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Piloting a four-stroke Honda RC211V that he’d taken to 315 kph in dry practice, Valentino Rossi won Sunday’s rain-soaked Japan MotoGP at the Suzuka circuit in Mie Prefecture.

Speaking after the traditional champagne shower from the winner’s podium, the 23-year-old Italian maestro said, “I am happy whenever I win a race, but today’s was special because the conditions were very difficult and also this race was important for Honda.

“This morning’s warm-up was my first wet-weather outing with the RC211V, and I was learning during the race.

“It’s very important to stay with the leading group in these conditions, because only then can you understand where the limit really is. When I caught up with the wild-card riders Akira Ryo (Suzuki) and Shinichi Ito (Honda), I knew that they know the track very well in the wet, so I followed them for a while before I passed them.”

Rossi, who on Saturday had grabbed pole-position for the start of this season’s opening round of the all-new MotoGP championship, wasn’t nervous or tense before the start of the race. Instead, last year’s 500cc Grand Prix World Champion seemed simply determined, since he knew how important it was for Honda to win the race. Honda last won a top-class race with a four-stroke machine back in 1967 with Mike Hailwood in the saddle on a RC181.

“I was an engine-designer of the NR500 back in the late 1970s, but it couldn’t win a race at that time,” president of Honda Racing Suguru Kanazawa said after the race. “So I am really happy that our four-stroke machine won today. It was our long-running dream.”

Until Saturday’s qualifying only a few people had imagined that a four-stroke could win this first-ever MotoGP since the sport’s governing International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) changed the rules to allow four-stroke 990cc bikes to compete against two-stroke 500s. When the rule change was announced two years ago, most people expected that the heavy four-strokes would never match the potential of the lighter two-stroke 500cc machines.

However, during tests last winter, Honda’s 990cc four-stroke V5 RC211V began lapping unexpectedly fast. The four-stroke Yamaha YZR-M1, on the other hand, was beset with problems during preseason tests, while Suzuki only announced its plan to bring forward development of its GSV-R a couple of months ago.

So while many expected Rossi to win on the RC211V, it also became clear during the qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday that the Yamaha YZR-M1 and Suzuki GSV-R were also quick.

And though this may be the last year for Honda to race its two-stroke NSR500, the company has continued to develop the machine further. Hence Rossi’s Italian compatriot, Loris Capirossi, on the NSR500 was fastest in qualifying on Friday and second-fastest on Saturday.

Daijiro Kato, the 250cc champion in 2001, was also very fast on an NSR500, though he made a mistake and ran off the track trying to go for a fast lap and finished in sixth position on the grid.

Nonetheless, the qualifying result was amazing, with 12 riders clocking lap times within a second of each other. First on the pole was Rossi on a four-stroke followed by Capirossi on a two-stroke. Shinichi Ito, 34, on the RC211V was third fastest. Ito, who raced in the Grand Prix 500cc class from 1993 to ’96, has been a development rider of the RC211V since its launch and took a chance taking part in the MotoGP as a wild-card rider, as he has not raced for almost a year. The fourth and fifth riders were Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi riding Yamaha YZR-M1s. Sixth was Kato on the two-stroke NSR500 and seventh place went to Ryo, another wild-carder, who is reigning All-Japan Superbike champion, riding a four-stroke Suzuki GSV-R.

So the stage was set on Saturday night. Two-strokes vs. four-storkes. Honda vs. Yamaha vs. Suzuki. The race seemed to have everything. However, the most unknown factor was the weather. The forecast was for rain on Sunday and no four-stroke machine had ever been tested in the wet.

And sure enough, it was raining on Sunday morning but that didn’t deter the 43,923 spectators that turned up.

Dutchman Jurgen van den Goorbergh, riding a Bridgestone-tired NSR500 was the fastest during the warm-up in the morning — after being 20th out of 21 riders during the qualifying, to further confuse people as to the outcome of the race.

The race was led by Ryo until lap 15 (out of 21) when he was passed by Rossi, who kept the lead to the end.

Rossi got quicker as the race progressed and his last lap around the 5.83-km circuit was his fastest in 2 minutes, 19.105 seconds.

“Early in the race, I was happy to lead, but towards the middle I knew Rossi was behind, and I was waiting for him to overtake. I wanted to see his race strategy, but he took his time. I had two chances to attack on the last two laps, and I tried my best, but I couldn’t get close enough,” Ryo said after the race.

Third place went to Checa who passed Ito on lap 18.

“I’m so happy to get third in my first race with the M1,” Checa said. “In fact, wet-weather results aren’t so ‘real’ so in some ways the most important thing this weekend was yesterday’s qualifying session because that showed we’re already at a high level with this machine.”

Fourth place went to Ito, who did more than enough in his job as a development rider to gather data on the RC211V.

Norick Abe, the winner of the Japanese GP in 1996 and in 2000, on YZR500 was the first two-stroke rider to finish, ending in fifth place. Almost half of the riders on the grid crashed during the race including the YZR-M1 rider Max Biaggi, Rossi’s arch-rival, who slid off on lap seven. Other fallers included Tohru Ukawa, teammate to Rossi on a RC211V, Kenny Roberts Jr., the 500cc champion in 2000, and Sete Gibernau, both on GSV-Rs.

However, none of them were severely injured.

Former 250cc champions Capirossi (’98), Kato (’01) and Tetsuya Harada (’93), all on two-stroke NSR500s, were lapped by the leading group — further evidence of the dominance of the more powerful and faster four-stroke machines in the wet.

With the Suzuki and Yamaha bikes showing they can match those of Honda, this year’s MotoGP championship got off to an ideal start.

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