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Rossi wins season-opening Japanese Grand Prix

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Monday, April 8, 2002 Japan Today reported that World champion Valentino Rossi won the season-opening Japanese Grand Prix in the rain-hit first race of the new MotoGP championship Sunday.

The 23-year-old Italian, who won here for the first of his 11 grand prix wins last season, powered to victory on his new 990cc Honda RCV after overtaking Japanese wildcard Akira Ryo on lap 16 of 21 at the Suzuka Circuit.

Rossi made a slow start from pole position but carefully picked his way through the field in slippery conditions to take the checkred flag in a time of 49 minutes, 32.766 seconds.

"This is a special moment to win the first race of this new series. This victory is more important than usual because I crashed Friday and Saturday," said Rossi, who won the 500cc title last year in just his second season at the top level.

"We knew the potential of the bike in dry conditions but I only finished 14th in the morning warm-up so we didn't know exactly what to expect."

Ryo, who got off to a flying start from seventh on the grid and led for three quarters of the race, finished just 1.550 seconds behind Rossi after a brave rally from the Suzuki rider on the final lap.

"Obviously I gave it one final push one the last lap but I felt the bike wobble a bit so I was happy to settle for second place," said Ryo.

Spaniard Carlos Checa, on the four-stroke Yamaha, finished third, getting past another wildcard, Shinichi Itoh, in the closing stages after trailing the local Honda rider for most of the race.

Despite Checa's result it seems the problems with the new Yamaha machine that his teammate Max Biaggi has been complaining about have yet to be solved.

"I had a few problems with the power delivery, and moreover it was very difficult to overtake due to the conditions," said the 29-year-old Checa. "I hope this result pushes us on to improve things even more quickly."

Itoh was fourth ahead of compatriot Norick Abe and Brazilian Alex Barros.

The top four were all riding four-stroke bikes, which were lining up on the grid alongside two-stroke machines for the first time this year after the 53-year-old 500cc championship drew to a close last year.Just 12 of the 21 riders finished the race in the wet conditions.

Biaggi, runner up behind Rossi in the championship last year, skidded off on lap seven, much to the Italian's obvious annoyance.

American Kenny Roberts, who was 500cc world champion in 2000 but had a miserable title defense last year, followed Biaggi moments later on his four-stroke Suzuki.

Loris Capirossi, who had outpaced compatriot Rossi in practice Thursday and started second on the grid, had technical problems with his 500cc Honda and finished ninth.

Another local wildcard, Osamu Miyazaki, had an excellent race to win the 250cc class on a Yamaha ahead of compatriot and Honda wildcard Daisake Sakai.

Randy de Puniet of France grabbed the first podium of his career by finishing third on his Aprilia after a tough battle with Haruchika Aoki and Hiroshi Aoyama.

Aoyama slid off on a corner on lap 16, while Aoki crashed out on the final corner of the race trying to overtake de Puniet.

De Puniet's third place was some consolation for Aprilia, whose riders had dominated qualifying to fill the first five places on the grid.

"The race was very hard, and the presence of the Japanese wildcards made it even more difficult," said de Puniet. "However I'm satisfied that I was the first European to make it on to the podium this season."

His fellow Frenchman and wet-weather specialist Arnaud Vincent took full advantage of the conditions to win the 125cc class on an Aprilia with Italian Honda rider Mirko Giansanti runner-up.

World champion Manuel Poggiali of San Marino, who was carrying an injury, tied for third on his Gilera.

"My hand wasn't hurting too badly, but bearing in mind the circumstances I think third place is a good result for me," he said. (Reuters News)