It's only Thursday, but Valentino Rossi already has a victory under his belt.The Fiat Yamaha rider got to the checkered flag ahead of three fellow Yamaha legends, who have a combined 18 world championships, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. It was billed as an exhibition, but when you have Rossi and multi-time 500cc World Champions Wayne Rainey, Kenny Roberts and Eddie Lawson on the track at the same time, it was bound to be a race."Yes, I'm happy because for me now is possible say I beat Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, and Eddie Lawson, so is so important," Rossi said with a smile during the pre-race news conference. "The kart was fun. Is so fast and share the track with these names, with these great names of the past was fun and important."Rossi had the advantage of driving Lawson's Yamaha TZ-250-powered Superkart, while the other karts were powered by YZ-250 singles. Rossi formed his strategy during the parade laps prior to taking off behind the safety car."Before the first part, the first three laps, Eddie (Lawson) come to me and say, ‘We go slow, we stay all together behind Kenny (Roberts) for say ‘ciao' to the crowd. And I say, ‘Okay, like an exhibition.' I start slow from the pit, but out of the first corner I was already alone. Everybody push a lot, so I say, ‘Now for the race, go full throttle, 100 percent.'"Rossi took the checkered flag by himself, while the three Americans crossed the stripe in a ragged formation. Now comes the hard part. The 30-year-old Italian is riding a two-race winning streak as he arrives at the track where the 2008 championship was decided. Not only did he win last year's race at Laguna Seca, but he also won the inaugural Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix, giving him a clean sweep of the U.S."Last year for me America was fantastic because I won two great races, especially here in Laguna but also in Indianapolis," he said. "Both were important races for the championship, but now it is a different moment. The story of the championship is still to be written, but I arrive in good shape and I'm happy because last year I had big pressure to do a good race. I'm quite confident also because in the last two races we have found a good setting for the new bike and we are fast in Barcelona and Assen. We also have good data from last year's race because my bike in 2008 was very good. We have to start from that base and see what happens."When he arrived in Assen last weekend, he was part of a three-way championship tie with teammate Jorge Lorenzo and Ducati Marlboro's Casey Stoner. Rossi broke the tie by winning, with Lorenzo second after running into front end issues, and Stoner a weakened third with continuing health issues."Last year was a strange race because I was able to stay in front of Stoner, even though he was a bit faster than me. Last year I was losing in some parts of the track like the exit of the last corner but I expect the bike this year to be a little better and I hope to be a little bit faster than last year to try and fight."The Yamaha M1 has proven to be the most versatile machine on the grid. Last week in Assen four of the top six places were taken by Yamaha riders."This story starts back in 2007," Rossi said. The performance started in the winter of 2007 when Yamaha decided to put in a great effort to improve the bike and last year it was already a great bike. But it was difficult to fight with Ducati and at times last season the Ducati was still a bit stronger than us. But we have improved again this year and I think we have the best team. We have the best riders because Lorenzo and me are very strong and this is not the case in the other teams. This is also good to work on the development of the bike with two riders very fast and now the M1 is very competitive."Rossi's motor was so stout that in Barcelona that Stoner couldn't draft him."We have improved the engine a lot, but we have really made big progress with improving the acceleration and now it looks like the Ducati might still be a little bit faster, but we are more or less on the same level. Last year was different, and especially two years ago it was a lot different."He added that,  "Last year was a great result and is so important because now we have good data, a good setting from 2008 race for start tomorrow. I think is also a bit different this year because especially Colin and Nicky have the Bridgestone. Last year they struggle a lot with Michelin, so we expect especially Colin (Edwards) and Nicky (Hayden) more close. And I think we will see."

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Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.

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