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.