Sunday, 29 June 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: Hiroshi Aoyama's 250cc title win

Hiroshi Aoyama celebrates his 2009 250cc
title success in Valencia. Photo: Honda
A glance at the roll call of champions in all three of the series in Grand Prix Motorcycling (125cc/Moto3, 250cc/Moto2, 500cc/MotoGP) over the last twenty or so years, perhaps beyond, will reveal a certain dominance of Italians and Spaniards. I think this, to an extent, is a cultural thing; scooter-ownership and riding is common amongst mid-teen Italians far more than it is in the UK, for example. In Spain, meanwhile, there are some very high quality junior formulae for young aspiring riders to get their teeth into before they join international series. However, with its proud recent history of bike manufacturing, not to mention established racing series on its own, it must have seemed - in the 1990s (before I was into MotoGP admittedly) and early-2000s - that Japan was also about to join the party in a big way.

During this period, a generation of talent (mostly) raised in the high-growth boom years of the Japanese economy started taking on, and beating, the world's best. Step forward the likes of Haruchika Aoki (1995 and '96 125cc champion); Tetsuya Harada (250cc champion in 1993 and runner-up in '98, when he arguably was only denied by some very underhand tactics from his main title rival); and the late Daijiro Kato (250cc champion in 2001, tragically killed in an accident at Suzuka in 2003 after a promising start to his MotoGP career). Plenty of others also challenged for titles in the Grand Prix categories during this period, including Tadayuki "Taddy" Okada, Tohru Ukawa and Youichi Ui (whom a friend of mine used to support in 125cc). However, as the 2000s progressed, Japanese talent has started to drift away from the upper echelons of motorcycle racing and stories have success have been fewer and far between. For the most part, one has had to look beyond Grand Prix motorcycling to its cousin Superbike racing, where Akira Yanagawa had had his moments in the 'glory days' (late 1990s-early 2000s), and where Noriyuki Haga agonised fans worldwide throughout the 2000s with a few near-misses in his quest to finally win the World Superbike title (he never did in the end). Beyond that, Ryuichi Kiyonari* - a man who sometimes seems to embody Winston Churchill's description of Russia ("a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma") - has mixed introspective confidence crises with three superbly taken British Superbike titles (in 2006, '07 and 2010). But otherwise, the only notable success in recent times for Japanese riders was Hiroshi Aoyama's 250cc title success in 2009.

It is a success whose story does bear repeating, in my view, in this edition of the Retrospective, because it was in many ways a surprising success. This is because of two main reasons. The first of these was the depth of competition in the field. Aoyama had been racing permanently in 250cc since 2004 and during that period had established himself as an extremely consistent racer in the series; his championship finishing positions were 6th, 4th, 4th, 6th and 7th respectively. He'd always been a rider others had had to watch out for, and he had stacked up favourably against some series big names in the past (e.g. former champion Manuel Poggiali) but he was rarely the out-and-out "man to beat" in the series himself. Going into 2009, the impression was that several riders were on paper stronger than he was, including reigning series champion Marco Simoncelli, Alvaro Bautista, and possibly also Hector Barbera and the quick-but-inconsistent Mattia Pasini (2 Spaniards and 2 Italians, for those still counting!). The second was the bike "Hiro" was on - Scot Honda. 2009 was the final year of the 250cc world championship before its replacement by 600cc "Moto2" bikes in 2010. While Aprilia (who ran Bautista, Barbera and Pasini) and Gilera (Simoncelli's team) continued to develop their 250 GP bikes until fairly close to this time, Honda had stopped development on their bike for some years previous to 2009 and thus Hiro was faced with an older, on-paper less developed machine relative to his rivals.

The Scot Honda bike was one Aoyama felt comfortable riding
and pushing to the limit. Photo: Scott Jones (turn2photography)
However, the apparent negative of having an older bike, and moreover not one tailored to him, actually proved a positive for Aoyama. Explaining what had marked his most successful periods in 250cc, he opined that "I think it's a combination with the bike. Sometimes good combination, sometimes not". In the same interview, with, he also said: "this Honda bike is fit [built] for everybody, not just fit for you [like a factory bike might be]. But somehow I feel comfortable with this bike, and I can push a little bit more in the corner, and this is a good point of the bike." Clearly, despite age and non-bespoke qualities, the Aoyama-Scot Honda combination was working well, inspiring the rider with confidence to push the limits, and leading to a string of positive results which catapulted him to the title battle right from the start of the season. On top of that, Aoyama's consistency, intact as ever, stood him in good stead as mistakes crept into his rivals' efforts. Hiro finished every race (though he did have a scary excursion at the final round in Valencia!), never lower than 8th, and recorded four wins, three second places and five 4th places en route to the championship. Meanwhile, Simoncelli - who in 2011 was Aoyama's team-mate at Gresini Honda in MotoGP, and remains sorely missed after being killed in an accident in Sepang, Malaysia that year - missed the opening round through injury and was not fully fit until Round 3; although he shone thereafter, taking six victories, he was always playing catch-up and thus couldn't ever quite make up the difference to his Japanese rival. He eventually fell at the final round too when needing a win (plus results to go his way elsewhere) to claw back the points deficit. Bautista started the season more on the front foot, and was the man to beat for a while, but two DNFs in the closing rounds of the season ultimately cost the former 125cc champion a chance to win the 250cc crown. Pasini was quick but never a title threat after a season hit by a staggering eight DNFs, while Barbera lost too many points early in the season but ended up pipping Simoncelli to 2nd in the standings after a strong ending.

The awkward timing of the "middle race" of the MotoGP race weekend (too late for breakfast, too early for lunch!) means that I ended up supporting Aoyama's title win by following race results closely, but not actually watching many races. However, a few memories do stand out. Firstly, a race at the Sachsenring, where Simoncelli and Alex Debon had broken free early in the race. At the end, the chasing pack were catching them quite quickly, and Bautista was the fastest of the lot. Time and again he slid down the inside of Aoyama (defending 3rd) but, in the pressure of a title battle, Hiro never once missed his braking point, or tried to turn into Bautista. Rather he let Bautista come through, and then overtook straight back past by 'undercutting' him when Alvaro ran even a fraction wide. In the end, truth be told, Alvaro took 3rd and Hiro 4th on the last lap (Marco and Debon were just out of reach), but an important marker of maturity had been lain down. My second memory is of qualifying at Misano, where Aoyama pulled a stonking lap out of the bag late in the day to steal an unlikely pole. The usually reserved Hiro celebrated quite freely as well, showing how much it meant to him. My final memory, though I've only seen footage of the incident, came from the Dutch TT in Assen (a 'classic' race held traditionally on the last Saturday of June). At this point (Round 7/16), Bautista had held the upper hand in the title race, and on race day he and Aoyama had diced fiercely for victory. On the penultimate lap, Aoyama (leading) ran slightly wide at the entry to the final corner. Bautista, seeing his opportunity, tried to take the racing line for the second part of this chicane, hoping to take advantage. However, in the split second it took him to do that, Aoyama had already recovered his mistake. The result was that Bautista smashed into the back of Aoyama; a pure racing incident. The Spaniard fell and, though thankfully unhurt, was out on the spot. However, Hiro managed to stay upright and he held on to win. This was a crucial moment, as he took the lead in the championship, and it was a lead he would hold until season's end.

Since 2009, Aoyama has had a mixed time of things in MotoGP (plus one year in World Superbikes in 2012) since graduating from 250cc after his title win. That 2011 year with Simoncelli was probably his most competitive season (the comparison with Marco, who was clearly quicker, is not quite fair as the bikes they had were slightly different, despite being run by the same team). Other seasons have been more disappointing. After the initial relief and happiness I felt when he won in 2009, I didn't really think about his achievement very much. However, as time has gone on, I have found myself remembering it again. More than ever, I'm happy that Hiro won in 2009 and am impressed by what he achieved that year. It might not have been smooth going since then but, if "Hiroshi Aoyama, 2009 (and last ever) 250cc World Champion" is to be his magnum opus, then it's certainly not a bad one to have!

*=Since writing this piece Ryuichi Kiyonari has won Race 1 of the British Superbikes race at Knockhill, Scotland. It is his first win in the series for three years. From small acorns...?

1 comment:

  1. As usual a very in depth and interesting blog on retrospection on Hiroshi's title win. This requires a lot of research into the sport as well as the sportsmen in it. Well Done Rishi.