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2003 MotoGP Preview

Now that the game of musical chairs has ended in MotoGP, and the teams get
ready to race, you can’t help but think that the riders who previously blamed their equipment now have had those excuses removed. Here is a summary of where the top riders will be, and what they will be facing.

Max Biaggi – 250 GP master, he won four World Championships in his six seasons
aboard a 250. His move to the 500cc class has been marked by ups and downs,
and plenty of near-misses in his quest for the crown. Many point to his
250 GP style of riding the front end very hard, which has not changed, as
being the primary reason for his lack of a 500 GP/MotoGP championship. He was
congratulatory to Honda at the beginning of this season for producing such a
dominant race bike, and next year he’ll be on one – except he’ll be on
Bridgestone tires.

Tohru Ukawa – Rossi’s former teammate, and one of only three riders all
season to beat Rossi, will be Biaggi’s teammate for next season. Ukawa
regularly finished in front of Biaggi, but had a little less consistency
than Biaggi, and so finished third in the championship. Displaced
to the satellite team of Pramac when Honda gave Ukawa’s seat to Nicky
Hayden, he has his motivation, but will also be riding on Bridgestone tires.

Alex Barros – Has long been vocal about not having the same equipment as the
factory riders, despite assurances from HRC he did. For the last four GPs he
had the mighty RC 211V, and put it to good use against Rossi, perhaps
showing that Rossi’s success last season was more due to superior equipment
than superior riding talent. With the grapes sufficiently soured between
Barros and Honda, Barros opted for the Yamaha M-1 that Biaggi rode this
year, no doubt with improvements. In his first ride aboard the M-1 at
Valencia, he was faster than he had been on his Honda just two days earlier when he defeated Rossi,
and proclaimed the Yamaha to be just as good as the Honda.

Sete Gibernau – It has largely been a season for Sete to forget. He led his
home GP in the rain, only to crash out under pressure from Rossi. Sete had
a best finish of fourth in Brno, but failed to score points in eight races.
Suzuki brought out their four-stroke racer a year earlier than planned
because of the progress in testing, but soon found out they brought a knife
to a gun fight. Sete has gone to what he feels are greener pastures over at
Honda, bringing former Suzuki sponsor Telefonica Movistar with him.

Daijiro Kato – The former 2001 MotoGP 250 champion adapted quickly to the
two-stroke 500, and then when he got the four-stroke under him, he qualified
better than Rossi on a couple of occasions. His last six races saw him with
two crashes, a “retirement”, and then a 5th and two fourth place finishes,
giving him ninth in the championship overall. His talent is very high, but
he’s a bit of a dark horse right now and needs some consistency. He’ll be on
a Honda next year as teammate to Gibernau.

Kenny Roberts – MotoGP Champion in 2000, he suffered at the hands of his
competition in 2001, never showing the form he had the previous season. He
blamed equipment all year, and maybe rightly so. His struggles continued in
2002 aboard the new GSV-R Suzuki, while the team tried Dunlops at the
beginning of the season, new parts and setups throughout the season. After
switching to Michelins, things improved marginally, but the team was clearly
playing catch up to Honda and Yamaha. Off-season testing will hopefully bare
competitive fruit.

John Hopkins – After a year in the MotoGP scene aboard a two-stroke, Red
Bull Yamaha, John has had time to adjust to the lifestyle of a GP rider, and
to learn the tracks. His learning curve has been nearly vertical, and he has
managed to largely remain healthy during the process. He’s fast, hungry to
perform, talented and smart. Next season, he’s on the Suzuki team, with
Kenny Roberts.

Carlos Checa – Former teammate to Max Biaggi at Yamaha, he never really
figured in the overall standings up front, finishing fifth by season’s end.
He seemed to always be in the shadows of the top three, and managing to
reach the bottom portion of the podium on only three occasions. Next season, he
remains with Yamaha as their number one rider, and will be expected to run up
front while his new teammate, 2002 250 champion Marco Melandri, comes
up to speed. After the comments by Barros stating the Yamaha is as good
as the Honda, it should be clear in Checa’s mind what he must do.

Jeremy McWilliams and Nobuatsu Aoki – Both riders rode the Proton Team Kenny
Roberts bikes as one of the remaining two-strokes on the new four-stroke
grid. Competitiveness from the bikes throughout the year was sporadic, with
the riders exploiting the bikes handling superiority to make up for the lack
of acceleration and straightaway speed at some of the tracks. Next year sees
both riders staying with the team, but they will have V-Five four-stoke motors in
the frames.

Loris Capirossi – Teammate to Alex Barros on the former West Honda Pons
MotoGP team, he too has left for greener pastures, only instead of Honda, he’ll be on the new Ducati MotoGP bike. Some insiders rate his talent as being
at least equal to, if not better, than Rossi’s. Testing of the new Ducati
has gone well, with 2001 WSB Champion Troy Bayliss testing alongside as his
teammate, but no lap times have been published. Capirossi is no spring
chicken, so jumping on a new, unproven design hopefully will not hinder his
quest to achieve World Champion status.

Colin Edwards and Noriyuki Haga – Edwards, the 2002 WSB Champion, will be
teamed with former WSB rival Nori Haga on the Aprilia “Cube”. The bike has
thus far not seen the podium, but that is almost sure to change next
year. Aprilia will be making the switch from Dunlops to Michelins, mostly to
suit Edwards. Haga historically has not gotten on well with Michelins,
although it is reported that the new generation of Michelins are a more
forgiving tire, rather than the all-or-nothing grip monsters of the past.

Garry McCoy – He’ll be on Team Green next season after riding for Red Bull
Yamaha for the last two. Injuries kept him sidelined through most of the
season, but he’ll be 100% for next year. Known for his spectacular
rear-wheel steering technique, he’ll be on a four-stroke for the first time,
and as he has said, it will take some time to adapt. At Phillip Island, he
was forced to pit to change a blistered rear Dunlop, but after rejoining the
race a lap down and right behind the leaders, he appeared very comfortable
riding their pace. The big horsepower of the MotoGP Kawasaki will likely
suit his riding style like the proverbial glove. 2001 World Supersport
Champion, Andrew Pitt, was drafted early for riding duties aboard the Kawi
after Akira Yanagawa was injured during the bike’s debut in Motegi, Japan.
While his results did not impress the regulars, he did make progress while
learning the bike (and managed to keep it from eating him) and scored the
first points for Kawasaki in Valencia. McCoy will undoubtedly have valuable
insight for his teammate.

Nicky Hayden – Signed by Honda to be teammate to Valentino Rossi, Nicky will
at the same time get his dream chance at the big time, but he also stands
the chance of falling into the abyss, should he have one hiccup too many. He
’s demonstrated his considerable talent in America in more than one
motorcycle racing discipline, and he now gets the chance to further develop and
hone that talent while racing alongside one of the greatest racers of our
time. Adaptation to his new surroundings and the pressures of racing at the
highest level may prove more difficult than expected as the season
progresses. He has everything to gain, and everything to lose. Big rewards
require taking big chances.

Valentino Rossi – No introduction needed here, but a couple issues float in
my head concerning him. Now that other talented riders are on his equipment,
he likely will not have the easy time next season that he did last season and
so will have to ride harder to win. Does he have that capacity? Barros
pushed him quite hard while he was on the four-stroke, and got the better of
him 50% of the time in the last four races. With a new teammate of Hayden’s
talent in the same pit, on the same equipment, how will that rest in Rossi’s
mind . . . especially if Nicky shows good form and speed right out of the box?

Next week, Yamaha and Honda will test at Valencia, with Honda using Monday
and Tuesday and Yamaha taking to the track Wednesday through Friday.