Valentino Rossi won his first GP500 race at Donington Park this afternoon, but not before home hero Jeremy McWilliams had given the crowd hopes of a British win.
Rain during the GP250 race had left the track wet and there was no indecision about which tyres to use, with the entire field opting for grooved rubber before the start. Poleman Alex Barros appeared to have got the hole shot only to see Regis Laconi shoot up the inside from his position on the third row.
The Frenchman led for just over a lap, however, before Assen winner Barros repassed him for top spot and, for a long time it looked as though the Emerson Honda Pons rider would repeat his Dutch TT feat. Then, on lap four, the leading group closed together, allowing the likes of Kenny Roberts and Rossi, both of whom had made a bad start, to regain momentum. Although Barros led until lap ten, the major players for the rest of the race were right with him for a several laps before that, just waiting to make their move.
Roberts was the first to usurp the Brazilian, diving through at Redgate at the start of the tenth tour, but the men really on the move were Rossi and McWilliams. Although the Italian was still having to fight his way through the tail of the pack, McWilliams took third and second on successive laps at the Old Hairpin, and seemed set to be the only challenger to the leader through the middle part of the race.
Rossi, meanwhile, was more in his element as the wettest conditions disappeared and he moved past the Ulsterman on lap 15. In the week following the death of his hero Joey Dunlop, however, McWilliams wasn't about to throw away his best chance of a podium result since Mugello, and clung tenaciously to the tail of the Nastro Azurro Honda, before re-passing Rossi two laps later.
Next time around, the Aprilia was in the lead, McWilliams slicing past Roberts at the Old Hairpin, and eking out enough of a gap that Rossi was able to also pass the American without looking a danger for first. McWilliams was initially able to open out almost a two-second gap over his pursuers but, without the threat of further rain, the drying track began to take its toll on tyres, and the three were as one again in short order. Gamely, the Aprilia hung onto the lead, but all the time it became more apparent that the Honda and Suzuki behind him had the better chance of victory.
Having been rebuffed on several occasions, Rossi finally made his move at the Melbourne Hairpin three laps from home, easing out a small gap over McWilliams despite the Aprilias better speed down the home straight and Craner Curves section. Roberts, too, looked at a pass but, despite McWilliams sliding at almost every turn under acceleration, the championship leader was unable to move into second until the last lap, as the Irishman missed a gear approaching Melbourne.
''It was a difficult choice until the rain started again,'' the American said, when questioned about his tyre choice, ''and I'm surprised the tyres held up when the track dried out. I had a lot on mind during the race, like concentrating on not falling down, and keeping an edge to my tyres just in case the rain restarted, and with this in mind, I let Valentino and Jeremy go mid-race. When Valentino got passed him, I tried to go as well, but had to wait until the last lap. I knew I could get the Aprilia there, because I could hear that the engine wasn't as strong as the V4s.''
''I made two mistakes,'' McWilliams admitted, ''I think now that perhaps I went too hard mid-race in trying to get away, which finished the tyres, and then I missed a gear on the last lap, and allowed Kenny through. He learnt from his last attempt too, and kept it tight at Melbourne so that I couldn't slide back on the inside.