1999 saw a change in what had been the established order of things – Mick Doohan retired. A crash during a wet practice session at the Jerez circuit ahead of the Spanish GP saw the five-times world champion with more serious leg injuries ending his career. No one can race forever and Spanish rider Àlex Crivillé effectively became the No.1 works rider in the Repsol Honda Team. Doohan’s absence effectively reshuffled the premier Honda team with Tadayuki Okada successfully taking up a supporting role to Crivillé’s title challenge. Fellow Spaniard Sete Gibernau had begun the season on board the NSR500V, the V twin, but was soon promoted to pilot the vacant Doohan machine.
It was evident that the nurturing of young riders by the various Spanish motorcycle interests was paying off with two riders in the first team and another on the locally sponsored MoviStar Honda Pons outfit together with Brazilian rider Alex Barros. In total there were 10 Honda teams on the 1999 grid with six Spanish riders. Honda’s faith in the NSR500V saw nine of the technically intriguing twins running over the season with Sete Gibernau putting the bike on the podium twice early on. Ultimately the twin would never threaten the four-cylinder machines but it did allow a lot of promising riders to experience GPs at the top level more cost-effectively. Juan Borga managed a hugely creditable 12th position at the end of the season and would probably have been higher had he not failed to retire from three races on the torquey twin.
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Max Biaggi’s move from Honda to Yamaha hadn’t gone as well as the ‘Roman Emperor’ had hoped. Four retirements in the first half of the season on the YZR500 had a serious impact on what could have been a race for the title. Max and OWK1 V four got it together at the back half of the season and working well with five podium finishes.
Despite losing their top rider, Honda’s 1999 season turned out better than just okay. With Biaggi struggling to initially bond with the Yamaha, Àlex Crivillé had a golden opportunity to bid for the title and with Doohan out there was little to stop him. Over the 16 GPs that year the lowest placing the Spaniard made was sixth. Five wins and six podiums plus other placings saw Crivillé take the title with 267 points… and that was with two retirements! Kenny Roberts Junior took second place on 220 with Tadayuki Okada third on another Repsol Honda with 211.
Key to Honda’s success was the now legendary engine which, by 1999, was making 200bhp at 12,000rpm and this on the unleaded fuel that had been introduced in an attempt to turn the racing ‘green’. The use of the lead-free petrol had taken the edge off the ‘big bang motor’ and so all of the Honda V fours went back to the older ‘screamer’ firing order in a bid to get some more power. You could almost be forgiven for thinking the bike was more important than the rider – Honda’s mastery of the premier class seemed to suggest just that. Yet despite this almost assured dominance, HRC and its satellite teams were still looking around for potential world champions to maintain their supremacy. And a certain young Italian fresh from winning the 25 title for Aprilia was firmly in Honda’s sights.
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