| MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi of Italy sprays champagne to celebrate his victory in the Japan Grand Prix in Suzuka Sunday. (Reuters)
Suzuka (Japan): MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi stormed to victory in the season-opening Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday, completing a hattrick 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 head, neck and back.
Rossi led from the fifth lap of the 21-lap race and crossed the line in 44 minutes, 13.182 seconds 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 Biaggi and Capirossi and the 25 points are very important. But after hearing about Kato, nothing is important,” 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 new 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.
“I didn’t expect this kind of result in my first race with Ducati. My start was unbelievable and I pushed really hard. We have already shown how high our potential is,” said Capirossi, who rode a Honda two-stroke last year.
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.
Meanwhile, Manuel Poggiali of San Marino won on his 250cc debut, coming from 23rd place on the grid to claim victory over 19 laps at the 5.824-km circuit.
The 20-year-old Aprilia rider took the lead on the 12th lap and crossed the line in 41:36.284 to become the first rider to win on his 250cc debut since American Jim Filice at the U.S. Grand Prix in 1988.
In the 125cc class, Stefano Perugini led an Aprilia sweep of the podium after a white-knuckle collision with fellow Italian Lucio Cecchinello.