Rossi Confident About Suzuka Debut

Brent Avis
by Brent Avis
From Honda Motorsports:
This weekend motorcycle GP racing speeds into its new four-stroke era atSuzuka, where the Japanese Grand Prix opens the 16-race 2002 MotoGP WorldChampionship which throws 990cc four-strokes into battle with 500cctwo-strokes. It is perhaps fitting that the figure-of-eight circuit should be chosen to lift the curtain on this exciting new period in racing, forSuzuka first opened four decades ago in 1962, when the dominantfour-strokes were locked in combat with a growing threat from thetwo-strokes.

The ultra-challenging track was constructed at the command of Honda founderSoichiro Honda, so success at this venue is of huge importance to the HondaMotor Company. Last year's Japanese GP at Suzuka was possibly the factory'sgreatest moment in more than 50 years of motorcycling success...

Honda riderswon all three GPs - 125, 250 and 500 - with Valentino Rossi taking victoryin the premier class to score the marque's 500th Grand Prix success. Thiswas the first of Rossi's 11 victories during 2001 which gave him thelast-ever 500 crown. Now the sublimely talented Italian returns to Suzukaaboard his all-new four-stroke MotoGP bike, the awesome RC211V, aiming tobegin the new era as he ended the last, with victory.

Rossi's winter testing form has been phenomenal. He has shattered laprecords wherever he's tested, from Sepang in Malaysia, to Valencia in Spainand at Suzuka, where he topped a group teams' test session last weekend. The 23-year old is already firm favorite for the 2002 MotoGP crown but hewarns against over-optimism.

"Some people say I've already won the championship but I'm not so sure,"says Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V). "The Italian media give me a lot ofpressure and (Loris) Capirossi and (Max) Biaggi also say I've already wonit, they say only I can lose this championship. I'll give 100 per cent totry to win and I'm sure the others will give 110 per cent to beat me.

"But the RCV is incredible. The first time I tested it at Suzuka last Julywe found quite a few problems, the second time at Jerez last November itwasn't so good, but we made a good test. I'm good at understanding what Iwant from the bike and HRC are very good at giving me what I want. Sincethe Jerez tests everything has basically changed: the engine character, allthe electronic parts, the cowling, the seat, it's a new bike."

Last Sunday Rossi recorded the quickest-ever motorcycle lap at Suzuka, at2m 04.343s, leading a Honda one-two-three. Second fastest was team-mateTohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RC211V), underlying the V5's stunningperformance, with reigning 250 World Champion Daijiro Katoh (Fortuna HondaGresini NSR500) third on his NSR500 two-stroke.

"We set some good lap times during the tests," Rossi adds. "And we testedmany things to find good set-up solutions for the race. We worked very hardand are finally satisfied with the development of the bike. Now we havethree days rest and we're anxious to see what will happen next Sunday whenthe two-strokes and four-strokes race together for the first time."

Although he'll be doing his best to relax before next weekend, Rossi willspend one day in Honda's wind-tunnel facility, evaluating the RCV'saerodynamics, along with Ukawa, who is also deeply impressed with Honda'sfirst four-stroke bike in two decades.

"The RCV was very fast right from the start, but we had to work to improvedrivability out of the corners," says the former 250 GP winner. "The bikeis definitely my favorite machine, it's better than the two-stroke becauseit's got flatter power and torque curves, so it's easier on the gas. Theregulations demand the four-strokes to be 15 kilos heavier than the 500, soyou get a little snaking into corners and you carry less corner speed.

"This year is going to be very interesting, I hope to fight with Rossi forthe World Championship. Last time I fought with him was in '99 when we werecontesting the 250 World Championship. That year I was with Honda and hewas with Aprilia and he won the title. This year I've got the same bike andthe same team, so there can be no excuses for me. I'm looking forward to agood battle with him!

"I can't wait for the Suzuka race. The circuit has changed a little thisyear. They've changed Dunlop curve to make it safer, the corner is nowtighter and slower, but I think that lap times are faster because the trackis around 30 metres shorter."

While Rossi and Ukawa focus on developing the all-new RCV, Katoh hasquickly got to grips with the latest version of Honda's NSR500, the mostsuccessful bike in 500 GP history. During recent private HRC tests atSuzuka he was a fraction faster than Rossi, at 2m 04.40s, and is widelyexpected to be the quickest 500 rider when he makes his MotoGP debut onSunday.

"This NSR500 still has great potential," he says. "I'm learning about themachine and although it's not an easy job, I feel pretty confident. Duringlast weekend's tests we tried new solutions for the suspension and chassisand we know which direction to work in for the race."

Four other riders use NSR500s in this year's MotoGP series and all are keento get the season underway. Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500), whofinished third in last year's 500 series, has also been very fast inpre-season tests. "Winter tests have shown we still have a good chance withthe 500, especially at some tracks," says the Italian. "My Suzuka lap timesimproved during last weekend's tests and I got close to the leaders. NowI'm looking forward to the start of the World Championship, because racingis much more fun than testing!"

Team-mate Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500) has been more circumspect intesting, concentrating on perfecting settings rather than going forultra-quick lap times. "We've been looking at various aspects of machineperformance, working in different directions to test different solutions,"says the veteran Brazilian, who made his GP debut way back in 1986. "Suzukais going to be a very interesting race, I think everyone is looking forwardto the weekend; I just hope the weather is okay."

Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Kanemoto Racing Honda NSR500) and Tetsuya Harada(Pramac Honda NSR500) will also be on the grid at Suzuka next weekend,along with HRC test rider Shinichi Itoh.

Itoh, a former All Japan Superbike Champion and 500 grand prix rider, willrace an RCV in HRC colours on Sunday. The Japanese star has been on thepace in testing, setting top ten times at the recent IRTA test at Suzuka.

In the 250 class Honda's two NSR250-mounted title challengers are EmilioAlzamora (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR250) and Robby Rolfo (Fortuna HondaGresini NSR250). Alzamora, who returned to the 250 class last year afterwinning the 1999 125 title, has high hopes of challenging for the 250crown. "We are in good shape for the new season and the bike is great,"says Alzamora. "Suzuka will be difficult as always, mainly because therewill be many wild card riders there. But we'll do our best and go on to thenext races, determined to score consistent finishes at every race. That isthe secret to winning a world title."

Rolfo, who rode a privateer Aprilia in 2001, has spent the winteracquainting himself with his user-friendly NSR. "The bike is very differentto what I'm used to but I really like it," says the young Italian. "Thefirst races are going to be very interesting. Suzuka is very importantthough my focus is the full season. I can't wait to get started."

Honda-mounted wild card entries in the Suzuka 250 GP are Shinichi Nakatomi,Chojun Kameya, Daisaku Sakai and Hiroshi Aoyama.

Sunday's Japanese GP will commence with the 125 race, won last year byMasao Azuma (Liégeois Competition Honda RS125) who hopes to begin anotherstrong title challenge on home tarmac. Azuma is joined on Honda machineryby Spanish teenage sensations Daniel Pedrosa and Joan Olive (MoviStarJunior Team) and many others.

After Sunday's racing the GP circus packs up and heads to South Africa forthe Welkom GP on April 21. The long European season begins at Jerez, inSpain, on May 5. The 2002 campaign ends in Spain, at Valencia, on November3.

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