World champion Valentino Rossi started the 2003 MotoGP season with victory at Suzuka on Sunday, but the race was tainted by Daijiro Kato’s horrific crash. The 2001 250cc champion is in a coma.

World champion started the 2003 MotoGP season with victory at Suzuka on Sunday, but the race was tainted by Daijiro Kato’s horrific crash. The 2001 250cc champion is in a coma.

The Japanese rider lost control and skidded off on the second lap at a fast right-hand corner, writing off his Honda. He was taken to hospital by helicopter.

“We don’t know what caused the crash, but it was in the braking zone approaching the chicane. There are no marks on the track. We have reviewed the video evidence from the live television feed and the closed circuit cameras, but frankly we are none the wiser,” said race director Paul Butler.

“The first news we received from the medical team on the track was that Kato’s heart had stopped and he was unconscious. Only fast action in the ambulance to resuscitate him gave him the chance to fight for his life. The hospital scans confirmed serious injuries to his head, chest and neck. He is now in intensive care,” said medical director Claudio Macchiagodena.

Rossi, who started on pole, won in 44 min 13,182 sec ahead of Max Biaggi on a Honda and Loris Capirossi on a Ducati.

At the start of the race, Capirossi took charge, taking advantage of a mediocre start by Rossi. But Rossi slipped past Capirossi on the fifth lap. He continued to increase his lead, while Biaggi held on to second place.

Rossi finished just moments before his Honda ran out of petrol. He had to hitch-hike his way back to the pit-lane.

“The conditions all weekend were difficult, but we showed the amount of work we put in over the winter really paid off because the setting of the bike was very good. Throughout the tests we were making race distances and gaining a lot of information about the bike and tyres. The start of the race was very hard and the fight was tough. I had to push a lot to take the win,” Rossi said.

"I'm quite happy. I'm satisfied with the 20 points," said Biaggi, the runner-up last season. "We have 15 more races to go. The bike can be improved, I hope. The race was nice. That was a great fight."

Rossi said his teammate's injury overshadowed everything else.

"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 very important," he said.

Manuel Poggiali of San Marino won on his 250 cc debut on Sunday, coming from 23rd on the grid, while Italian Stefano Perugini triumphed in the 125 cc section.

Race results:

1 Valentino Rossi Honda 44min 13.182sec

2 Max Biaggi Honda 6,445sec behind

3 Loris Capirossi Ducati 8,209

4 Sete Gibernau Honda 13.209

5 Troy Bayliss Ducati 23.099

6 Colin Edwards Aprilia 29.040

7 Nicky Hayden Honda 29.126

8 Alex Barros Yamaha 30.526

9 Shinya Nakano Yamaha 33.447

10 Carlos Checa Yamaha 40.200,

11 Norick Abe Yamaha 44.790

12 Noriyuki Haga Aprilia 1:03.358

13 John Hopkins Suzuki 1:03.950

14 Kenny Roberts Suzuki 1:04.085

15 Olivier Jacque Yamaha 1:09.990

16 Garry McCoy Kawasaki 1:16.572

17 Andrew Pitt Kawasaki 1:17.380

18 Akira Yanagawa Kawasaki 1:23.605

19 Tamaki Serizawa MD211VF 1:35.459

20 Tohru Ukawa Honda 1:57.128.

World championship standings:

1 Valentino Rossi Honda 25pts

2 Max Biaggi Honda 20

3 Loris Capirossi Ducati 16

4 Sete Gibernau Honda 13

5 Troy Bayliss Ducati 11

6 Colin Edwards Aprilia 10

7 Nicky Hayden Honda 9

8 Alex Barros Yamaha 8

9 Shinya Nakano Yamaha 7

10 Carlos Checa Yamaha 6

11 Norick Abe Yamaha 5

12 Noriyuki Haga Aprilia 4

13 John Hopkins Suzuki 3

14 Kenny Roberts Suzuki 2

15 Olivier Jacque Yamaha 1.