Rossi and Company Look to LeMans

Brent Avis
by Brent Avis
This weekend the MotoGP World Championship moves to Le Mans, legendary homeof day-and-night racing in both the car and motorcycle worlds, where Hondahas scored many long-distance successes with its four-stroke enduranceracers. After closing its original racing era by quitting GP racing in thelate sixties, Honda began its gradual return to the international scene byentering the 1976 European endurance championship.

The factory's RCBendurance racers were based on the world's first superbike, Honda's CB750inline four, and won every round of the series, the Franco-Scottish pairingof Jean-Claude Chemarin and Alex George scoring a resounding victory at LeMans. Since then all kinds of Honda four-strokes have won glory in the LeMans 24 hour, from the CB900 inline four to the RVF750 V4 and the SP-1v-twin. But this weekend an all-new Honda bids to score the factory's firstfour-stroke 'sprint' race victory at Le Mans to add to six two-stroke 500GP victories won at the track between 1983 and 2000...

The amazing RCV211V is currently unbeaten in the new-look MotoGP WorldChampionship, having won the first three events of the new category. Seriesleader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RCV211V) won the season-openingJapanese GP and followed that with victory in Spain two weeks ago, inbetween times suffering defeat in South Africa at the hands of team-mateTohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RCV211V).

Rossi has never won at Le Mans. During his early years on the WorldChampionship trail the French GP was based at Paul Ricard in Provence, sothe Italian youngster has only contested two World Championship races atthe Sarthe track, finishing third in both the 2000 and 2001 500 French GPs.

"I'm not so keen on the circuit at Le Mans, it's a little too technical formy riding style," explains Rossi. "We start from zero with the bike andcircuit just as we did at Welkom. We have never tested here with thefour-stroke, so we have a lot of work to do before the race. Anyway, I'mhappy to be leading the championship but there is still a long way to go."

Rossi's crew chief Jerry Burgess believes Honda's amazingly fast andsuperbly user-friendly V5 will change his rider's Le Mans fortunes. "Theplace has never been great for us but it's a turn-and-accelerate track andthat's where the RCV is good," says the Australian. "There's a lot of slowturns with low gear acceleration where wheelspin could be a problem, butall we do is program the motor so it doesn't spin, just tone it downthrough the ignition and fuel injection."

Ukawa has a contrasting Le Mans record. The Japanese won the second of histwo 250 GP wins at the track in 2000 but tumbled out of last year's 500 GP."Le Mans for me is a place of great happiness and some disappointment,"says Ukawa, who took third at Jerez a fortnight back. "In 2000 I won the250cc race here, beating Nakano and Jacque but last year I fell in the 500race. I really want to close the gap on Rossi in the championship. I know Ican win now, as I did in South Africa, and I led the race at Jerez for 15laps. However, my tires were finished towards the end of the race, so I washappy in the end to hold off Capirossi and take a podium finish."

The men most likely to dent the RCV's perfect record are Honda's trio offast 500 riders Daijiro Kato (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500), LorisCapirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500) and Alex Barros (West Honda PonsNSR500). These three men finished third, fourth and fifth behind the RCVsat Jerez a fortnight back, Kato only one second behind Rossi.

"I'm enjoying riding the 500 so much," says reigning 250 champ Kato who wonlast year's French 250 GP. "Our main problem at Le Mans will be the same asour problem at Jerez the RCV is very, very fast! I think the bike'sacceleration advantage will be very important out of all the slow cornersat Le Mans, but maybe we can make up for that elsewhere."

Capirossi is also getting used to chasing the RCVs. He finished thirdbehind Ukawa and Rossi in South Africa and less than a second behind Ukawain Spain. "At Jerez we saw how the different machines have differentadvantages," explains the hard-riding Italian. "That made for a spectacularrace because we could overtake each other in different parts of the track.We face another tough weekend at Le Mans and I'll be trying everything Iknow to extend my podium-finishing record."

Barros was back on the pace at Jerez after a difficult start to the seasonand hopes to continue his return to form this weekend. "We've improved thefront end of the motorcycle and that's very important for somewhere like LeMans," says the Brazilian veteran who started GP racing way back in 1986."The team has been a great help over the last few weeks and I now feelconfident to start attacking again."

Honda's other two 500 riders are still in the getting-to-know-you phasewith their NSRs. Former 250 World Champion Tetsuya Harada (Pramac HondaNSR500) has never raced such a fast motorcycle and has taken a sensibleapproach to his first season with the 190 horsepower V4. "The first threeraces were a good chance to adjust to the NSR and erase the memory of mypreseason injury," he says. "In South Africa I finished 1m 20s behind thewinner, in Spain I was less than 40 seconds off the winning pace. In FranceI hope to reduce that gap even further."

Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Kanemoto Racing Honda NSR500) is also growing inconfidence. "Jerez was good, we made more progress on finding optimumset-up and achieved more good tire development," says the Dutchman who isdeveloping MotoGP tyres for Bridgestone. "I feel we are close to findingthe one second that will move us up to competing for fifth and sixth-placefinishes."

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