A victory for Switzerland had been on the cards, with the potential threat to their Alpine dominance coming from the American A J Kitt. However, Franz Heinzer, the winner here for the past two seasons and the World Cup holder for the discipline, was the favourite with Besse, not selected for the Swiss Olympic team last winter, pencilled in among the also-rans.
But Besse, urged on by his noisy, flag-waving fan club, produced an outstanding run and became the first man in 25 years of the World Cup to ski the full Saslonch piste in under two minutes, clocking 1min 59.49sec from the No 8 starting position.
The 26-year-old Swiss spent five years on the circuit searching for his first success before winning in the Canadian resort of Panorama in March. This second victory so soon almost constitutes a winning streak.
'This is such a perfect start to the season for me and this is a famous, classic course,' Besse said.
Norway's Jan Thorsen was just outside two minutes, good enough for second place and the lead in the overall World Cup standings. The Olympic champion, Austria's Patrick Ortlieb, claimed third in 2:00.10. The Swiss Urs Lehmann was fourth, the veteran Austrian Leonhard Stock fifth, with Heinzer sixth and Kitt 11th.
Heinzer, who won four races last season, was almost a second slower than his winning team- mate, a new team strategy failing to help him. Besse had chosen the No 8 start and Heinzer had automatically taken the No 12. That meant that after Besse had skied he had time to radio back information on course conditions in order to give Heinzer the best possible chance.
'I knew that Willy had done well, but I still thought that I could beat him,' Heinzer said. 'But this course was much changed from the one which we trained on.'
The difference on the day was weather, specifically, a freeze on Thursday night, which turned the piste into the ice that downhillers love to race on. Ski tuning was essential and Besse's serviceman apparently came up with the right formula during his late night work before race day. Besse also credited a more aggressive attitude with helping him to victory.
Kitt said that he could not overcome mistakes, which included losing speed as he came into the flat section of the course. 'I just told myself to keep going. Sometimes you cannot tell if you are really going fast or not,' was the American's explanation.
Thorsen will be trying to forget about pressure, when he skies in today's second downhill. 'I had some stage fright today and was nervous at the start,' he said. 'I've always had problems like this, but I am working to try and overcome the situation.'
Martin Bell was Britain's highest finisher, placing 57th in 2:02.91. Ronald Duncan was 62nd and Graham Bell 67th.
MEN'S WORLD CUP DOWNHILL (Val Gardena, It) Leading positions: 1 W Besse (Swit) 1min 59.49sec; 2 J E Thorsen (Nor) 2:00.06; 3 P Ortlieb (Aut) 2:00.10; 4= U Lehmann (Swit) and L Stock (Aut) 2:00.23; 6 F Heinzer (Swit) 2:00.41; 7 A Skaardal (Nor) 2:00.48; 8 H Hoflehner (Aut) 2:00.60; 9 M Girardelli (Lux) 2:00.74; 10 H Trinkl (Aut) 2:00.77; 11 A J Kitt (US) 2:00.88; 12 K Ghedina (It) 2:00.98; 13 A Assinger (Aut) 2:01.00; 14 H Tauscher (Ger) 2:01.10; 15 X Gigandet (Swit) 2:01.11; 16 D Mahrer (Swit) 2:01.13; 17 B Stemmle (Can) 2:01.16; 18 T Moe (US) 2:01.18; 19 P Runggaldier (It) 2:01.28; 20 D Rey (Fr) 2:01.38. GB: 57 M Bell 2:02.91; 62 R Duncan 2:03.41; 67 G Bell 2:04.48.
Leading overall World Cup standings (after five races): 1 Thorsen 180 pts; 2= Heinzer and H Strolz (Aut) 120; 4 A Tomba (It) 116; 5 K-A Aamodt (Nor) 113; 6 A Bittner (Ger) 110; 7 T Sykora (Aut) 109; 8 F Tescari (It) 106; 9 Ortlieb 105; 10= Besse and T Fogdoe (Swe) 100; 12 D Marksten (Nor) 87; 13= Skaardal and Girardelli 86; 15 M Tritscher (Aut) 80; 16 S Locher (Swit) 66; 17 P Accola (Swit) 64; 18 S Voglreiter (Aut) 61; 19= J Wallner (Swe) and L Colturi (It) 60.Reuse content