Rossi, Yamaha and MotoGP win in Africa
18 April 2004
It was the most anticipated race in modern motorcycling history and it didn't disappoint: Today at Welkom, Valentino Rossi won a fantastic season-opening Africa's Grand Prix after battling Max Biaggi from start to finish to end Honda's ten race win streak on his Yamaha debut.
The #46 would start today's event from pole position looking to make history as the first rider ever to win consecutive premier-class races with different manufacturers, and the first since his hero Barry Sheene to win the opening round of the season for four years running.
When the red lights went out Rossi made the perfect start to lead into turn one ahead of Gibernau, Biaggi, Hayden, Melandri, Edwards, Capirossi, Roberts and Barros. Then, after some tense opeing laps, it became increasingly clear that the top three were simply on another level, and edged ever further away from the rest of the field.
But if Rossi, Biaggi or Gibernau had any tactics planned, they counted for nothing this afternoon as the trio were forced to ride flat out just to stay in touch with each other – any weakness, such as an attempt to save tyres, would immediately be exploited and result in a sudden pass.
It is hard to describe the tension which followed the three around the dusty Free State circuit, but the high-speed heroics rose to yet another level as the second half of the race began and the fight became a straight Rossi versus Biaggi, Yamaha versus Honda, confrontation. Sete, despite occasional appearances in second, was just unable to hold the pace and slipped a few tenths back with each lap that followed.
Rossi had led most of the race up to that point, but Biaggi was so close that when he wasn't making an overtaking move, which he did on several occasions, the Roman was crawling all over the blue machine ahead of him – apparently better on acceleration, but slower through some of the tighter sections of the track.
With eight of the twenty-eight laps remaining, Max arguably appeared in better shape – his tidy inch perfect style contrasting dramatically with the sliding M1 ahead, and the RCV rider seemed to have the edge in terms of top speed.
Perhaps because of this, Rossi looked worried to let the Roman lead – the Gauloises rider making aggressive moves to repass the Camel Honda whenever it dared move ahead – but with six laps to go Biaggi would blast past on the back straight.
It was unclear whether Rossi wanted to size up his rival before the now inevitable last lap showdown, or if Max was trying to make a break, but the end result was that both put in all-out qualifying laps… that simply resulted in a stalemate. The order may have changed, but neither rider had any advantage.
That perhaps boosted Rossi and late in the penultimate lap he made the move that would ultimately win him the race, diving deep on the brakes into a slow right hander and pushing Biaggi wide just two turns before the line.
The last lap then began with Rossi half a bike length ahead, but Biaggi had the inside line into turn one and both went frightening late on the brakes– Vale also chopping aggressively across the nose of the yellow Honda to prevent a pass, then exploiting his superior racing line to gain a few bike lengths on the exit of the turn.
Both rode the rest of the lap like their lives depended on it, and were again so evenly matched that while Rossi couldn't pull away, Biaggi couldn't quite get near enough for an all or nothing lunge.
Rossi held firm under the pressure and would wheelie over the finish line with his fist in the air, while the Yamaha pits erupted after their first victory since 2002. Vale would then exchange a brief, but significant, handshake with Biaggi before parking at the side of the track, totally overcome with emotion and exhaustion after such a titanic battle.
Fortunately, the Rossi celebrations of old were soon underway and a series of tyre-smoking donuts were seen delighting the Welkom fans before he returned to the pits to be mobbed by his mechanics, many of whom had taken a leap of faith to join him at Yamaha.
Gibernau would claim a respectable third, some 7.2secs behind the two Italians, but can draw comfort from that fact that he was the only rider who deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Rossi and Biaggi today: If there was any disappointment from Welkom, it was that the expected challenge from the likes of Hayden, Edwards and to a lesser extent Barros never even looked like happening.
Indeed, it would be over 18secs after Rossi crossed the line that Barros finished fourth, the Brazilian taking solid points on his Repsol Honda debut having defeated - then pulled away from - Hayden, Capirossi and Edwards following an intense battle.
Ten seconds behind the Texan came Tamada, who rode a lonely race to eighth, while Norick Abe justified his inclusion in the Yamaha outfit by finishing second best M1 in ninth, the Japanese beating Checa and Melandri.
To put Rossi's effort into perspective the three other Yamaha's (9th, 10th and 11th) were an average of 40-seconds behind the Italian today. Despite the technology, MotoGP, it seems, is still a riders sport.
Nakano slipped down the order at the start, but worked his way back up to an eventual twelfth after battling his former Yamaha colleagues for much of the race, while Kawasaki team-mate Hofmann faired much worse, stalling at the start before falling on lap 18.
Hopkins brought the lone finishing Suzuki home in a disappointing thirteenth after Roberts retired with mechanical problems, the young American holding off factory Ducati rider Bayliss, who's probably just pleased the weekend is over.
Rookie Shane Byrne beat his Aprilia team-mate Jeremy McWilliams to a much deserved final world championship point, while Proton KR's Nobuatsu Aoki and WCM's Michel Fabrizio completed the finishers.
Finally, the d'Antin Ducatis of Ruben Xaus and Neil Hodgson both broke down, Xaus' in the early stages while Hodgson's hopes came to an end around the halfway mark while running in 14th.
2004 Africa's Grand Prix: