All eyes were on Valentino Rossi at the start of the 2004 season. The Italian had caused a real earthquake in the MotoGP paddock a few months earlier when he announced his decision to leave Honda for Yamaha .
The new signing of the tuning fork brand knew that he could win the opening race of the season, in Welkom , South Africa, but he had to prove it to the rest of the drivers and the fans.
After reaching the premier class in 2000, he had already achieved three world championships and 33 victories with Honda. However, tired of comments questioning his talent and attributing his successes to the quality of his bike, Rossi wanted to show that he could feel just as comfortable on any other machine. And choosing the Yamaha was the perfect example of how to do it.
The Japanese brand had not won a title since 1992, achieving just 24 victories between 1993 and 2003, compared to 117 for Honda. Her difficulties were almost an irrefutable offer for the #46, who opted for her to show that the bike was not everything.
After months of negotiations and secret preparations, and a delay in pre-season testing due to Honda’s veto, which did not allow him to test his new machine until the end of his contract, Rossi arrived ready for the first grand prix of the 2004 season, in Welkom.
After taking pole ahead of Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi , everything went according to plan when the lights went out. The new Yamaha rider took the lead at the first corner and held his position for several laps. But Biaggi had not said his last word and would give him a hard time throughout the race.
After breaking free from Gibernau and chasing the leader solo, Biaggi caught up with Rossi and stayed in the lead with him for 28 laps. It was a battle of nerves between the two men, with Biaggi trying to put pressure on his younger rival and managing to overtake him on several occasions on a satellite Honda.
The #46 achieved the winning overtake with three laps to go. He crossed the finish line two tenths ahead of the rest of the field and won his first Grand Prix with Yamaha. Gibernau completed the podium with another privateer Honda, relegating Alex Barros ‘ factory bike to fourth place.
That victory was the first of many for Rossi for the Japanese manufacturer, as he won a total of 56 races between 2004 and 2017 and added four drivers’ titles to his list. In an interview with Sky , the nine-time world champion described that win as “in many ways the best” of his extensive world motorcycle racing career.