This weekend the awesome new sound of four-stroke MotoGP racing arrives for the first time in South Africa, where Valentino Rossi aims to continue his genius form.

The 23-year old made a perfect start to the new age of GP racing in Japan a fortnight back, scoring pole position, race victory and a lap record aboard his bellowing RCV V5 four-stroke.

But Rossi had to fight hard all the way at Suzuka, taking pole by just 0.183 seconds and the win by only 1.5 seconds, which suggests that he won't have the easiest of rides in his quest for a fourth world title to add to his 125, 250 and 500 successes.

Following his scintillating preseason pace, many experts had predicted that Rossi would cruise to the first-ever MotoGP World Championship, with two-stroke rival Loris Capirossi suggesting that his fellow Italian could win the title riding one-handed.

"Maybe I will try that later," joked Rossi, "but it'd have to be with the right hand, as I couldn't open the throttle with my left!"

Neither Rossi nor Capirossi have any real idea how their machinery will compare at Welkom, a bumpy, slippery racetrack located on a 1350-metre plateau in South Africa's Free State. Whereas all teams had tested at Suzuka before the Japanese GP, no-one has visited Welkom during the off-season. But the general feeling is that the 500 two-strokes will have a better chance against the new breed of 990cc four-strokes this weekend.

"We haven't tested there with the four-stroke, so there will be a lot of guesswork involved as we look for the best settings," Rossi says, "What we do know is that the circuit is very technical, with no really long straights, so I expect the two-strokes to be very strong. I'm sure it will be another close race.

"I like the track a lot. I won there last year, and also in '99 when I was racing 250s, so I'll be going for a third win this time. But, first, we'll have to find out how the four-stroke goes. Whatever happens, I expect a great race!"

Capirossi is convinced he will be able to race Rossi at Welkom. A close second fastest in Suzuka qualifying, his hopes of running up front in the race were dashed by foul weather and he limped home ninth, lapped by Rossi.

"I like Welkom very much, it's a good track for me and for my bike," says the former 125 and 250 champ, who was second in last year's Africa's GP after harrying Rossi throughout.

"I believe the gap between the 500s and the four-stroke will be less than at Catalunya, where we tested against the four-strokes, and at Suzuka, so I've great expectations of a good result.

"Although I'm still riding a 500, I have a much better package than last year. The new NSR is maybe 50 per cent better than the 2000 model I raced last season, it's much easier to go fast with this bike. I'm one second faster than last year at most tracks, easy! The balance is better and it uses its tyres less."

Rossi's HRC team-mate Tohru Ukawa also hopes for a change of fortune at Welkom. Impressively fast during pre-season tests, the Japanese struggled during crucial final qualifying at Suzuka, then slid off in the race.

"I was very disappointed with that result and I have to make sure I do much, much better in South Africa," says Ukawa, who scored his first, and so far only, MotoGP podium finish at Welkom last year.

"I like the layout of the circuit, so my only concern is that the four-stroke might not be quite so well suited to the track, but we'll see."

Reigning 250 world champion Daijiro Katoh had also been expected to feature strongly in his MotoGP debut at Suzuka, but he was blown off course during final qualifying, as a gust of wind possibly robbed him of pole position. And Katoh isn't a fan of racing in the rain, either, so he struggled to a tenth-place finish.

"At least the sun should be shining in South Africa, so I'm looking forward to Welkom," he grins, remembering who won last year's 250 GP at the track, "We had quite a difficult weekend at Suzuka and we learned just how tough the competition is at this level, incredible! But we're ready to fight again in South Africa and I think we'll be much closer to the front."

Alex Barros was Honda's highest-scoring 500 rider at Suzuka and aims to do even better at Welkom.

"We started the season with a good points score in difficult conditions, which gives me confidence for the next few races," says GP racing's most experienced rider, "But we know we must keep working very hard because the competition is more difficult than ever before. I only qualified on the fourth row at Suzuka, so we know we need to find some more speed."

Katoh's fellow NSR first-timer Tetsuya Harada took a conservative eleventh-place finish in Japan, where he rode his 190bhp NSR in the wet for the first time.

"I got some points and I was happy with that, but obviously we're aiming to do better at Welkom," says the former 250 champ, who was third in last year's 250 Welkom GP, "I'm still learning my way with the NSR, aiming to get faster every weekend."

Jurgen van den Goorbergh had less luck on his NSR debut at Suzuka, sliding off mid-race, so the Dutchman comes to Welkom hoping for his first points of 2002.

"We have a lot of work to do," he admit, "We are in a development situation with Bridgestone tyres, so we're working to keep improving and it will take a few races for us to find the performance we need, that's natural with development work."

HRC's two NSR250 riders commenced their 2002 campaigns with points-scoring rides at Suzuka - Emilio Alzamora finishing fourth and team-mate Robby Rolfo eighth - but both men are aiming to run closer to the front this weekend.

"That was a difficult race in very difficult conditions, so I was proud of the result," says Alzamora, "We worked very hard at Suzuka, fine tuning various aspects of the bike's performance and I think we can challenge up front at Welkom."

Rolfo, who has raced Aprilias for the last few seasons, is still adapting to the user-friendly NSR.

"At Suzuka, I was having some trouble getting tucked in behind the bodywork," says the part-timer student, "When I'm behind the screen, I can't control the bike the way I want to control it, but we've been working on that and it should be much better at Welkom."

Honda's top 125 runner of the moment is Mirko Giansanti, who finished a close second at Suzuka. The Italian is hoping that this is his season, after disappointments in the past.

"I've been at the front of the World Championship before, only to suffer injury," he explains, "I'm confident we can keep running fast, so I just want to keep scoring good points at every race."

Teenage star Daniel Pedrosa, who started the Japanese GP from pole position, is also expected to challenge strongly this weekend.

"Pole position proved we have a very good combination this year," said Pedrosa, who finished the race in eighth, "I don't like riding in the rain, so [Suzuka] was a good result for me. Now I'm looking forward to racing in the dry at Welkom."

After Welkom, the GP circus returns to its European heartland for a series of nine races on the continent, beginning with the Spanish GP at Jerez on 5 May.


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