Rossi and Co. Look to Catalunya

Brent Avis
by Brent Avis
Motorcycling superstar Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RCV211V) comes toone of his two most successful circuits this weekend, aiming to continuehis relentless progress in the new MotoGP World Championship. The Italianhero has already won four GPs from his last five appearances at Catalunya,and another win at the Spanish track on Sunday would extend his alreadyimpressive lead in this year's series...

Rossi won last year's 500 GP at Catalunya after a superb ride through thepack from a slow start, and also scored 250 success at the circuit in 1999and 1998 and a 125 victory in 1997. He's particularly looking forward tothis year's Catalan event following last week's crucial private tests atBrno, venue for August's Czech GP. With a clean sweep of race victory, poleposition and lap record at all five races so far this season, it might seemthat the last thing that Rossi and team-mate Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda TeamRCV211V) needed was more research and development with the amazing RCV V5.

But the RCV is still in its early stages of development and there is stillmuch to be learned about the 220 horsepower machine which recently becamethe fastest GP bike in history, Ukawa clocking 324.5kmh/201.5mph at Mugellotwo weeks ago, and the taller, heavier Rossi hitting 321.1kmh/199.5mph.

"Although the results have been good this year we must keep developing thebike," affirms Noriaki Nakata, Repsol Honda team manager. "The otherfactories are working hard and we are determined to keep ahead. The aim ofthe tests was to improve rear traction, feel and edge grip and we thinkwe've made progress in all those areas."

Rossi was also happy with progress during the session, which gives himextra confidence for the next few GPs, including this weekend's race, thesecond of the season's three MotoGP rounds in Spain. "I'm really lookingforward to Catalunya," says the 23-year old, who goes for his 44th GPsuccess at the circuit constructed outside Barcelona in the early nineties.

"We got some vital set-up data from our Catalunya tests in March and wearrive in Spain straight from Brno where we were working hard to find extratraction and grip. Michelin and Showa have been helping a lot and we aremaking improvements in the right direction. Although we've made a greatstart to the season we have to keep focused as the competition is gettingcloser".

Ukawa may not have recorded any victories at Catalunya, but Japan'snumber-one GP rider of the moment scored three podium finishes at the trackduring his 250 days, taking second in 2000 and 1999 and third in 1997. Lastyear he finished seventh in the Catalan 500 GP, less than five seconds downon winner Rossi, and this weekend he is determined to defeat his team-mate,repeating his Welkom victory in April.

"Catalunya needs to be good for me," says Ukawa, who slid off without dramaduring the Brno tests. "Although I'm lying second in the championship Iwant to close the gap between Valentino and myself. I was third fastest inpre-season testing at Catalunya in March, when I knocked 1.5 seconds off my2001 qualifying time. Certainly the Brno tests have helped and I now feelthat I have more grip mid-corner which I always had a little problem with."

The new breed of MotoGP four-strokes, like Honda's RCV, are expected torule once again at Catalunya, where they should excel through the circuit'ssweeping turns and along the 1.4km/0.87 mile start-finish straight. But asalways the 'old school' 500 two-strokes will be doing everything in theirpower to end the four-strokes' monopoly of 2002. Leading the two-strokecharge will be Sito Pons' local-based West Honda Pons team, with ridersLoris Capirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500) and Alex Barros (West Honda PonsNSR500). The Barcelona crew knows the track better than most and wenttesting there before the recent Italian GP. Capirossi finished third in2001, after Barros slid off while holding second place.

"This will be another tough race for us, but maybe we'll be a bit closer tothe four-strokes than we were at Mugello," says Capirossi, who was just twotenths slower than fastest-man Rossi in preseason tests at the track and iscurrently best-placed two-stroke in third overall. "I was close to Rossi inthe tests but I think it will be more difficult in a race situation.Although we do know this track well, this is one of the circuits that thefour-strokes have visited previously, so they'll be in a better situationthan they were at the last two races."

"Catalunya is always an important race for us, it's the team's home, so Iwant to give them a good result," says Barros, who finished top 500 inItaly. "I had a good race at Mugello and I think we can still improve fromthere. We should have a good set-up this weekend, so I aim to make the mostof that in the fight with the four-strokes."

The team's technical director Antonio Cobas adds: "This track is completelydifferent to Mugello, with not so much grip and plenty of ripples, whichmakes suspension set-up very difficult. Also, the surfaces causes a lot oftyre wear, and sometimes the front gets used more than the rear, whichisn't normal."

Daijiro Kato (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500) aims to get back on track thisweekend after a couple of fraught GPs on his NSR500. The 250 World Championhad made a brilliant start to his debut campaign in the premier class,taking fourth place in round two and a close-run second at Jerez in May.But even Kato's inspired talent is taking a while to properly cope with adoubling in horsepower, and he crashed out of both the French and Italian GPs.

"Luckily I was unhurt, now we just need to stay focused for the next fewGPs," observes Kato, who won last year's 250 race at Catalunya. "I fell atMugello after getting a bad start because the bike wheelied away from thegrid, but I'm feeling good about this weekend's race because since Italywe've been working on the set-up of the machine. "

This will be an interesting GP for Jurgen van den Goorbergh (KanemotoRacing Honda NSR500), who will be able to judge his progress and that ofhis new Bridgestone tyres, comparing his pace to the preseason IRTA testsin March. "We've been doing a lot of racing and testing since then,gathering data all the time," says van den Goorbergh, who has scored pointsin the last four Grands Prix. "I believe we still need a second a lap to befully competitive with the other two-strokes, and we think that gap iscoming down all the time. We hope to continue making forward steps atCatalunya."

Tetsuya Harada (Pramac Honda NSR500) continues to grow in stature on hisNSR. After a steady start to his first season on the V4, following a brokencollarbone sustained in February, Harada is on the pace. The former 250champ qualified on the second row at the last two GPs and is lookingforward to getting even quicker. "I had quite a good race in Italy twoweeks ago, and I think we can do as well or better this weekend," says theJapanese. "Me and my team are beginning to understand the NSR, every racewe make some more improvements on set-up, so I'm feeling quite optimisticabout the next few GPs."

Following this weekend's racing, the GP action shifts north for the DutchGP at Assen, the most historic venue on the World Championship calendar.The June 29th event is one of two GPs that takes place on a Saturday, andrace times have been slightly adjusted to avoid clashes with the footballWorld Cup.

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