An intriguing technological battle will unfold in MotoGP this year as new makers field exotic 4-strokes to challenge for the title after 25 years of 2-stroke dominance.
MotoGP fans will enjoy a technological feast in 2002 due to rule changes enticing 4-strokes back to the premier class. Allowing 990cc 4-strokes to compete against 500cc 2-strokes has seen a rich variety of machinery join the grid: Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Aprilia and MZ have committed 4-stroke teams in addition to the existing 2-stroke teams. Kawasaki and Ducati will race in later rounds to prepare for next year. When the season kicks off next month, there will be a new sound and an intruiging range of new machines to add spice to this most gladiatorial of sports.
Though the majority of the field will be 2-strokes, all three of the manufacturers in contention for the title have opted to run their best riders on their new 4-strokes. Favourite for the title - based partially on having the best rider in Valentino Rossi, and partially on its extensive 4-stroke racing experience - is Honda, which has built a V5 machine for the task.
Honda is the only one of the MotoGP constructors to compete at the pinnacle of 4-stroke high performance competition - Formula One. Honda also made a valiant attempt to bring a 4-stroke back to racing in the early eighties with the NR500. Though many people felt the machine was a failure, it has to be remembered that it was competing on equal capacity with the two strokes and at the end of its development, was producing 135 horses from a 500 - 20 years ago.
Quite clearly, Honda could put 300 bhp at the rear wheel of the RC211V if it desired. Rossi is lapping fastest at pre-season testing and reports suggest Honda has backed off the power to below 200 bhp to make it more rideable and easier on tyres - lap times dropped accordingly. This begs the question as to what will be necessary to win in 2002. Most makers can produce well in excess of 250 bhp from 990cc, so it's likely that power delivery and tyres will play a role.
For those who don't know, a 500 2-st bike has more than enough horsepower to spin the wheels at will. Riding one successfully is about feeding the horses to the ground best. Very few riders have what it takes to ride a 500 at this level and one who most certainly does is Tohru Ukawa, Honda's number two rider. Ukawa's first season in 500s last year was very impressive and he could easily take the title should Rossi be hit with injury.
Just to ensure it covers the bases, Honda is providing an updated 190 bhp NSR500 V4 2-stroke to Team West Pons for Alex Barros and Loris Capirossi, two of the best 500cc riders last year. Yamaha's official team will also be 4-stroke mounted with Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa aboard the V4 which has turned competitive times wherever it has tested. Like Honda, Yamaha is focussed on winning motorcyling's ultimate crown and has hedged its bets by providing several of its latest V4 2-st works racers to private teams, most notably Red Bull's Gary McCoy, and Repsol's Norick Abe and Alex Criville. Aussie McCoy's sideways antics on a 500 never fails to provide a spectacle. Though many doubt his tyre-shredding style will make him a regular winner, he may yet become the ideal rider for one of these 4-stroke GP motorcycles.
Ironically, Gary broke a leg in pre-season testing, and Alex Criville has pulled out of the team with a range of problems accumulated over years of racing, giving Pere Riba a shot at the big time. Riba is a gun on a 600 Supersport machine, but will find 500cc of two-stroke GP bike much more of a handful than 600cc of modified four-stroke streetbike.
The third manufacturer with the knowledge, experience and riding talent to challenge for the crown is Suzuki which began its testing late and is unlikely to match Honda and Yamaha in the early rounds. 2000 World Champ Kenny Roberts has the talent to exploit a 200+ bhp machine, but his career would not withstand another year of lacklustre finishes. His father, Kenny Senior, is a gold-plated legend, having won three World 500cc titles in 1978-79-80.
The last of the possible serious contenders in 2002 will be Aprilia which has made a habit of surprising everyone at the racetrack since it won its first GP just a decade ago. Since then it has won a raft of 125 and 250 titles, flooding the top 10 finishers in the smaller classes and producing a race-winning World Superbike from scratch in less than a full season. It would be foolhardy to dismiss Aprilia's chances this early, but like Suzuki, it has started work a long way behind the leaders.
The "cube" as it has been dubbed, contains much F1 technology such as pneumatic valve operation (and hence completely variable valve timing) and is the first motorcycle with ride-by-wire technology - the throttle connects to the motor via a computer, not a throttle cable.
The Aprilia will find its legs in the later rounds, about the same time the Lime Green Kawasaki factory in-line machine and Italian Racing Red Ducati will join the fray. The Kawasaki is reported to be based loosely on the four-cylinder superbike, while Ducati has opted for a desmodromic V4 with simultaneous firing in each cylinder bank, making it essentially a double-twin. We can't wait to hear it.
Ducati's machine will almost certainly be competitive too. As we go to press comes the news that Troy Bayliss has gone within two tenths of a second of the outright lap record at Valencia in Spain on his 999cc superbike. Several other teams will compete with new 4-st bikes including German manufacturer MZ which claims its V4 is producing around 220 bhp at 17,200 rpm. Veteran Ralf Waldman will be charged with using those horses when the bike debuts mid-season.
Never has a season promised so much - all these bikes will be together on the same track from the second week of March and the season will unfold from there. gizmo.com.au will maintain a complete list of reference links to the combatants sites, the better news services and the bookmakers which offer betting on this fascinating sport. We'll also have a reference guide to news sources on the 30 plus Aussies competing in international motorcycle racing this year.