Rossi in Gear for Welkom

Brent Avis
by Brent Avis
From Honda Racing press:
This weekend the awesome new sound of four-stroke MotoGP racing arrives forthe first time in South Africa, where Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda TeamRCV211V) aims to continue his genius form. The 23-year old made a perfectstart to the new age of GP racing in Japan a fortnight back, scoring poleposition, race victory and a lap record aboard his bellowing RCV V5four-stroke.

But Rossi had to fight hard all the way at Suzuka, taking pole by just0.183 seconds and the win by only 1.5 seconds, which suggests that he won'thave the easiest of rides in his quest for a fourth world title to add tohis 125, 250 and 500 successes...

Following his scintillating preseason pace,many experts had predicted that Rossi would cruise to the first-ever MotoGPWorld Championship, with two-stroke rival Loris Capirossi (West Honda PonsNSR500) suggesting that his fellow Italian could win the title ridingone-handed. "Maybe I will try that later," joked Rossi. "But it'd have tobe with the right hand, I couldn't open the throttle with my left!"

Neither Rossi nor Capirossi have any real idea how their machinery willcompare at Welkom, a bumpy, slippery racetrack located on a 1350 metreplateau in South Africa's Free State. Whereas all teams had tested atSuzuka before the Japanese GP, no one has visited Welkom during theoff-season. But the general feeling is that the 500 two-strokes will have abetter 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 ofguesswork involved as we look for the best settings," says Rossi. "What wedo know is that the circuit is very technical with no really longstraights, so I expect the two-strokes to be very strong. I'm sure it willbe another close race. I like the track a lot. I won there last year andalso in '99 when I was racing 250s, so I'll be going for a third win thistime. But first we'll have to find out how the four-stroke goes. Whateverhappens, I expect a great race!"

Capirossi is convinced he will be able to race Rossi at Welkom. A closesecond fastest in Suzuka qualifying, his hopes of running up front in therace 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," saysthe former 125 and 250 champ who was second in last year's Africa's GPafter harrying Rossi throughout. "I believe the gap between the 500s andthe four-stroke will be less than at Catalunya, where we tested against thefour-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 lastyear. The new NSR is maybe 50 per cent better than the 2000 model I racedlast season, it's much easier to go fast with this bike. I'm one secondfaster than last year at most tracks, easy! The balance is better and ituses its tires less."

Rossi's HRC team-mate Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RCV211V) also hopesfor a change of fortune at Welkom. Impressively fast during preseasontests, the Japanese struggled during crucial final qualifying at Suzuka,then slid off in the race. "I was very disappointed with that result and Ihave to make sure I do much, much better in South Africa," says Ukawa, whoscored his first, and so far only, MotoGP podium finish at Welkom lastyear. "I like the layout of the circuit, so my only concern is that thefour-stroke might not be quite so well suited to the track, but we'll see."

Reigning 250 World Champion Daijiro Katoh (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500)had also been expected to feature strongly in his MotoGP debut at Suzuka.But he was blown off course during final qualifying, a gust of windpossibly robbing him of pole position. And Katoh isn't a fan of racing inthe rain, so he struggled to a tenth-place finish.

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

Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500) was Honda's highest-scoring 500 riderat Suzuka and aims to do even better at Welkom. "We started the season witha good points score in difficult conditions, which gives me confidence forthe next few races," says GP racing's most experienced rider. "But we knowwe must keep working very hard because the competition is more difficultthan ever before. I only qualified on the fourth row at Suzuka, so we knowwe need to find some more speed.

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