In complete contrast to the wet and windy conditions they left behind at the first race of the season in Japan, MotoGP teams and riders have arrived in the dusty expanse of Free State in South Africa, and to the Phakisa Freeway circuit. With the sun beating down on the Welkom-based track, it promises to be a scorching weekend, at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to the difficult conditions which opened the 2002 MotoGP World Championship with a fantastic race in Suzuka.

With qualifying beginning today, the riders yesterday took the opportunity to familiarise themselves with their surroundings, and even to try to help the plight of the local population. World Champion Valentino Rossi visited the Morning Star Children's Centre in an attempt to raise awareness about the AIDS disease. The fifty-plus children who attend this centre all carry the virus, and the Italian met them and discussed the problems with the Centre's founder, Joan Adams. Incredibly, the children who go to the centre are considered lucky if they reach eight years old.

Rossi, who was visibly moved by the cause of the toddlers he saw at Morning Star, commented, "It is very difficult to see these children in this situation, but hopefully by attending this centre, it will help in some small way. This is real life and it is very important to see, but it is so far away from our lives over in Europe."

Elsewhere, Loris Capirossi, Olivier Jacque, Manuel Poggiali and other riders visited a local wildlife reserve, Stone Safari, where they were able to mingle amongst lions, giraffe and other indigenous animals, such as the famous springbok. Travelling through the park in a safari vehicle, the racers were able to see the animals up close and at home in their natural surroundings.

Jeremy McWilliams and Emilio Alzamora led another group out to the Free State Goldfields around Welkom, to visit a working shaft of the Harmony Gold Mining Company. The riders were kitted out in typical miners uniforms, complete with boiler suits, helmet lamps and wellington-boots, to descend the 1300m mine and to see one of the faces from where gold is excavated. In sweaty and claustrophobic conditions, the Briton and the Spaniard even tried their hand at drilling out a section of the ore.

This is the fourth consecutive year that MotoGP visits Welkom and the Phakisa Freeway, once again the climate promises to be a key factor, which will certainly test the tyre manufacturers. The action begins tomorrow morning with the first free practice sessions around the 4,242km track and once again the main focus will turn to the MotoGP category and the fascinating competition which is set to reign between the top riders and factories.