Honda's Chance to Make History at Suzuka

Brent Avis
by Brent Avis
This weekend's Japanese Grand Prix could be a historic weekend for Honda. Themarque has won 497 Grand Prix races since its first success in April 1961 and willhit the magic 500 if Honda riders win all three races at Suzuka on Sunday. It'sall tall order but far from impossible.

Obviously, there could be no better place than Suzuka for Honda to reach the 500 victorieslandmark. The circuit was constructed by the company at Soichiro Honda'srequest way back in 1962, when he realised that Japan needed its owninternational-standard racetrack if the Japanese car and bike industry were tobe able to compete on the global stage...

Suzuka hosted its first WorldChampionship events in the mid-sixties and became a full-time fixture from1987. Since then the track has hosted GPs every year apart from 1999.

Honda riders and teams have strong chances in each of the three categories -125, 250 and 500. The race day schedule goes in that same order, so the tensionwill increase exponentially if Honda achieve success in the 125 and 250 races,leaving the premier 500 GP as the final decider.

The factory's hopes for the 500 race, and indeed for the entire 2001 WorldChampionship, rest on the shoulders of six NSR riders: Valentino Rossi (NastroAzzurro Honda), Alex Barros (West Honda Pons), Loris Capirossi (West HondaPons), Alex Crivillé (Repsol YPF Honda), Tohru Ukawa (Repsol YPF Honda) and Chris Walker (Shell Advance Racing Honda). All but 500 newcomer Walker tookpart in the recent teams' test at Suzuka, where fellow rookie Ukawa wasfastest, marking himself down for a possible winning start to his 500 career.Ukawa lapped a second inside the track record, proving his big-bike abilitiesat the Japanese track, where he has won three Suzuka Eight Hours, riding HondaRC45 and SP1 (RC51) machinery. But the former All-Japan 250 champion believes it willtake longer to score his first success on a 500.

"I was obviously happy to be fastest but I'm keeping my feet on the ground,"says Ukawa. "I have lots to learn about 500 racing and that's what I'mconcentrating on at the moment. Winning on a 500 is all about maintaining afast pace lap after lap, and I was running quite soft tires when I did that lapduring testing."

Rossi, who won two races in his rookie 500 year to finish the 2000 seasonsecond overall, was fourth quickest in the tests and also inside the laprecord. The youngster focused on adjusting the set-up of his NSR500 forSuzuka's demanding curves and is optimistic he'll have a profitable raceweekend.

"The set-up we achieved during the tests was good and I'm hopeful of a goodstart to the championship," says the Italian. "But it's a long season and it'llbe important not to make mistakes at the first few races; I know that after Icrashed out of the first two races of last year!"

Barros and Capirossi were also well to the fore during the three-day outing andteam owner Sito Pons has high hopes for both his men at Suzuka and throughoutthe remaining 15 races.

"We have the same team set-up as last year and new sponsorship from West, andthat makes me confident for the new season," says Pons. "Both Alex and Lorishave been fast during pre-season tests, and whenever they've encountered aset-up problem, our engineers have quickly been able to fix thgs. I'mconfident they can both challenge for the championship this year."

Former World Champion Crivillé spent the tests getting back up to speed afterhurting a hand at Jerez during February. It was the Spaniard's second handinjury of the winter. "Analyzing the data recording, we confirmed that I'm notbraking well, at least not the way I normally do," Crivillé reveals. "I wasn't100 percent physically fit for the tests and my main concern is to make sureI'm totally fit for the GP."

If Ukawa was impressive on his NSR500, his former 250 rival Daijiro Katoh(Telefonica Movistar Honda NSR250) was spellbinding during the Suzuka tests.The 24-year-old's fastest time (at 2m 07. 437s) put him up there with some ofthe quickest 500s and makes him clear favorite for a third Suzuka 250 GP win.In fact Katoh has been astonishingly fast throughout his team's winter testingprogram, his phenomenal speed leaving many of his 250 rivals agog.Nevertheless, he refuses to give in to over-confidence. "I believe I can dowell this year," says the man who battled for the crown throughout his rookie250 GP season in 2000. "We have conquered very satisfying results at all ourwinter tests, so now I feel confident and ready to start racing."

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