Okay, with the gift of hindsight this would have looked possible, but not at the time. And, looking at the statistics now, if Rossi hadn’t had two DNFs at the start of the season he might even have had the title at the first attempt – he was only 49 points adrift of Roberts at the end of the season.
Rossi’s success was to be Honda’s only genuine reason to celebrate Y2K – pretty much everything else went pear-shaped for the previously dominant factory. The official factory team (Repsol YPF Honda Team) with Àlex Crivillé, Sete Gibernau and Tadayuki Okada had a fairly grim season. Àlex Crivillé could only manage ninth by the end of the year with six retirements and a mystery illness. Gibernau had the same number of retirements and Tadayuki Okada simply struggled with the factory machine. Honda’s honour was upheld by the Emerson Honda Pons team managed by former 250 champion Sito Pons with Rossi, Loris Capirossi and Alex Barros. Italian Loris was hit with three retirements over the season but still managed a creditable seventh, with Brazilian Alex grabbing a hugely impressive fourth despite the same number of DNFs.
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So what went so wrong for the Repsol team? Well, according to crew chief Jeremy Burgess: “In the middle of the corner, in the transition of getting back on to the power, the engine was weak, because all the power had gone to the top. You couldn’t transfer the weight with the throttle from the front to the rear without feeling this weakness. That led to a tendency to over-open the throttle… and things would happen.” In essence, HRC had probably overthought the 1999 motor in a bid to ‘improve’ it and in the process delivered a machine that was actually inferior. Obviously the details are supremely sketchy but it’s a reasonable assumption that Pons Team weren’t gifted the so-called ‘best bits’ or were presented with a downgraded version thereof. Once again Honda’s mantra of continuous improvement for its own sake came round to bite them on the corporate derriere. How obvious was the error of judgement? By Round 3 of the 2000 series, parts from the 1999 machines were being retro-fitted to Y2K bikes.
Honda begrudgingly had embraced the two-strokes so hated by the company’s founder and, perhaps, reluctantly at first, looked to make the best of a bad job. That they’d exceeded everyone’s expectations (possibly including their own) speaks volumes for the dedication involved, but times were changing. Honda was pivotal in driving the move away from stinkwheels to four-strokes – their first love. Behind the scenes, the powers that be were working on a transition away from fiery half-litre smokers to supposedly greener 990cc four-strokes. The era of the screaming missiles was almost over, but not quite. The ‘humble’ two-stroke still had a stay of grace for a little while.
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