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Rossi celebrates a welcome victory

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WELKOM, South Africa -- World champion Valentino Rossi celebrated his first race for Yamaha by winning the season-opening South African motorcycle Grand Prix at Welkom.

The ex-Honda star became the first rider to win back to back races on different bikes as he took the chequered flag at the 4.242 km Phakisa Freeway track.

Rossi clocked 43 minutes 50.218 seconds ahead of Italian Max Biaggi and last year's winner Sete Gibernau of Spain -- both Honda riders -- in the 28-lap race.

The 25-year-old Italian held off Biaggi in a superb two-man dual that began at the first corner at the Phakisa Freeway Circuit.

The win was Yamaha's first since the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2002 and it was Rossi's 34th win in the sport's premier category and his 60th overall.

Rossi, who started on pole position, took the lead from the start with compatriot Biaggi and Gibernau.

The trio opened a healthy lead on the pursuing pack and after lap eight the Italian duo began to pull away from Gibernau.

Biaggi took the lead on lap 23 but it took Rossi less than a full lap to force his way back into the lead when he dived inside Biaggi after his rival ran slightly wide.

Over the final lap he edged away to win narrowly by 0.210 seconds with Gibernau imore than seven seconds behind and Brazil's Alex Barros on a Honda in fourth.

Rossi caused a stir in MotoGP circles when he opted to move from the dominant Honda team to the underperforming Yamaha outfit in the off-season.

But pre-season testing showed that Rossi was up to pace quickly and after claiming pole position he sounded a warning that he and his Yamaha M1 were going to be a factor in 2004.

Rossi and Biaggi shook hands after the race and the world champion then stopped and fell to his knees before kissing the number on the front of the bike.

The Italian leads the world championship on 25 points, with Biaggi on 20 and Gibernau on 16.

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