"What the hell have I gotten myself into?" Colin Edwards II and Nicky Hayden were probably pondering that question as they struggled to make sense of the beginning laps of their Grand Prix careers at the season-opening Japanese GP. Riders appeared to be swarming chaotically all over the track, practically climbing over each other like a gaggle of four-year-olds chasing a soccer ball. "If you can keep it up the first three laps, you're doing pretty good," recalled Edwards, shaking his head at the recent memory. "I didn't have a clue on what [to] expect from [the other riders] because some of them I never have seen on the track before," Hayden would say after the race. "It was about the weirdest thing the first lap or two."
Edwards and Hayden hadn't seen anything like it since their earliest days of club racing. Back then, when they were crisscrossing the country looking for somewhere to race, this would have seemed normal. But not on the venerated Suzuka Circuit, site of their Grand Prix debuts and the beginning of the '03 MotoGP season.
The other two American MotoGP hopefuls, Team Suzuki's Kenny Roberts Jr. and new teammate John Hopkins, were busy struggling with the all-new Suzuki GSV-R. Last year's model didn't get the job done, so Suzuki scrapped it and started over. The results were more than disappointing, the problems manifest and numerous. Imagine how they felt watching Loris Capirossi ascend the podium after spiriting the brand-new Ducati Desmosedici to a third-place finish in its very first outing?
It was an all-Italian rostrum at Suzuka. Four-time world champion Valentino Rossi (Hayden's teammate) was victorious, followed by his rival, fellow four-time world champion Max Biaggi, now racing a Honda RC211V for the Camel Honda Pons team after four years with Yamaha. The victor was never in doubt, not once the typically unsettled Suzuka spring weather turned dodgy. With a full year of racing and testing experience on a machine little changed from '02, the Rossi squad was the best prepared, while Biaggi and Capirossi were new to their machines. With rain limiting dry practice to little more than a one-hour session, plus the morning warm-up, there was little chance the others would be as prepared as Rossi.
How deep is the talent in this year's MotoGP field? There are 10 former or current world champions in the MotoGP grid, including Edwards, who has won two World Superbike titles, and Roberts Jr., the '00 500cc world champion. "At this level, when you get behind, it's hard to catch up," Hayden said.
Thursday, April 3, PRACTICE
The race weekend traditionally begins on Thursday, when all the riders arrive at the track. This was different. They'd come the previous week for one final shakedown test on Monday and Tuesday. By Thursday, they were anxious to race, especially Hayden, who hadn't been in the thick of it since August '02. Eight months earlier, the 22-year-old Kentuckian wrapped up the AMA Superbike title. There'd been no racing in the interim, just endless tests in faraway places he'd never seen-Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Phillip Island, Australia; Jerez, Valencia and Barcelona, Spain; Motegi and Suzuka, Japan. Testing is one thing, racing quite another, and this was his first taste.
"Nervous, excited. Both, of course," he said in the office behind the pits that he'd call home for the weekend. "I feel like I should be nervous. I'm definitely super-excited. I've been dreaming about this for so long. Since I started, it's always been one of my goals to get to this point. Just more excited and anxious to get to the races.
"There's so many little things I've improved on. I can't say one area that's been a lot bigger than the others. For sure, just the throttle, just being smooth with the throttle and just driving out of the corners and getting the power to the ground. Little things. Getting comfortable on the tires and finding the limit on those. More than anything, getting comfortable with the team and finding what they're looking for. Everything over here, it's just a different world."
Edwards was getting more accustomed to the Aprilia RS-3. "Obviously, when I first jumped on the bike I needed laps and time and experience to understand what the bike takes to do a lap time," he said. "As far as the bike, it's light-years ahead of where it was. We've still got a little bit to go, for sure. Every time we go out we learn something. Just put another piece of the puzzle together and it keeps getting better and better. The [fly-by-wire] throttle thing was foreign when I first got on it, but [now] I'm happy with it.
"The second day of this test, [I] got behind a couple of guys and that was the first time really since Imola of last year that the switch in your head goes from safety mode to hang-it-out-a-little-bit mode, and it felt good. That's what we've been striving to get: that point where I could actually do that and be comfortable, and keep the bike on two wheels.
"For a core motor in a bike that might look like it was thrown together, it turns pretty damn good. Obviously, acceleration, compared to the Honda, just doesn't put it down as smooth. You [lose] three or four bike lengths in acceleration. But we know all this, it's just a matter of getting things in the pipeline and getting it better. Honestly, I would say 90 percent of the package is what we had last year."
Of all the Americans, Roberts Jr. is, at 29, the oldest, with the most experience, and he looks the part. A fitness fanatic, Roberts Jr. has filled out and muscled up since his early days. This is his 10th season in GPs, but it won't be his best. The new Suzuki showed promise in the first test in Malaysia, but since then it's lacked progress. "We've really struggled to get the true potential out of the thing. And if you look at the computer, there's a lot of things the bike does better. The balance seems OK. The feel seems OK.
"The scary thing is that everything feels OK, but when you see another bike come by...I mean two seconds is a huge difference. It's like going into a corner and saying, 'God, it's not so bad.' But then all of a sudden they're gone. Get on the gas at the same time and you start sliding and wheelying a little bit, and it's 10 bike lengths between the next corner. And it's difficult to try and fathom what's actually happening. You come in, you go 'I don't have the grip, when you get on the throttle the thing spins, or it wheelies when it doesn't spin.'" Roberts Jr. asked his '02 teammate Sete Gibernau, the Spaniard who took the Telefnica MoviStar backing to the Honda Gresini team, for an opinion. "He said the only thing that he could see wrong on the track is it's the wrong bike," Roberts Jr. said.
Friday, April 4, Provisional QualifyingFriday was a mixed bag on the track. The one-hour morning free-practice would be the only completely dry session of the weekend. Hayden lost some time when he crashed, but was able to return to the pits after another crash by fellow GP rookie (and current 250cc world champion) Marco Melandri brought out the red flag.
The circuit was wet but drying when Friday's qualifying session began. A window of opportunity opened in the first half hour. Being ready and knowing when to change from intermediate tires to slicks would be decisive. Hayden stayed out too long on the intermediates. By the time he went out on slicks, the rain had begun again and he ended up 23rd fastest. His Grand Prix debut would start from the last row of the grid.
"It was a team thing," he said "When we went out everybody went out on intermediates. I think a lot of guys came in sooner than me. They finally gave me the 'IN' board and brought me in." Hayden said. "Everything that almost could have happened my first day did. Just rain, intermediates, everything. At least I know the track. I can't imagine if this would be the first day of my practice. I think I did like 21 laps today total."
Roberts Jr. was the fastest of the Americans-seventh-by being prepared. When the time was right, his team was ready, and he made the most out of the dry track time. Had the rain held off any longer, however, he'd have been back with Hayden. "They made some changes during the session, and just made it [worse]," Roberts Jr. began, "so I just kind of rode around worried about falling down. When I did want to push going into the corner, it was accelerating, and when I would get on the brakes, it would accelerate. And when I'm off the brakes, it would lock up the rear."
Edwards admitted spending excessive time on intermediates, missing the second row by a 10th of a second, his morning session spent chasing a chatter problem at both ends. "When both wheels are in the air, it won't turn," he said. The bigger problem was that he had two completely different chassis setups. When it came time to adjust for the dry, he went out with steel brakes instead of carbons, and an intermediate front tire instead of a slick.
In the morning, Hopkins went faster than he ever had, with the help of a tow from Rossi. "This morning went really well considering we're slightly underpowered from pretty much any machine out there so far," said the 20-year-old from Corona, California. Hopkins spent last season on a two-stroke Yamaha YZR500 on Dunlop tires, after an AMA career spent riding four-stroke Suzukis on Michelins. The youngest of the Americans, his face instantly lit up at the mention of returning to the French tires. "Michelin, that's the biggest difference right now," he said. "That's a huge difference. Just combine the two-stroke with my old four-stroke experience, it all equals my MotoGP bike. The style's nothing like it was in the States, but it's nothing like what it was last year. It steers a lot more with the rear tire; the four-stroke is a lot more consistent in its slides."
Saturday, April 5, Final Qualifying
On Saturday morning, Hopkins got his first taste of riding in the wet. It took a while, but he finally felt comfortable. "I was pretty happy with the thing and wouldn't mind if it was a rain race," mostly because of the Suzuki's power deficit.
Having raced in the Suzuka Eight-Hours every year since he left for Europe, Edwards has more experience at Suzuka, wet or dry, than all but a very few riders. So what was he thinking as he slid down the track in the wet practice session on Saturday morning? "That section, I don't remember it being that slick," he said.
Rain wasn't a problem for Hayden. "This morning, I was kind of far up in the rain for a while, just the last lap I fell back," he said. The problem was the useless afternoon session: half wet, half dry, then fully wet. "Man, I wish I could have got some dry track to move up on the grid, because I'm deep," he said.
"It doesn't turn going into the corners, the back slips coming out," was how Roberts Jr. described the behavior of the Suzuki in the rain. He anticipated a dry race, and he was right.
**Sunday, April 6, Race Day **
The Italian trio of Rossi, Biaggi and Capirossi slipped away during the opening laps, but a crash on the third lap ultimately cast a pall over the weekend. Three days after his second child was born, former 250cc World Champion Daijiro Kato sustained what would turn out to be fatal injuries in an unexplained crash. In the bending right-hand arc leading to the final chicane, Kato suddenly swerved left into the guardrail, he and his bike tumbling along the wall after impact. He eventually ricocheted onto the racing surface, forcing riders following him to take evasive action.
Why he crashed remains a mystery. Among the numerous theories was that his throttle had stuck wide open. Kato had a fly-by-wire throttle system that he'd begun using last year. Hayden also uses it, and his throttle stuck open in a fourth-gear corner on his seventh lap of practice. "I slid for so long," he said, lucky to be uninjured. "I didn't even realize it until I went back out and [saw] my marks." Another theory revolved around a shattered carbon brake disc causing the front wheel to lock up, but in the end, that really wasn't the concern of the riders. What the accident highlighted was the growing controversy over the worthiness of the Honda-owned track as a Grand Prix venue.
Melandri, in his practice crash on the factory Fortuna Yamaha M1, broke his right ankle in two places and chipped his femur. "They need to change the corner where Marco crashed yesterday," said Rossi after claiming the pole position on Saturday. Roberts Jr. was a little less diplomatic. "Basically, somebody needs to get fired over this or somebody needs to get their ass kicked, because everybody that's crashed this weekend has hit a wall," he said. "And you can't say any particular place. You just have to say everywhere." He happened upon the Kato accident scene as it unfolded, watching the bike and rider being destroyed. "The race should've been stopped. They just picked him up and threw him on a stretcher, which is typical around here." The race wasn't stopped, and the race director refused to take questions at a press conference called to discuss Kato's condition. "Today was a total disgrace," Roberts Jr. said.
From the outset, Roberts Jr. had transmission problems, his Suzuki GSV-R missing shifts as riders on faster machines passed on both sides. "I'm going into neutrals because of whatever our situation is, and I'm out there realistically trying not to get hit," he said. He tried to switch his ignition to a different map to smooth out the throttle, and accidentally hit the kill switch. "I just had a bad, bad day.
"The last couple of laps, I was going to try to get around John (Hopkins), and the opportunity never presented itself to where I thought it was going to be a clean pass," he related. "And I didn't want to take myself or John out."
Hopkins ended up one position better in 13th, hoping for rain that never came.
Sitting on the back row of the grid, 22 of the best riders and machines in the world ahead of him, Hayden said he wasn't too nervous. "I was on the back row. I couldn't go back much farther," he joked. "I was really pretty relaxed. It's been a long off-season and I was wanting to get it started." Hayden, like Edwards, is used to running at the front. Coming from 23rd meant he'd have to be efficient to get to the front, and he wasn't sure what to expect from the midpackers. "I just tried to get as many guys as I could early," said Hayden.
Another troublesome factor was the wind. The gusts kept the riders off balance, and for Hayden it was another racing environment he'd never encountered. "I'd never ridden the bike in that kind of wind," he said, and not with a full tank. "On this bike it makes a lot bigger difference than on a superbike when you have a full load of fuel."
Edwards and Hayden had hooked up near the midpoint of the race, the pair swapping the sixth-place spot. The Honda accelerated and kept the front wheel on the ground, but the Aprilia, Edwards said, wanted to loop over. "We try to make the thing longer, but then it doesn't turn, so then we have to find a happy medium with the right length with the right turning," he said. "It's all a big compromise. We try to come up with the best solution we can."
While dicing with Edwards in the middle of a pack of approximately seven riders, Hayden said Edwards was the only one he was comfortable being around. "A lot of these guys, when you follow them you can tell they grew up different," Hayden said diplomatically. "He (Edwards) just felt kind of normal."
By the 13th lap, Hayden's fuel load had lightened. He passed Edwards, but started making mistakes. "When I got in front of him, I slowed him down more than anything. Our times fell off," Hayden said. Edwards retook the spot on the 18th of 21 laps.
"He was really good pulling me out of the last corner every lap, and I'd chew him up in the esses," Edwards said. "If we'd run the short track (configuration), we could have won that. Running the long track is where we struggled." Hayden's final lap was his second fastest of the race, the final push getting him within 0.085 seconds of Edwards, but he had to settle for seventh; not bad for a first-timer.
"This first race I just wanted to try to get a good result and finish," Hayden said, looking over his lap times and pleased to have raced hard to the end. "I wanted to get the full 21 laps of experience. My first race outside of America, basically, just, you know, get it out of the way and move on and everything." From Suzuka, the traveling roadshow moves to Welkom, South Africa, a track Hayden's never seen. "I'm sure that'll be tough. No testing. Never seen the circuit. Get this one out of the way, get the experience, move on. I'm a racer. I like to race."
This article originally appeared in the October, 2003 issue of Sport Rider.