2002 MotoGP 500 World Championship, round 4 French Grand Prix, Le Mans May 17/18/19 2002 Honda aim for 'sprint' win at home of endurance racing. This weekend the MotoGP World Championship moves to Le Mans, legendary home of day-and-night...
2002 MotoGP 500 World Championship, round 4
French Grand Prix, Le Mans
May 17/18/19 2002
Honda aim for 'sprint' win at home of endurance racing.
This weekend the MotoGP World Championship moves to Le Mans, legendary home of day-and-night racing in both the car and motorcycle worlds, where Honda has scored many long-distance successes with its four-stroke endurance racers. After closing its original racing era by quitting GP racing in the late sixties, Honda began its gradual return to the international scene by entering the 1976 European endurance championship. The factory's RCB endurance racers were based on the world's first superbike, Honda's CB750 inline four, and won every round of the series, the Franco-Scottish pairing of Jean-Claude Chemarin and Alex George scoring a resounding victory at Le Mans. Since then all kinds of Honda four-strokes have won glory in the Le Mans 24 hour, from the CB900 inline four to the RVF750 V4 and the SP-1 v-twin. But this weekend an all-new Honda bids to score the factory's first four-stroke 'sprint' race victory at Le Mans to add to six two-stroke 500 GP victories won at the track between 1983 and 2000.
The amazing RCV211V is currently unbeaten in the new-look MotoGP World Championship, having won the first three events of the new category. Series leader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RCV211V) won the season-opening Japanese GP and followed that with victory in Spain two weeks ago, in between times suffering defeat in South Africa at the hands of team-mate Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RCV211V).
Rossi has never won at Le Mans. During his early years on the World Championship trail the French GP was based at Paul Ricard in Provence, so the Italian youngster has only contested two World Championship races at the 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 for my riding style," explains Rossi. "We start from zero with the bike and circuit just as we did at Welkom. We have never tested here with the four-stroke, so we have a lot of work to do before the race. Anyway, I'm happy 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 and superbly user-friendly V5 will change his rider's Le Mans fortunes. "The place has never been great for us but it's a turn-and-accelerate track and that's where the RCV is good," says the Australian. "There's a lot of slow turns with low gear acceleration where wheelspin could be a problem, but all we do is programme the motor so it doesn't spin, just tone it down through the ignition and fuel injection."
Ukawa has a contrasting Le Mans record. The Japanese won the second of his two 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 the 250cc race here, beating Nakano and Jacque but last year I fell in the 500 race. I really want to close the gap on Rossi in the championship. I know I can win now, as I did in South Africa, and I led the race at Jerez for 15 laps. However, my tyres were finished towards the end of the race, so I was happy 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 of fast 500 riders Daijiro Kato (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500), Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500) and Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500). These three men finished third, fourth and fifth behind the RCVs at Jerez a fortnight back, Kato only one second behind Rossi.
"I'm enjoying riding the 500 so much," says reigning 250 champ Kato who won last year's French 250 GP. "Our main problem at Le Mans will be the same as our problem at Jerez the RCV is very, very fast! I think the bike's acceleration advantage will be very important out of all the slow corners at Le Mans, but maybe we can make up for that elsewhere."
Capirossi is also getting used to chasing the RCVs. He finished third behind Ukawa and Rossi in South Africa and less than a second behind Ukawa in Spain. "At Jerez we saw how the different machines have different advantages," explains the hard-riding Italian. "That made for a spectacular race 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 I know to extend my podium-finishing record."
Barros was back on the pace at Jerez after a difficult start to the season and hopes to continue his return to form this weekend. "We've improved the front end of the motorcycle and that's very important for somewhere like Le Mans," 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 feel confident to start attacking again."
Honda's other two 500 riders are still in the getting-to-know-you phase with their NSRs. Former 250 World Champion Tetsuya Harada (Pramac Honda NSR500) has never raced such a fast motorcycle and has taken a sensible approach to his first season with the 190 horsepower V4. "The first three races were a good chance to adjust to the NSR and erase the memory of my preseason injury," he says. "In South Africa I finished 1m 20s behind the winner, in Spain I was less than 40 seconds off the winning pace. In France I hope to reduce that gap even further."
Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Kanemoto Racing Honda NSR500) is also growing in confidence. "Jerez was good, we made more progress on finding optimum set-up and achieved more good tyre development," says the Dutchman who is developing MotoGP tyres for Bridgestone. "I feel we are close to finding the one second that will move us up to competing for fifth and sixth-place finishes."
Honda's two 250 factory riders began the European season in fine style at Jerez, Robby Rolfo (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR250) leading much of the race and eventually finishing second while team-mate Emilio Alzamora (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR250) came through to third. Those results put them second and fourth in the current points standings.
"We are in contention for the title, which is the important thing at this stage of the championship," says Rolfo, who is just three points behind series leader Fonsi Nieto (Aprilia). "We have made some big improvements to our bikes at the first three GPs and I think we can improve further in France. NSRs have won the past two 250 GPs there, so maybe we'll be in good shape."
Alzamora is also thinking big. "If we can keep working the way we worked at Jerez, for sure we will get some great results," comments the Spaniard who is only three points behind his team-mate. "I finished fourth at Le Mans last year and I want to do better than that this time, and I think another podium finish is possible."
Sixteen-year old Daniel Pedrosa (Telefonica Movistar Junior Team Honda RS125R) leads Honda's hopes in the 125 class. The teen sensation, who has started two of this year's three GPs from pole position, rode to a dogged four-place finish at Jerez two weeks ago and lies third in the World Championship. "The hand I hurt during practice at Jerez will be better this weekend, so we'll be aiming to run up front again," says Pedrosa. "Straight-line speed is very important at Le Mans and that's a concern for us at the moment, so we'll be working very hard to get our settings as good as possible."
After Sunday's racing the GP circus heads south again for the Italian GP at Mugello on June 2. The 16-event 2002 Grand Prix season concludes in Valencia, Spain, on November 3.