How the MotoGP era nearly started with an almighty upset

It's 15 years to the day since the dawn of the MotoGP era, but it nearly started off with a wildcard taking a highly improbable victory. Jamie Klein looks back at when underdog Akira Ryo almost beat Valentino Rossi at Suzuka.

How the MotoGP era nearly started with an almighty upset
Listen to this article

Here’s one for you – who was the last rider to win a Grand Prix motorcycle race as a wildcard entry?

If you’re struggling to think of the answer, it’s because you have to go back a full 15 years to the 2002 season opener at Suzuka, where the 250cc race was won by local rider Osamu Miyazaki.

In fact, that rain-soaked April afternoon in Japan nearly threw up another shock winner in the premier class, as Suzuki wildcard Akira Ryo came close to pulling off the upset of the decade, leading for 15 of the 21 laps - but he fell just short of beating then-reigning champion Valentino Rossi’s Honda.

It’s exactly 15 years to the day since Ryo finished a close second to Rossi – still a phenomenal achievement for a 36-year-old All-Japan Superbike regular against the man who would go on to be modern Grand Prix racing’s most successful competitor ever.

MotoGP bikes lined up

That race also holds the distinction of being the first of the MotoGP era, as the sport’s manufacturers introduced a new breed of 990cc four-strokes to take on – and ultimately replace – the 500cc two-strokes that had dominated since the late 1970s.

The field for that first-ever MotoGP race at Suzuka comprised 21 bikes – nine four-strokes (three Hondas, three Suzukis, two Yamahas and a lone Aprilia) against a dozen of the old two-strokes (mainly satellite Hondas and Yamahas, but also a pair of three-cylinder Proton KRs).

Qualifying was held in the dry, and while Pons Honda man Loris Capirossi managed to put his West-backed NSR500 second just behind Rossi’s four-stroke RC211V, the rest of the top five were all on 990s. The writing for the old two-strokes already seemed to be on the wall.

Ryo had put his Dunlop-shod Suzuki a creditable seventh, comfortably clear of works riders Kenny Roberts Jr and Sete Gibernau, but better was to come when the lights went out on Sunday.

Race start

When the race got under way, it was Olivier Jacque, riding the two-stroke Tech 3 Yamaha, who made the best getaway of all to lead the pack into Turn 1, although it soon transpired that the former 250cc champion had jumped the start from his eighth-place grid slot.

Still, the Frenchman soon slipped back to third in the treacherous conditions, with Ryo storming through from seventh to second before taking the lead from another local ace – Honda development rider Shinichi Itoh, riding a third HRC-entered RC211V – later on the opening lap.

And so, fans were treated to the rather bizarre spectacle of Ryo leading the first lap of motorcycle racing’s new era, followed by fellow wildcard Itoh, Jacque, Carlos Checa’s works 990 Yamaha and Rossi.

While it was the two wildcards setting the pace up front, using their intimate knowledge of the Suzuka track to the best possible effect, Rossi was soon on the move. He picked off Checa at the final chicane on the second lap before repeating the move on Jacque, still to pit to serve his stop-and-go penalty for jumping the gun, two laps later.

Akira Ryo, Suzuki

It wasn’t until the eighth lap of 21 that Rossi was able to dispatch Itoh and move into second, again outbraking his rival into the final chicane, and begin to make inroads into Ryo’s 1.3-second advantage.

Rossi quickly eliminated the deficit, but took his time to go for the pass, as he studied Ryo’s lines, working out where the Japanese rider was stronger and using that knowledge to up his own pace. The inevitable winning move came on lap 16 at the Italian’s preferred passing spot.

Ryo put up a brave defence after that, shadowing Rossi all the way home, but in the end the Suzuki man missed out what would have been the victory of his career by a scant 1.550s. Little did the team realise at the time, but its wildcard had delivered what would be Suzuki’s best result of 2002.

“I’m very satisfied, but I’m sure the team wanted to win this race,” said Ryo afterwards. “For the last lap I tried to overtake Rossi again but I was about to lose balance, so I just kept myself where I was.

“Anyway, I’m very delighted to have raced with Rossi, the world champion.”

Valentino Rossi

For Rossi, the prevailing feeling was one of relief – as the overwhelming pre-season favourite, he was expected to get the job done, with Capirossi even joking his compatriot would be able to win with “one arm tied behind his back.”

But, despite having qualified on pole, the 23-year-old seemed uncertain whether he would stand a chance in the wet after a dismal showing in morning warm-up.

“It's a special moment for sure because it's the first race of this new series,” said Rossi, who became the first rider since Giacomo Agostini in 1976 to win using a four-stroke bike in the premier class.

“And also this victory is more important than normal for me, because on Friday and Saturday we crash and we knew exactly our potential in dry conditions – but in wet conditions we didn’t know.

“This morning in warm-up I was 14th place, so I didn’t know if it was possible to fight for the podium in the race.”

Winner Valentino Rossi, Repsol Honda Team celebrates

Checa claimed the final spot on the podium, having got the better of a fading Itoh late on in the fight for third, with Norick Abe the best of the two-stroke finishers in a distant fifth for the d’Antin Yamaha squad – 20 seconds behind Rossi.

A dominant Rossi went on to add a further 10 victories during the remainder of 2002, defending his title by a bigger margin (140 points) than he had first clinched it with the previous year, with arch-rival Max Biaggi once again his nearest challenger on the works Yamaha.

All 16 races that year were won by four-stroke riders – Pons rider Alex Barros was upgraded from a two-stroke NSR500 to a RC211V with four races to go, and promptly won two of them – and by the middle of the following season, the 500cc machines were all but extinct as Ducati and Kawasaki joined the party with their own 990cc prototypes.

The MotoGP era was in full swing – but it nearly started with one of the sport’s all-time biggest upsets. 

Podium: winner Valentino Rossi, Repsol Honda Team, second place Akira Ryo, Suzuki, third place Carlos Checa, Yamaha Factory Racing
Podium: winner Valentino Rossi, Repsol Honda Team, second place Akira Ryo, Suzuki, third place Carlos Checa, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose Photography

shares
comments
Lorenzo encouraged by Ducati's private Jerez test
Previous article

Lorenzo encouraged by Ducati's private Jerez test

Next article

Argentina MotoGP: Vinales fastest in FP1, Marquez crashes

Argentina MotoGP: Vinales fastest in FP1, Marquez crashes
Load comments
The salary hit MotoGP riders face in 2022 Prime

The salary hit MotoGP riders face in 2022

Rider salaries in MotoGP have dropped significantly in the last four years, mainly due to the effects of the pandemic. But it has also changed due to a change in contractual models followed by manufacturers. German Garcia Casanova investigates.

MotoGP
Jan 26, 2022
Why a difficult 2021 hasn't broken Pol Espargaro's resolve Prime

Why a difficult 2021 hasn't broken Pol Espargaro's resolve

Pol Espargaro’s switch to Honda for 2021 was one of MotoGP’s biggest rider market shocks. But a difficult bike coupled with various external factors led to a difficult first campaign. As a critical 2022 campaign for both Espargaro and Honda looms, his 2021 experience hasn’t dented his long-held resolve

MotoGP
Jan 17, 2022
Why KTM's latest young outcast is a cautionary tale for MotoGP Prime

Why KTM's latest young outcast is a cautionary tale for MotoGP

Iker Lecuona’s absence from the 2022 MotoGP grid after losing his KTM ride will likely pass most onlookers by. But after just 30 race starts in a MotoGP move he was sucked into by circumstance, the World Superbike-bound 21-year-old's story should act as a warning to KTM - and MotoGP as a whole - in regards to its future stars

MotoGP
Jan 4, 2022
How Ducati's expanded roster will threaten MotoGP's balance in 2022 Prime

How Ducati's expanded roster will threaten MotoGP's balance in 2022

That Ducati will compete with eight prototypes in MotoGP this year is nothing new, having already done so between 2016 and 2018. But the involvement and coverage of the Borgo Panigale company in its alliances is now much greater than in past years, which could have the effect of unbalancing the premier class

MotoGP
Jan 3, 2022
Ranking the top 10 MotoGP riders of 2021 Prime

Ranking the top 10 MotoGP riders of 2021

Although Fabio Quartararo wrapped up the 2021 MotoGP title with two rounds to go, the Yamaha rider had strong competition from the revitalised Ducati factory team and a revitalised Marc Marquez. Read on to see who makes our top 10 list.

MotoGP
Dec 23, 2021
How Quartararo cast aside prior doubts to become MotoGP's new king Prime

How Quartararo cast aside prior doubts to become MotoGP's new king

Doubts were cast over Yamaha’s French recruit after his disastrous end to the 2020 MotoGP season with Petronas SRT, but Fabio Quartararo answered them convincingly in 2021 to claim a MotoGP title that exhibited both his devastating speed and mental strength

MotoGP
Dec 7, 2021
The Rossi-less future MotoGP must now navigate Prime

The Rossi-less future MotoGP must now navigate

Motorcycle racing's greatest showman has left the stage, as Valentino Rossi calls time on his remarkable career on two wheels. But in his successors, all of whom were inspired by 'the Doctor', grand prix racing has vibrant new acts to keep us hooked

MotoGP
Dec 4, 2021
Valentino Rossi’s 10 greatest MotoGP races Prime

Valentino Rossi’s 10 greatest MotoGP races

As the Italian legend finally bows out and retires from MotoGP, it marks the end of one of the most incredible careers in motorsport history. Here is Motorsport.com's pick of his best rides and the stories behind them

MotoGP
Dec 3, 2021