Valentino Rossi was demoted from first to third place in the British MotoGP here yesterday when he was penalised 10 seconds for overtaking under a yellow flag.
The world champion was attempting to move up from seventh place on the opening lap when he dived under Ducati rival Loris Capirossi at the entrance to Redgate corner on the second lap. But marshals were waving the caution flags - unseen by Rossi - after the Japanese rider Tohru Okawa had crashed at the sharp right-hander. The penalty gave victory to Italy's four-time world champion Max Biaggi, and hoisted Spain's Sete Gibernau into second place, 1.656 seconds ahead of Rossi under the revised timing.
"I was on a fast lap and had just beaten the lap record, and never saw the flags," the 24-year-old Honda rider said. "I did nothing wrong intentionally. I didn't take advantage of the situation and went on to win the race. I only hope the outcome doesn't affect the championship in the end."
"As a rider I can sympathise with Rossi," said Biaggi. "I understand hat he must be feeling, because the same thing happened to me in Barcelona in 1998."
The decision may have hurt Rossi's pride, but it didn't rob him of his world championship lead. He heads Gibernau by 34 points after eight of the 16 rounds.
Rossi's rivals had relegated him to fourth place on the grid during qualifying, but when the flag dropped for the 75-mile race he breezed away to what seemed to be a comfortable win on the 2.5 mile circuit.
He picked off two rivals on the first lap, stole third from Yamaha's Marco Melandri on lap two, and rapidly budged Gibernau back to second place. Biaggi, another four-time world champion and Rossi's greatest rival, felt the heat next. He wilted on the 12th of the 30 laps when he missed the gear at the chicane and skittered on to the grass, leaving a massive gap for Rossi to ride through.
From that point Rossi looked like he was riding a scooter to the pizzeria rather than a 200mph motorcycle in 28C heat, and cruised to what he thought was his fourth win of the season.
"After I went off the track I had dirty tyres," said Biaggi. "I could follow Rossi, but I couldn't close on him."
This season the pack has been quick to note flaws in Rossi's usually unflustered grip on championship. Biaggi blazed into pole position on his Honda while Rossi trailed behind Gibernau and Melandri after a cracked front wheel rim prevented him from attempting a last-lap challenge.
So they wanted Rossi's scope - or just his title would do. But could they match his legendary sangfroid before the 72,000 fans lining Donington's curves?
Rossi's "victory'' - it would have been the 54th of his career in the senior MotoGP class - answered his critics.
"We wet the bike up so that it was good under breaking, and it was possible to overtake other riders quite easily," Rossi explained after leaving the rostrum. Meanwhile, the race directors were examining video evidence and later announced the penalty.
Rossi's team-mates Capirossi, of Italy, and Australia's Troy Bayliss finished fourth and fifth. After Melandri had fallen in the chicane, Carlos Checa was Yamaha's highest finisher in sixth place.
Further down the field Britain's Proton KR team will review their radical new five-cylinder machines after reliability problems during practice. Jeremy McWilliams retired with problems after 17 laps, while Nobuatsu Aoki finished a disappointing 15th.
Newcastle's Chris Burns broke a collarbone when he crashed his WCM, and accidents also plagued the French Gauloiuses Yamaha team. Alex Barros missed his first race due to injury since 1992 after he collided with Kagayama in qualifying, and Olivier Jacques dropped out of seventh place when he gave his bike too much throttle on the exit from a corner.
Britain's 16-year-old schoolboy racer Chaz Davies achieved his third point-scoring ride of the season with 13th place in the 250cc class.
The three-day weekend, aided by Rossi's charisma and the spectacle of the new MotoGP class, attracted 107,000 fans.
It is the highest figure of any motor sport event at the circuit, and even exceeds the audience figures for the venue's celebrated Monsters of Rock concerts.
BRITISH GRAND PRIX (Donington) MotoGP (30 laps, 120.690 km) Leading positions: 1 M Biaggi (It) Honda 46:06.688; 2 S Gibernau (Sp) Honda 46:13.826; 3 V Rossi (It) Honda 46min 15.482sec; 4 L Capirossi (It) Ducati 46:19.729; 5 T Bayliss (Aus) Ducati 46:22.967; 6 C Checa (Sp) Yamaha 46:33.773; 7 N Haga (Japan) Aprilia 46:34.350 ; 8 N Hayden (US) Honda 46:38.700 ; 9 S Nakano (Japan) Yamaha 46:41.487 ; 10 C Edwards (US) Aprilia 46:41.689.Also: Did not finish: J McWilliams (GB) Proton, C Burns (GB) Yamaha.
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS Leading positions: 1 Rossi 167pts; 2 Gibernau 133; 3 Biaggi 130; 4 Capirossi 84; 5 Bayliss 64; 6 A Barros (Br) Yamaha 62; 7 Checa 57; 8 T Ukawa (Japan) Honda 56; 9 Nakano 54; 10 Hayden 46.
MANUFACTURERS STANDINGS: 1 Honda 195; 2 Ducati 113; 3 Yamaha 93; 4 Aprilia 52; 5= Proton, Suzuki 22.