Honda's 500th GP Victory

Brent Avis
by Brent Avis
Honda Motor Company's dreams came true at Suzuka as the world's biggestmotorcycle manufacturer won all three GPs to record its 500th Grand Prix win.

The honor of scoring this dazzling landmark victory went to Honda's incredibleyoung talent Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda NSR500), after Daijiro Katoh(Telefonica Movistar Honda NSR250) and Masao Azuma (Li'eois Competition HondaRS125) had played their vital roles in winning the earlier 250 and 125 events...

The 500 race was a thriller, the front runners riding elbow to elbow around thehigh-speed Suzuka track, built in 1962 after Honda founder Soichiro Hondawiselydecided that Japan needed its own world-class racetrack if the country was toproduce world-class machinery and riders.

Pole-sitter Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500) led the first two lapsbefore Garry McCoy (Yamaha) took over, while Rossi worked his way through fromeighth, making contact with several of his rivals as the pack jostled forposition. His most worrying moment came as he rocketed down the start-finish,rubbing elbows with Max Biaggi (Yamaha) and running onto the grass at over200kmh. A lap later Rossi swept past his compatriot as they approached turnone,and calmly waved to Biaggi as he set about zeroing in on the leaders.

That same lap he passed Shinya Nakano (Yamaha) at Degner Curve and McCoy atSpoon Curve to take the lead, gradually stretching his advantage to over threeseconds, allowing him to ease off over the final two laps. It was a masterfuldisplay from the 22-year-old, one of 60 Honda riders to win GPs sinceAustralianTom Phillis opened Honda's account by winning the 125 Spanish GP at MontjuichPark, Spain, on April 23 1961.

"This is the first time I ever had any luck at Suzuka," said Rossi, who hasnever scored a top-ten finish at Suzuka, despite racing 125s, 250s, 500s andSuperbikes here since 1996. "Now I finally had some good luck and my thanks toHonda and my team. I've only won three GPs for Honda but now I will be in thehistory books!

"I got a good start but after a few laps I felt pretty tired, so I just keptpushing. I had a big fight with Nori (Haga, Yamaha), Alex (Barros, West HondaPons) and Max and then finally I had the track to myself. I found it hard topull away but suddenly I saw I had 3.5 seconds on everyone. I had a few scarymoments touching other riders, including one time when I went on the grass! The500 class is so tough now, no one wants you to overtake, especially guys likeHaga, Barros and Biaggi. As soon as they see you, they let their brakes off!"

Barros was Honda's next finisher in sixth, running short of front grip in thelater stages, but managing to stay ahead of reigning World Champion KennyRoberts (Suzuki) and Capirossi. Former World Champion Alex Criville (Repsol YPFHonda NSR500) finished ninth while team-mate Tohru Ukawa (Repsol YPF HondaNSR500) was battered and bruised after crashing in the late stages of the racewhile chasing McCoy for second.

Honda's 250 hero Katoh has been in a class of his own since pre-season testingbegan and the Japanese starlet proved his superiority in the most devastatingofways at Suzuka today, running home first, almost 19 seconds ahead of hisclosestrivals. And that was despite his slowing down to celebrate as he approached thefinish line.

Katoh had already qualified in stunning style, 1.132 seconds ahead of MarcoMelandri (Aprilia), which gave him the biggest margin over second place sincethe 1995 Dutch GP when Max Biaggi (Aprilia) ended qualifying 1.148 secondsaheadof Harada (Yamaha). The youngster took it steady in the early stages of therace, moving from third to first in the first two laps, then steadily pullingaway, never pressured and never needing to get even close to his speed inqualifying.

"The conditions were a bit windy, so I thought dust might get blown onto thetrack, making it slippery, so it took me a while to find my pace," said Katohafter his fifth GP win in Japan (that's four at Suzuka and one at Motegi). "Ihad no problems, though it's harder to keep your concentration when you're notin a battle."

Canny 125 star Azuma got Honda's great day off to a perfect start, winning afast and fraught 125 race at the last gasp. Up to seven riders battled for thelead during the eight-lap conflict, Azuma one of the few not to lead until hedrafted past Lucio Cecchinello's Aprilia as they headed down the back straightfor the final time. The Japanese held his advantage to the line to win hiseighth GP.

"I present this win to Honda staff, for their 500s wins," beamed Azuma. "If Ididn't win, I thought they'd kill me! It was a difficult race. My bike wasn'tsofast, so I had to use slipstream and wait for my moment."

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