Preview: Portuguese Grand Prix

Elliot Strong
by Elliot Strong
From Honda Racing Information:

Preview Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril, Portugal

2002 MotoGP 500 World Championship, round 11
Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril
September 6/7/8 2002


MotoGP leader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V) aims to reasserthis dominance of the 2002 World Championship this weekend at Estoril,before embarking on a round-the-world odyssey that will take him and hisrivals to Brazil, Japan, Malaysia and Australia in the space of fiveweekends. Sunday's Portuguese GP is the last of nine successive Europeanevents that have kept riders and teams in GP racing's Continental heartlandsince May's Spanish GP. The season ends back in Spain, at Valencia, onNovember 3.

Winner of eight of the first nine GPs of 2002, Rossi looked capable ofadding a ninth victory at the Czech Grand Prix a fortnight back when tireproblems forced him out of the race. Since then he's been testing atValencia and is confident that he can return to his winning ways atEstoril, where he comfortably won last year's Portuguese 500 GP.

During the two-day Valencia session Rossi focused on improving powerdelivery and rear-end traction, as well as testing new Michelin tires. Bothhe and team-mate Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RC211V) were comfortablywithin the circuit lap record.

"We needed the tests because the MotoGP competition is getting stronger,"says Rossi, whose Brno DNF was his first non-podium result of the year."Obviously the problems we had at Brno weren't the best way to start thesecond half of the 2002 season, but the Valencia tests went well, so I'mlooking forward to Estoril. We need a good result there to maintain themomentum we had built up during the earlier part of the season."

Ukawa is hoping for a less torrid time in Portugal after two painfulcrashes during practice for the past three GPs. The Japanese star wasunable to race at July's British GP after a massive get-off but bravelyreturned the following weekend to take third place in Germany. And herepeated that result at Brno despite another crunching tumble duringmorning warm-up.

"The last couple of races have been very strange," he says. "I've beenunlucky and lucky. I've been pretty sore since Donington and my conditionwasn't made any better by my Brno crash. However, at the Sachsenring andBrno I managed to get podium finishes as a result of retirements ahead ofme, and I still hold second position in the championship, so I will try myhardest to keep it a one-two for the Repsol Honda Team."

Rossi and Ukawa will have to work as hard as ever this weekend sinceEstoril is one of the circuits where the 500cc two-strokes could worry thenew breed of 990cc MotoGP four-strokes. The four-strokes have won all tenraces so far, but the Portuguese track's ultra-twisting layout (it's theslowest track on the GP calendar) offers the lighter and more maneuverable 500s a glimmer of hope.

As ever, team-mates Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500) and LorisCapirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500) will be trying everything they know toget their 500s to the front, but while they're confident they'll be quickerthrough Estoril's twists and turns, they're concerned that the track's longstart-finish straight will tip the balance against them.

"We already know that the four-strokes are much faster than us in astraight line," says Barros, currently the highest-placed 500 rider inMotoGP, in fifth place. "Even if we can make some tenths on them throughthe slower section, I'm sure they'll be able to catch and overtake us onthe main straight. The question is, will they be able to do that before thestart-finish?"

Capirossi, who returned from injury at Brno, is also unsure of what awaitshim at this Atlantic venue, where the unpredictability is heightened by thetrack's situation close to the ocean, which means that it's often lashed bystrong winds that blow dust onto the circuit, dramatically reducing grip.

"The wind and dust can be a real problem at this track," says Capirossi,eighth overall after missing two races. "And this year will be moredifficult that ever because the four-strokes will be very fast on thestart-finish, so we'll have to take extra risks to stay with them."

Just one place and five points ahead of Capirossi is MotoGP rookie DaijiroKato (Fortuna Honda Gresini RC211V), who goes into his second race onHonda's all-conquering RCV V5, which has won all but one of this year'sraces. The little Japanese was a brilliant second on his RCV at Brno and islooking to go one better on Sunday, especially after an impressive test atValencia, where he lapped faster than that of Rossi and Ukawa.

"I think we can say that Brno was like a test session for us, and thatwe're thinking about fighting for victory at Estoril," says Kato, winner ofthe past two 250 GPs at the track. "I learned so much at Brno, mainly thatthe RCV is a fantastic motorcycle. It's easy to control compared to the 500I had been riding, but its most wonderful feature is its amazing spread ofpower. Of course, over race distance you have to think about conservingtire performance and so on, but for sure I'll be in good shape to fight foranother top result at Estoril."

Honda's other two 500 riders hope for better this weekend afterdisappointing results in the Czech Republic. Tire problems consignedTetsuya Harada (Pramac Honda NSR500) to a 15th-place finish. "That was areal shame, I just didn't have enough rear grip," says Harada. "Our mainconcern at Estoril will be sorting this problem, trying to make sure I haveenough grip to do the lap times of which I'm capable."

Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Kanemoto Racing Honda NSR500) finished threeplaces ahead of Harada at Brno, and might have done better if his rear tirehadn't picked up rubber from the track, forcing him to slow. "We made astep forward in terms of tire performance at Brno," says the Dutchman, whois developing MotoGP tires for Bridgestone. "The people at Bridgestone areworking incredibly hard, giving us new material for almost every race andsince the tires worked well two weeks ago, we can hope they'll be better atEstoril."

The world title aspirations of Robby Rolfo (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR250)took a knock when he crashed out of second place at Brno, bringing theItalian youngster to Estoril with only minimal hope of capturing thisyear's 250 crown. Rolfo is now third overall, 68 points down on seriesleader Marco Melandri (Aprilia), but determined as ever to perform at hisvery best on Sunday. "We always knew that Brno would be tough for usbecause the Aprilias go so well there," says Rolfo. "I think we'll have abetter chance at Estoril, especially through the more complicated sections,because the Honda handles well and offers smooth power."

Rolfo's team-mate Emilio Alzamora (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR250) returns toaction at Estoril following surgery to cure an attack of 'racer's wrist',an arm-pump problem which makes it impossible for pilots to ridecompetitively and safely. "I'd been having a lot of problems and thesurgery should solve that," explains the former 125 World Champion whomissed Brno, where his place was taken by David Garcia. "I've been out ofthe saddle since Germany, so I'm really looking forward to riding again."

Estoril promises to be a vital weekend for Honda's 125-title-hope DanielPedrosa (Telefonica Movistar Jr Team Honda RS125R). The 16-year old'sstunning ride to second place at Brno brought him to within 11 points ofseries leader Manuel Poggiali (Gilera), also closing the points gap onsecond-placed Arnaud Vincent (Aprilia), whom he bravely defeated at Brno'sfinal corner. Pedrosa's Honda has improved significantly in recent races,and the Spaniard aims to capitalise on those improvements this weekend."Brno was great for us and I think we can also have a good weekend inPortugal," he says. "Last year I got fifth at Estoril and that was thestart of a run of good results which included my first podiums, so if wework hard and get the best out of the bike, we should be able to haveanother good race."

This weekend's Portuguese is the fifth named, though only the third to havetaken place on Portuguese tarmac. The country's first two GPs, in the lateeighties, were hosted by tracks in neighbouring Spain, Estoril gainingmotorcycle Grand Prix homologation for the first time in 2000.

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