Rossi records blistering lap time to claim pole

The three leading lights of MotoGP have provided an enthralling season that Formula One can only dream about, but on the evidence of yesterday's performance, the identity of this year's world champion may be all too familiar.

Valentino Rossi was not just quickest in qualifying for today's British Grand Prix, he also smashed the lap record here. One of Rossi's two main rivals, Sete Gibernau of Spain, was in second place 0.432sec adrift on the Honda RC211.

The other contender for the title, Max Biaggi of Italy, was unable to achieve the perfect set-up on his Honda that gave him victory at the last round in Germany, and trailed in eighth place, 0.782sec behind Rossi.

Rossi's time of 1min 28.720sec round the Leicestershire track, on his Yamaha YZR-M1, was 2.02sec faster than the previous best, set by Biaggi last year. But Biaggi won here last year, and will be eager to muscle through from his third-row start today. Victory over 30 laps of the 2.5-mile circuit could indicate which of the Latin trio will emerge as world champion by the end of the championship in Spain, in October.

The three main challengers have unique, but equally vibrant, personalities. Rossi is the upstart who has swapped a BMX bike for a 215mph missile with a car-sized engine. At 25 he has already won five world titles, but thrives on the challenge of beating Honda, for whom he rode last year, with his underdog Yamaha.

"This gives me great motivation," the London-based Rossi said. "We start from zero - it's like being young again. Today I made a small mistake when I selected fourth gear instead of third on a corner. But the settings and the bike are good, and I love this racetrack."

Gibernau, 31, is a Spanish grandee. His family used to make the classic Bultaco motorcycle, and he desperately wants to win his first world title for a country where bike racing rivals football in popularity. "My best is yet to come," Gibernau pledged. "I have never been in a situation before where I had the chance to fight in every race for a world championship. I am learning about everything - the bike and the team, and how I can perform at my best.

"Sometimes I go fast, then Valentino goes faster, and I respond. We are taking ourselves to very high limits with every race."

Biaggi, 33, has four 250cc titles, but is plotting to win the prestige MotoGP crown for 990cc bikes before time runs out on him. He is moody, a man able to ooze Italian charm, or respond in enigmatic grunts.

What changes is he making to his bike for this circuit? "Just details." What has been his best moment of the season? "I'm not ready to answer." Who is your most dangerous opponent? "It doesn't matter." Which is the best bike, the Honda or the Yamaha? "The Kawasaki..." You get the drift.

Rossi has set the pace so far this year, winning four of the eight races. But Honda are recovering from an early-season wobble, and are giving their riders better handling to match the power advantage they already have over Yamaha.

The last of the 16 acts in the MotoGP show will unfold in the final round at Valencia on 31 October and here is a mid-season tip: Rossi will finish second or third in the championship, unable to overcome Honda's army of six riders and the all-round competence of the RC211V.

The goatee-bearded Biaggi, who handles a razor as deftly as he angles his bike through a corner, will emerge as the hero. Then he will have no reluctance in naming his greatest moment.

Further back, the British riders Neil Hodgson and Shane Byrne broke the old lap record in yesterday's qualifying session. Hodgson, the world superbike champion, bettered it by 0.443sec, but this gave him only 14th best on the 24-bike grid on his year-old privately entered Ducati.

Byrne, the reigning British superbike champion, lapped in 1m 30.595s, but will start from 18th place on his Aprilia, one place in front of his partner in the Italian factory team, Ulsterman Jeremy McWilliams.

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