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Rossi remembers legendary Yamaha win at Welkom

On April 18, 2004, Valentino Rossi made history. At the start of the MotoGP season, Rossi drove to victory as a Yamaha rider in the first race and inflicted a bitter defeat on ex-employer Honda. After three World Championship titles with HRC, Rossi decided to switch to Yamaha during the 2003 MotoGP season and took a big risk.

But Rossi’s bravery paid off. At the time, the Italian was considered by far the best driver. After winning titles in the 125s and 250s, Rossi rose to the premier class in the 2000 season and immediately became runner-up in the world.

The following year, Rossi clinched the final 500cc title on the legendary Honda NSR500, before ushering in the new four-stroke era on the spectacular V5 Honda, winning the championship with ease in 2002 and 2003.

Arrogant: Honda underestimates the value of the driver

At the time, everything indicated that Rossi would dominate MotoGP alongside Honda for years to come. Honda wasn’t worried about Rossi moving. With the RC211V, the Japanese had the dominant bike of the 990 era.

Speaking to MotoGP.com, motorcycle legend Mick Doohan recalled the situation: “Honda was pretty confident. They won a lot in the 1990s and then Valentino went straight on. Honda was a bit arrogant, they had too much confidence .They didn’t respect what Valentino does for them.”

“The Honda was the best bike,” confirms Rossi. “Honda thought at the time that they would win with Vale, but if Vale leaves, then we win with Gibernau, Biaggi or other drivers.”

“They didn’t treat me like a number one driver. They said that I’m a factory driver but I have to thank them if I win,” says Rossi, adding: “I was thinking about a change.”

No attractive alternatives to the Honda RC211V

But the alternatives to the Honda RC211V were not very attractive. In the 2003 MotoGP season, three Honda riders made it into the top 3. Ducati rider Loris Capirossi, fourth in the World Championship, was the best non-Honda rider. With the Desmosedici, Ducati had built a powerful but unbalanced motorcycle.

At Yamaha it looked even worse. The Japanese had a shockingly bad year in 2003 with the M1. In 16 races only one podium could be secured. In the drivers’ standings, works driver Carlos Checa finished seventh and only had about a third of the points compared to world champion Rossi.

Yamaha was in a trough. “We knew we needed Valentino if we wanted to win,” race director Lin Jarvis recalled. “Davide Brivio was our team manager at the time. We used the Italian connection to start negotiations.”

Secret meetings between Yamaha and Valentino Rossi

Rossi entered into talks with Brivio. “The first meeting took place in February 2003 in Ibiza”, the then Yamaha team manager looks back. “It was just a casual chat. We told him we needed a driver like him if we wanted to win and asked if he would like to join us. It was the start.”

Yamaha signaled Rossi that he is indispensable if they want to find success in MotoGP. They aroused the interest of the then 24-year-old. “When things got more serious, we met in the paddock every weekend. The problem was not to let anyone know. We made up a lot of strange meeting places,” Brivio recalls. “We met at the Clinica Mobile and in hotel rooms.”

While Rossi was flattered by Yamaha’s interest, he also understood the Yamaha M1’s competitiveness. “If you decided at that moment to switch from Honda to Yamaha, then you were either crazy as hell or just plain stupid. Maybe both applied to me (laughs; editor’s note)”, jokes Rossi.

Brivio knew how to persuade Rossi to make a move. Rossi received a video from Yamaha showing all the Yamaha World Champions. The Yamaha team manager at the time then told his dream driver: “Agostini, Roberts, Lawson, Rainey. You can be the fifth driver in this group.”

Valentino Rossi is leaving Honda contract offer unanswered

The decision to switch to Yamaha was made in early October. “I remember that Honda picked us up from the airport in Motegi in 2003,” commented companion Alessio “Uccio” Salucci. “They handed us the new contract and hung it on the office fridge. They told us it had to be signed by Sunday, otherwise we’re out.”

‘Uccio’ realized that Rossi is ignoring the contract. “In Motegi I felt for the first time that Vale had made a decision,” reports the long-time friend of the motorcycle legend. Rossi didn’t sign the contract and switched to Yamaha. Before that, he convinced his entire crew around Jeremy Burgess.

HRC reacted promptly to Rossi’s change and prohibited the Italian, who was under contract until the turn of the year, from testing for his new employer. While his rivals gained experience in Sepang, Rossi had to wait at home.

“It was a problem, but also a big motivator because I understood that they were worried,” commented Rossi, who only got on the Yamaha M1 in January 2004. It was a big move from the V5 Honda to the Yamaha inline four, then configured as a screamer.

Positive first test with the Yamaha M1

“It was magical when I was able to test the bike for the first time,” recalls Rossi. Yamaha was extremely excited to hear the MotoGP superstar’s initial feedback. Team manager Brivio reports: “When he first returned he was surrounded by 15-20 engineers who wanted to hear his comments. Everyone was concerned because he was a three-time world champion coming to Yamaha from Honda.”

But Rossi’s first impression of his new tool was positive. “Uccio” remembers that Rossi seemed optimistic after the first stint: “He said at the time: ‘It’s possible!'”

Rossi figured he could be a championship contender in his debut Yamaha season. “After the first or second test, I understood that I could win the championship. But I didn’t expect to win the first race. Nobody expected it and that was good,” he notes.

Yamaha were under a lot of pressure with the signing of Rossi. “You’re in trouble when you have Rossi on your team and you don’t win,” said race director Lin Jarvis. Team manager Davide Brivio pondered which goals are realistic.

“What should we say to the media? We agreed to say that 2004 will be a learning year where we need to develop the bike and get to know each other. Then we want to win 2005,” said the then Yamaha race director. But Rossi wanted to win the first race after the promising tests.

Huge tensions between Honda and Yamaha

The 2004 MotoGP season started in mid-April with the South African Grand Prix in Welkom. The duel between Yamaha and Honda was in focus. Rossi remembers the mood before the start: “I looked at the tests in the newspapers and Biaggi and Gibernau claimed that with my bike they now understand why I won with it.”

Rossi was highly motivated to defeat Honda. The defending champion was ahead in all training sessions. In qualifying, Rossi narrowly secured pole. The Yamaha with starting number 46 and the two Hondas driven by Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi formed the front row of the grid.

“It was a duel between Honda and Yamaha. That was there before. But there was also the duel Biaggi vs. Rossi,” comments Yamaha race director Lin Jarvis. “It created additional tension. Both were Italian champions who never got along well.”

Valentino Rossi wrestles Max Biaggi

Yamaha rider Valentino Rossi and Honda rider Max Biaggi dueled during the race. Both had chances to win. Rossi showed an extremely strong performance and prevailed. “I achieved maximum concentration and my best possible strength. I was at the peak of my career,” comments the Italian.

“I was 25 years old and I was damn strong. The bike wasn’t as good as the Honda at the start, but I won on it,” notes Rossi. Mechanic Alex Briggs confirms: “The bike was okay, but it wasn’t particularly good. Valentino made the difference back then.”

Yamaha celebrate and inflict a bitter defeat on Honda

Rossi made history with the win and set the mood for celebration in the Yamaha camp. “There was a tremendous boost for everyone on the team with that win at Welkom,” confirms Yamaha race director Lin Jarvis. At Honda, on the other hand, the faces were long. After many years of dominance, HRC suffered a bitter defeat.

According to Yamaha team manager Davide Brivio, Valentino Rossi’s move from Honda to Yamaha was proof that it’s not just the bike that makes the difference between victory and defeat. “The best thing about this collaboration between Yamaha and Valentino is that we have been able to show how important the driver is over the years,” said the Italian.

“It was something that had been forgotten. The role of the rider was underestimated. Valentino reminded everyone that the rider is important,” explains the Yamaha team manager at the time, adding: “He changed the history of Yamaha with this move .”

Rossi himself regrets that he was only able to celebrate his success on April 18, 2004 to a limited extent. “Our flights were booked for Sunday evening after the race. That was one of the biggest mistakes in my career,” Rossi jokes and proudly looks back on this Sunday: “It’s the highlight of my career.”

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