The final round of the 2003 MotoGP season commenced today in Valencia, Spain, and Fortuna Yamaha riders Carlos Checa and Norick Abe braved cold and windy conditions to secure fifth and eleventh positions on the provisional starting grid. Abe replaces Marco Melandri in the Yamaha factory squad this weekend while Melandri recovers from a shoulder operation, which took place in Italy on Monday. Having lost valuable testing time due to this morning's wet free practice session neither rider tried Yamaha's latest evolution of the M1's Deltabox chassis.

Checa's time of 1'34.855 set on the 23rd of his 26 laps looked set to place him in the top four, until last minute flyers first by Nicky Hayden (Honda) and then Max Biaggi (Honda) edged him from the provisional front row. Checa had earlier recorded the fifth fastest time in this morning's cold and wet free practice session.

"Those were not easy conditions today," said 31-year-old Checa. "We were testing the bike with some set-up adjustments to improve my feeling after Phillip Island, where I didn't feel so comfortable. It already feels better, although this afternoon the grip level was down. We tested some tyres and focused on the small set-up adjustments. I finished the session with the feeling that I could go faster, and I think everyone felt the same. Basically I felt comfortable apart from a slight headache, which I think was caused by the cold wind.

"I didn't test Yamaha's new chassis today because we didn't have that much time with the present chassis, and I wanted to focus on preparing for the race. I'm not sure if I will use the new spec tomorrow, we'll see how it goes with the current spec and evaluate whether the time will allow us to test the new one."

Yamaha test rider Norick Abe, who has been drafted into the Fortuna Yamaha Team to replace injured Marco Melandri this weekend, made a sudden impact as he headed the time sheets in this morning's free practice. The experienced Japanese rider had ventured out to get more practice time on his YZR-M1 in damp conditions while many riders waited in their garages. When the damp turned to rain all the MotoGP riders joined the fray but none could beat Abe 's early time as the track started to dry at the end of the session. Unfortunately the treacherous conditions got the better of a number of riders, including Abe, who took a small tumble.

"It was nice to be on the top of the timesheets this morning," said Abe. "I can relax now, I was a bit nervous before today as it's been a while since I rode the M1 at a Grand Prix, in fact not since Sachsenring. This morning went well and I was so happy, despite falling off. I'm pleased with this afternoon's eleventh position but I still don't feel like I know this bike really well. I did race the M1 earlier in the year but it was quite different to this bike. I'm certain that I can improve my time tomorrow and may even test the new chassis, depending on how much progress we make with the current bike."

Team Director Davide Brivio said, "This morning was a total wash-out and this afternoon we only really had time to start testing our set-up. We have a new chassis here but for tomorrow both riders will just concentrate on finding a good, solid race base. If we achieve this and if the weather is better, they might have the chance to test the new spec chassis. Carlos should be able to have a good race judging from today's performance, and Norick is doing really well, considering the number of races he's experienced this year. He should have had more time but the weather meant he only had one hour on the M1. I think what he's done today is quite impressive."

MotoGP World Champion-elect Valentino Rossi (Honda) set the benchmark during the session (133.643) but was closely followed in the timesheets by his team-mate, Nicky Hayden (1'33.934). Spaniard Sete Gibernau (Honda) didn't disappoint home supporters with the third fastest time (1'34.205) while fellow Honda rider Max Biaggi's late charge saw him complete the provisional front row (1'34.817). None of the riders beat Biaggi's pole position time from 2002 set on the Yamaha YZR-M1 but the warmer weather forecast tomorrow might see a further reduction in lap times.

PROVISIONAL FRONT ROW
1. Valentino Rossi (ITA) Repsol HONDA 1'33.643
2. Nicky Hayden (USA) Repsol HONDA 1'33.934
3. Sete Gibernau (SPA) Telefonica Movistar HONDA 1'34.205
4. Max Biaggi (ITA) Camel Pramac Pons HONDA 1'34.817
5. CARLOS CHECA (SPA) Fortuna YAMAHA Team 1'34.855
11. NORICK ABE (JPN) Fortuna YAMAHA Team 1'35.522

-fyt-