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The Welkom truth approaches at Africa's Grand Prix

The Welkom truth approaches at Africa's Grand Prix

The Welkom truth approaches at Africa's Grand Prix

The time for speculation and small talk is almost over as the inescapable honesty of motorcycle racing promises to reveal the true contenders for the coveted MotoGP World Championship crown at the Africa's Grand Prix in Welkom this weekend. The Phakisa Freeway hosts the opening round of the series for the second time in its short history, with Garry McCoy famously sliding his way to victory on MotoGP's second visit to the Free State province at the start of the 2000 season.

Current World Champion Valentino Rossi made his premier-class debut with Honda in that same race and faces a similarly fresh challenge this weekend as he takes his bow as a Yamaha rider on a machine which has not seen victory since October 2002 and could only manage a highest championship position of seventh last season.

Rossi has already demonstrated in the recent official tests at Catalunya and Jerez that he and his revered ex-Honda Crew Chief Jeremy Burgess have made great strides with the YZR-M1, finishing with the quickest lap on both occasions. However, last year's surprise winner and eventual championship runner-up Sete Gibernau returns to South Africa as many people's favourite for race victory and even the title, having impressed throughout the preseason with his pace and consistency at the head of a formidable Honda alliance.

Joining the Spaniard at Telefonica Movistar Honda is Colin Edwards, making his first race appearance on Japanese factory machinery since clinching the World Superbike Championship title at Imola in 2002. Also riding the irrepressible RC211V, which took victory in fifteen out of sixteen rounds last season, are the newly formed Repsol Honda partnership of Grand Prix winner Alex Barros and last season's Rookie of the Year Nicky Hayden, as well as perennial challenger Max Biaggi and his new Camel Honda team-mate Makoto Tamada.

Meanwhile, back at Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha, Rossi's team-mate Carlos Checa has been revived by the Italian's fresh input to the M1 project whilst Marco Melandri, winner of the 250cc race here on his way to the title two years ago, is also benefiting from the experience of his great friend and mentor. Completing the Yamaha factory set-up is Norick Abe, who returns to the full-time MotoGP entry list after a year spent as an official test rider peppered by the occasional wildcard.

The Ducati Marlboro Team return for their second season in MotoGP with Troy Bayliss, who led for the first ten laps of the race at Welkom last year before settling for fourth place in just his second MotoGP appearance, looking to use his racing instinct to make up for a frustrating preseason of development with a brand new version of the Desmosedici.

Both Bayliss and team-mate Loris Capirossi have suffered from a lack of track time due to adverse weather conditions, whilst watching newcomers Neil Hodgson and Ruben Xaus make swift progress on their old bikes. The World Superbike Champion and runner-up in 2003 form Ducati's first MotoGP satellite partnership this year, with Hodgson preparing to make his first Grand Prix start since the 500cc race at Catalunya in 1995 and Xaus set for his premier-class debut after previous appearances in the 250 class.

Elsewhere, the resurgent preseason form of Kenny Roberts Jr., winner of the World Championship the last time the season started at Welkom, and his brand new GSV-R have given hope of a Suzuki revival, whilst the arrival of Shinya Nakano to ride alongside Alex Hofmann on a radically improved version of the Ninja ZX-RR has done much to inspire fresh optimism at Kawasaki.

British Superbike Champion Shane Byrne takes his MotoGP bow with Aprilia in an interesting sub-plot to the quest for the main prize, battling for the Rookie of the Year title with Xaus, Hofmann and Kurtis Roberts, who has sufficiently recovered from a dislocated shoulder sustained in preseason testing to pilot Proton Team KR's new V5 machine.


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