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Discussion Starter · #1 ·

<blockquote><font size=1>In reply to:</font><hr>

Unlike other major professional sports, Grand Prix motorcycle racing is a nether world where teams never tell the media how much a rider makes or what the conditions of a contract really are. It’s our own fault as journalists, probably, because we print whatever we are told and than change it when we are told something different.

Sito Pons, for example, tells us at mid-season that both his riders are signed. Then he says that only Barros is signed but that Capirossi is about to sign.

Rossi had signed, then he hadn’t signed, then he had signed, and suddenly he was out of the Sepang tests because he hadn’t signed. The Rossi situation was more serious than anyone in Honda had first thought and they suddenly had a vision of the 2002 season without their star.

Perhaps the best indication of how worried Honda really was is the emphasis that they placed upon getting Daijiro Katoh, reigning 250 World Champion, to switch from Dunlop to Michelin. Katoh, the most brilliant 250 World Champion since Rossi himself, is seen by many as Honda’s hedge. If Rossi cannot, for any reason, win the MotoGP title on the V5, then Ukawa probably can’t either since Ukawa, always competent and loyal, has never shown sustained brilliance. If Rossi had not signed Katoh would probably have become the other RC211V rider and HRC would have seamlessly joined the Repsol and Fortuna teams much to the annoyance of two Spanish sponsors who are not fond of each other. (Fortuna is a Spanish cigarette company.)

Inside Honda there are a lot of people who are nonplussed by Rossi’s brinksmanship and who would prefer a rider with less charisma in order to place more emphasis on the brand. Many also feel that Daijiro Katoh just might be capable of beating Rossi this year.

Youichi Oguma, HRC’s legendary racing boss in the seventies, eighties and early nineties, is said to have picked Katoh for greatness when the tiny kid from Saitama was a teenager.

Oguma-san was one of the most colorful and charismatic leaders in the Honda army. He was constantly frustrated in the early nineties by the clockwork consistency of Yamaha’s Wayne Rainey who, said Oguma, rarely varied from one lap to another by more than a tenth of a second. The whole purpose of the Big Bang Honda of 1992 was to give **** Doohan and Wayne Gardner a more docile power curve that would allow them to ride as consistently as Rainey.

Oguma saw world titles won for Honda by Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner and **** Doohan, but his dream was to see a Japanese rider winning for Honda, a Japanese rider who was as consistent as Rainey and at the same time a loyal, lifetime Honda “soldier.” Oguma worked over the years with the best available Japanese talent: Katayama, Yatsushiro, Itoh and Ukawa, but it was at the end of his tenure at HRC when Daijiro Katoh emerged from the ranks of the All-Japan Championship. Oguma drafted Katoh into the Honda support team, put him on works bikes in the Eight Hours and set him on his way, telling him to be patient and wait his turn. “Learn from Abe’s mistake,” he was told, in reference Norifumi Abe who left his place in the Honda hierarchy and jumped to rival Yamaha, and now, at the age of 26, the same age as Katoh, is riding for the Antena 3 Yamaha D’ Antin “satellite” team and has only three wins to show for an eight year career with 108 starts in the 500 class.

Katoh was second in the All-Japan 250 Championship in 1995 at the age of 19, but was involved in a Tokyo automobile accident that nearly ended his career and caused him to miss the 1996 season. In 1997, fully recovered, he won the title on a factory Honda and also won the Japanese GP as a wild card 250 rider, a feat that he repeated in 1998.

Clearly he was ready to take on the world, but in the Honda army he was stuck behind Tohru Ukawa. The retirement of Oguma did not help Katoh either. Ukawa was expected to win the 250 title and then move on to 500, but Ukawa was fifth in 1996 and 1997, forth in 1998, second (to Rossi) in 1999.

Katoh could no longer be kept down on the farm and was slotted by Honda into the Axo Honda Gresini team. In his first full GP season and he won four races, including three of the last five, finishing third, the first Honda rider back of the Yamahas of Olivier Jacque and Shinya Nakano, and twenty points in front of Ukawa in whose shadow he had been forced to toil for so many years.

Ukawa was finally moved up to 500 in 2001 as Crivillé´s team mate leaving Katoh as Honda´s works rider in 250. Riding in the Telefónica Movistar Honda Gresini team he got the better of the last Japanese rider to win a 250 title, Tetsuya Harada on the factory Aprilia. Katoh had earned his 500 ride.

And he got it, taking the bike that Valentino Rossi wanted. The NSR 500 is not a lame duck or “last year’s bike.” Honda, starting from the premise that the NSR is the reigning champion and the best racing machine in the world, introduced a series of improvements to make sure that if the RC211V does not win, for any reason, the Honda NSR will be there to save Honda’s honor. No one in Honda doubts Katoh’s ability and, after the brilliant rookie year put in by Yamaha’s Nakano, it appears that engine management systems, friendly suspension and the latest Michelin tires have turned the ferocious 500s which used to eat their young, into more docile beasts, at least for riders who are good enough.

So, just how good is Katoh?

Well, he just may be the best rider in the world. If he can beat Rossi, who can deny him that title.

Just like Rossi, he won the 250 title in his second season in the class. Unlike Rossi, who has never had a serious injury, he came back from a potentially career-ending accident to win the 250 title, so he has passed “the ambulance test.”

And there is no one in GP racing with more self confidence, self confidence based upon winning races and beating his rivals.

Rossi, among all current MotoGP riders, has the highest winning percentage. In 125 he won 12 of 30 starts (40 percent), in 250 14 of 32 starts (46.7 percent) and in 500 13 of 32 starts (40.6 percent). No one in the modern history (post Agostini) of the 500 class has managed to win at the rate that Rossi has, not even the great **** Doohan who won 54 of his career 137 starts (39.4 percent), or Kenny Roberts senior, who won 22 of his 58 starts (37.9 percent) can match Rossi’s searing pace.

But if we look only at the 250 class, the only arena for valid comparison between Rossi and Katoh we discover that there is only one rider with a higher winning percentage in 250 that Rossi (46.7 percent). Daijiro Katoh has won an incredible 17 of only 36 career starts in 250….an average of 47.2 percent.

Katoh is good, but he’s only a rookie in the world’s toughest class. Shinya Nakano was rookie of the year last year in 500 on a Gualoises Yamaha, but he never won a race. The most successful rookie in recent years was Max Biaggi, who won his first time out on a Yamaha in 1988 and eventually had two wins finishing second, 52 points back of Doohan who won eight races.

In fact, no one has won the 500 world title as a rookie since a 26 year two time AMA Grand National Champion from Modesto California beat the most popular and charismatic rider in the world, reigning World Champion Barry Sheene. And that was back in 1978, when Katoh was two years old and Rossi was unborn.

Katoh has a few things in common with Roberts. Like the American he will start his 500 career at the ripe old age of 26. He’s a family man with a wife and child and, like Roberts who took on Barry Sheene in 1978, he is matched up the most popular rider of his day.

Katoh, who lists his favorite pastime as sleeping, is rested up and rearing to go and he’s riding what many consider the best Grand Prix bike in the world. (Katoh is said to sleep over 12 hours a day and is frequently seen dozing in the Honda hospitality.)

Rossi, who always watches the start of the 250 races to keep tabs on the starter’s mood and the behavior of the start lights, has kept an eye on Katoh and realizes that the Japanese rider’s domination in 250 this year was similar to his own in 1999. Rossi said last year that he still felt the NSR 500 two stroke was the best “real racing machine” and the most fun to ride, but it was clear from the beginning of the hard-nosed negotiations that Hoinda insisted on having their young World Champion on their prototype four stroke. It is interesting, however, that **** Doohan broke ranks briefly with HRC last year to urge them to allow Valentino to “at least start the season on the two stroke.” Doohan and Rossi both know that racing is about a lot more than horse power and that while the RC211V is an untried machine in racing circumstances, the NSR has been winning and evolving for 18 years. If racing were about having the most powerful motor and making the best straight-line speeds, the 205 mile-per-hour, 225 Horse Power Aprilia RS3 would start the season as favorite, but so far Regis Laconi has been lapping over two seconds off the pace.
If the truth be told, Katoh is riding the bike that Rossi loves, the one he wanted to ride this year, and the one that he passes on to Katoh with a list of improvements that he requested thinking that he would be the man to benefit from them.

Stay tuned. This weekend Rossi and Katoh will take on the clock in the final IRTA tests and then, on April 7 the battle for the points and the glory begins at the Japanese Grand Prix, round one of the MotoGP 2002 World Championship at Suzuka, a track where Katoh has won three 250 Grand Prix and also the Eight Hours of Suzuka while Rossi won last year’s 500 Japanese GP and also the Eight Hours.

And if Katoh is quicker again, will Rossi demand to be given his NSR back? Will be return to his earlier requests to be free to choose between the two bikes on a “horses for courses” basis?

No one outside of the most intimate Rossi-Honda circle knows the true conditions of the eleventh-hour contract that the two hammered out this winter, but I recall that in 1996 when Honda entrusted the light-weight RS500 twin to Tadayuki Okada, **** Doohan, seeing the formidable test times recorded by the Okada-RS combination, tried to obtain permission to have an RS500 twin available for his own use. Doohan was then a two-times 500 World Champion and the dominant man in the class, but Honda refused, adamantly, telling Doohan that his riding the twin was not in their plans.

Okada then almost won the first race of the season, but was caught out by a freak shower when leading the Malaysian Grand Prix at twisty Shah Alam. Doohan repeated his demands to test and race the RS after than, but again Honda refused, and the whole matter was gradually forgotten when it soon became clear that the NSR was still vastly superior on “normal” tracks.

Things could get very interesting if Katoh is faster than Rossi again this coming weekend at the final IRTA tests.


Can it get any more exciting? You can bet my VCR will be set to record this while I attend rounds 2 & 3 of the AMA SBK championship at California Speedway./images/icons/smile.gif


1,485 Posts
Oh man.. this is going to be the greatest! I can't wait to see who's going to come out on top in this whole thing but I wouldn't bet against Honda. (safe bet, don't you think????/images/icons/smile.gif)

What? No! We can't stop here! This is bat country!

3,801 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 ·
I wouldn't be so sure about that one, wfo600, looks like Honda might just take the crown away from Honda this year./images/icons/laugh.gif


13,805 Posts
careful... don't be "scuured". "domo ari gato... mister dajiroh katoh...!!!" :)

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