage of the rain to build up a lead. The rapid Spaniard seemed to have Valentino Rossi covered, but went down with just three laps to go, gifting the Italian a ninth win from the 2002 season.
A wet Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril looked like it was going to deliver Suzuki’s first victory in the new four-stroke era, and only their second since the end of 2000. After qualifying was held in mostly dry or drying conditions, a wet race saw Spanish rider Sete Gibernau take his Suzuki GSV-R from the third row into an early lead. With a string of fastest laps, he built a comfortable gap and looked to be holding a steady enough margin over Honda’s Valentino Rossi.
This pair were the class of the field, swapping best times as the race developed, but Gibernau appeared able to respond to the World Champion’s determined challenge. However, with conditions remaining treacherous, and Rossi charging as always, Sete lost the back end and fell awkwardly. With three laps to go, ‘Vale’ was able to bring it home for his ninth win in eleven rounds this year. ‘The Doctor’ is now 89 points clear in the title chase, which is a pretty ominous situation for the rest.
Gibernau may have lost a great chance to take his second ever GP victory, but there was some consolation for Suzuki, as Kenny Roberts brought his bike home fourth, after having lost out to Carlos Checa and Tohru Ukawa. The American had disputed the lead with Rossi to begin with, but was not quick enough to stay in touch. Checa, meanwhile, had started the race from only his second ever pole position, but then his Yamaha was lost in the pack at the start, and he had to fight his way through from 12th position.
Lapping faster than most in the early stages brought the Spaniard through onto the tail of the lead group, and thereafter he made his way past Alex Barros and Max Biaggi, who could not maintain the pace of the leaders. Although he could not match the times of the two up front, Checa was able to bring his M1 up to third, passing first Roberts and then Ukawa, and eventually gaining some distance over them. Ukawa’s podium result was his third straight, even if it had been a relatively lacklustre race for him.
The battle for fifth place was won by Barros, the first two-stroke rider home, at the expense of Biaggi’s Marlboro Yamaha. The experienced West Honda Pons man took the lead at the start, but was not so well served by his wet weather speed today, as he soon faded off the lead group, into seventh, with Biaggi just ahead of him. The Italian’s final sixth place dropped him a further six points behind Ukawa in the race for second overall this season.
The Proton team had a mixed day, with Jeremy McWilliams starting from sixth on the grid, and having recorded fastest time in the wet warm-up session. In the first couple of laps, McWilliams rose to third place, despite the handicap of his bike’s straightline speed. Team-mate Nobuatsu Aoki was not far behind in sixth, but was soon to retire, and then the Ulsterman suffered an incident which dropped him back to 16th. A good fight back brought him to ninth at the flag, but the race had promised so much more.
One other notable performance came from Jürgen van den Goorbergh on the Kanemoto Honda, but the Dutchman had to pull into the garage having run in sixth place. Meanwhile, most of the other major runners suffered in the tricky conditions, with Olivier Jacque, Régis Laconi, Loris Capirossi and Daijiro Katoh all fallers, and Shin’ya Nakano having to pick himself up at one point, before continuing. Norick Abe finished seventh, coming from the back of the field, and John Hopkins was eighth, after recovering from an off-track moment.
The 250 race was won by Fonsi Nieto, from Marco Melandri, Sebastian Porto, Roberto Rolfo, Roberto Locatelli and Emílio Alzamora. English rider Leon Haslam brough his Honda home seventh, despite a fall, whilst team-mate Jay Vincent crashed his bike when disputing a podium place with Melandri, making this the best showing of the year by the Cibertel team.
The 125 race saw falls from several of the leading riders, including Manuel Poggiali, Dani Pedrosa and Youichi Ui, but still managed an exciting finish. On the last lap, Simone Sanna managed to nip in front of long term leader, Arnaud Vincent, at the final slow hairpin, but made a mistake a couple of bends later, and the Frenchman came back at him to win at the last. A clear third place went to Steve Jenkner of Germany, with Pablo Nieto, Masao Azuma and Lucio Cecchinello the next men home.