The stunning combination of Valentino Rossi and his all-new Honda V5 four-stroke proved unbeatable in today's historic Japanese GP, the first event of MotoGP racing's new four-stroke era.

Despite atrocious weather conditions at the high-speed venue and the efforts of unflinching Suzuki rival Akira Ryo, Repsol Honda rider Rossi and the RCV were victorious, giving Honda its first four-stroke GP win in 35 years.

The last man to ride a Honda four-stroke to GP success was the late, great Mike Hailwood, who won the factory's final outing in its original four-stroke era at Mosport, Canada, in September 1967. A dozen years later, Honda returned to the GP fray with the fabulous oval-pistoned NR500 but, though this machine earned Honda a huge amount of four-stroke technical expertise, it never beat the then-dominant two-strokes. The man in charge of NR development was Suguru Kanazawa, fresh out of university. Today Kanazawa, now HRC president, was at Suzuka to see his earliest and most recent work bear fruit.

"Our goal has always been to win GPs with four-stroke machinery, so today's victory is very meaningful to me and everyone else at Honda," he said, "We are still benefiting from what we learned from the NR500."

The race, held at the circuit which Honda founder Soichiro Honda had built in 1962, was a real thriller. Rossi made a steady start from pole position, which he achieved in dry conditions at the very end of yesterday's final qualifier, completing the first lap in fifth place. Considering this was his first real ride in wet conditions with the RCV, apart from this morning's warm-up and a handful of laps during Sepang tests back in February, he knew he had to learn as he went along.

The Italian thus rode a typically intelligent race, moving into third on lap four, behind Shinichi Itoh (Team HRC RC211V) and leader Ryo. From there he bided his time, watching and learning from the locals, before sneaking past Itoh into second at half distance. Then, six laps from the flag, Rossi moved into the lead, resisting constant counter-attack pressure from Ryo to win by 1.5secs after setting the fastest lap of the race on the final lap.

"When I woke up this morning I wasn't so happy to see that it was raining, like most riders, I'm sure," said Rossi, who has now won 14 GPs for Honda, "We were only 14th in warm-up, but I stayed calm and made sure I got a good start. It's very important to stay with the leading group in these conditions, because only then can you understand where the limit really is.

"So I used this tactic and when I could overtake some riders I did it at the chicane. Then I was with the wild cards, Ryo and Itoh, who both know this track very well in the wet. When it was just me and Ryo, I could see he was faster in some parts and I learned from that. Also, I have ridden the Honda superbike in the wet here, so that helped.

"This weekend has given me very much emotion, both good and bad, because I had two crashes in practice. It was a good race for sure, now I'm very happy!"

The crucial success was Rossi's third consecutive Suzuka win, following last July's Eight Hour victory achieved aboard an SP-1 superbike in partnership with American rider Colin Edwards, and last April's Japanese GP victory aboard his NSR500 two-stroke, which gave Honda its 500th GP success.

Itoh also rode a brilliant GP, considering he hadn't even raced in almost a year. The Japanese veteran, who was heavily involved in development of the RCV, slipped to fourth at the flag but was happy enough with his day's work.

"I kept cool and I think I helped the team in gathering more data for the RCV," he said, "I didn't realise that Rossi was following me early in the race, he passed me just after I had big slide riding through a puddle exiting 130R."

Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500) finished sixth, the second two-stroke home, six seconds shy of Norick Abe (Yamaha) and seven second ahead of Nobuatsu Aoki (Proton KR). The Brazilian admitted he rode a wary race after sliding off in warm-up.

"It took me a while to get into my rhythm because I didn't want to take too many risks after my earlier fall," said Barros, who won last year's sodden Italian GP, "It's a shame, because I was in with a chance in these conditions.

"Of course the race was completely different to the practice sessions and all the preparations we had done were of little use. It did not help either that I fell during warm-up. At the start of the race it took me some time to get into my rhythm without taking too many risks as I was wary of making any errors, but many other riders pulled away from me. As I said, it is a shame, but at least a couple of the riders who finished in front of me are not competing in the World Championship and a lot of other riders crashed."

Team-mate Loris Capirossi was ninth in the crash-strewn race, just behind Regis Laconi (Aprilia). Second quickest in qualifying, Capirossi had a disastrous getaway from the grid, his NSR spinning its rear tyre and losing drive.

"It was a very difficult race," the Italian said, "The tyres lost grip on the starting grid and from that moment on it was practically impossible to stop the bike sliding off. It was really tough because I found it impossible to ride in these conditions as I had no grip in the front or rear. It was just like in Valencia last year where I had no feeling in the wet. In these conditions the most important thing was to finish and that is precisely what I concentrated on."

Reigning 250cc champion Daijiro Katoh (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500) suffered similar problems on his MotoGP debut.

"I got a lot of wheelspin at the start, a lot of guys came past on the grid, so it was quite dangerous," said the Japanese rider, "I don't like racing in the wet, but today was worse than normal. I wasn't getting any feeling from the bike, so my only hope was a finish."

Tetsuya Harada (Pramac Honda NSR500) finished his first race for Honda in a steady eleventh place, while Rossi's team-mate Tohru Ukawa was going well in fifth place until he joined the many fallers just three laps from the end.

"I'm really disappointed," said the Japanese star, "I usually do well in the rain and I wanted to do well at home, but I had a big highside and that was it. But I now know the RCV is a winner, now I want a podium finish!"

"It was a very difficult race, completely different from what we had prepared in the last days of practice," Harada agreed, "It was the first time that I found myself riding my Honda NSR 500 on a wet track and this made the race even more difficult.

"Until the track was completely covered by rain water, I was able to ride pretty well but when it began to dry up, even though it was still wet, I encountered several difficulties. Anyway, I gained a few points and for this I am satisfied. Another important thing I would like to say is that the tyres worked well on the wet track. "

Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Kanemoto Racing Honda NSR500) also fell while making good progress in his first race on his NSR500.

"It has been a strange day where the climatic conditions have completely affected the result of the grand prix," commented team boss Sito Pons, "I think that the true potential of the team has not been seen here and we have not been able to see the fruits
of the excellent work that we have put in during the winter, and that was so evident in practice sessions.

"However, there are two positive things to come out of the race: on the one hand, we are second in the team championship and on the other, some riders who finished ahead of or riders will not be competing in the World Championship."