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Kawasaki's MotoGP project: 2002-2008
1 January 1901
Kawasaki's 'suspension' of its factory MotoGP activities for 2009 marks the end of a challenging chapter for the Japanese company, whose ZX-RR motorcycle is the only factory entry not to have won a grand prix since the 990cc four-stroke era began in 2002.
The following is a brief summary of Kawasaki's MotoGP project from 2002 - 2008...
2002 Pacific Grand Prix: The ZX-RR makes its MotoGP debut towards end of the 2002 season, in the hands of Kawasaki's WSBK race winner Akira Yanagawa, on home ground at Motegi. Yanagawa qualifies the angular-looking machine 18th out of the 22 riders, but crashes out of the race after an engine failure, sustaining a broken pelvis in the process.
2002 Malaysian Grand Prix The injured Yanagawa is replaced by Kawasaki's former World Supersport champion Andrew Pitt for the remaining three rounds of the season, starting at Sepang in Malaysia, where Pitt takes the ZX-RR to its first MotoGP finish (albeit 19th and last).
2002 Valencian Grand Prix Pitt scores the ZX-RR's first MotoGP points by claiming twelfth (out of 14 finishers) in the Valencia season finale.
2003 Japanese Grand Prix The ZX-RR's first full season of racing starts at Suzuka, Japan, with a full two-rider line-up of Pitt and former 500cc race winner Garry McCoy.
2003 French Grand Prix McCoy scores his first ZX-RR points, and claims Kawasaki's best finish of the season, with ninth place in a wet French Grand Prix at Le Mans (round four). McCoy scores points on only two further occasions.
2003 Valencian Grand Prix McCoy finishes the season 22nd in the world championship, with 11 points, with Pitt 26th and last on just 4 points. Test and development rider Alex Hofmann impresses by being top Team Green rider in wild-card appearances at Mugello and Assen. Both McCoy and Pitt leave Kawasaki after the Valencia finale. Kawasaki finishes seventh and last in the constructors' championship (19 points) and 12th and last in the teams' championship (15 points).
2004 South African Grand Prix New season begins with Hofmann promoted to a full time race seat alongside former 250cc world championship runner-up and 500cc podium finisher Shinya Nakano. Kawasaki also changes from Dunlop to Bridgestone tyres.
2004 Italian Grand Prix Nakano miraculously escapes serious injury when his rear tyre explodes at 300km/h (186mph) during the Italian GP at Mugello. Shinya is back in action just a week later at Catalunya, where he claims the ZX-RR's best race result to date with a seventh place finish.
2004 Pacific Grand Prix Nakano takes the ZX-RR to its first ever MotoGP podium finish; third position on home ground at Motegi (round 12).
2004 Malaysian Grand Prix Nakano qualifies third on the grid at Sepang for the ZX-RR's first front row start. Finishes eighth in the race.
2004 Valencian Grand Prix Nakano finishes the season tenth in the world championship with 83 points and only four non-scores, while Hofmann collects 51 points for 15th position. Kawasaki also takes fourth in the constructors' championship (95 points) and seventh in the teams' championship (134 points).
2005 Spanish Grand Prix Nakano and Hofmann both retained for 2005 and start the year with fifth and eleventh places at the Jerez opener. For Nakano, it is his best result of the season.
2005 Portuguese Grand Prix Hofmann highsides during a demonstration ride to promote the Portuguese GP (round two) breaking his left scaphoid and forcing him to miss both Estoril and the next two rounds.
2005 Chinese Grand Prix Injured Hofmann replaced for round three by Olivier Jacque, who promptly stuns by finishing in second position - just 1.7sec behind Valentino Rossi - on his ZX-RR debut in soaking wet conditions at Shanghai. That result remains the joint best for a ZX-RR rider and the closest that a ZX-RR has come to victory.
2005 Valencia Grand Prix 2005 ends with Nakano retaining tenth in the championship with a Team Green best of 98 points, despite no podiums, while Hofmann finishes 19th. Kawasaki holds fourth in the constructors' championship (126 points) and rises to sixth in the teams' championship during what was, on paper, its best MotoGP season.
2006 Spanish Grand Prix Kawasaki raises eyebrows by 'reluctantly' dropping Hofmann in favour of rookie Randy de Puniet for the 2006 season, while Nakano remains for a third and final season. Nakano starts the year in style at Jerez with his first front row qualifying performance since Sepang 2004, but finishes seventh in the race. de Puniet doesn't reach the flag.
2006 Dutch TT Nakano scores his second (and final) ZX-RR podium, and equals Kawasaki's best MotoGP result between 2002-2008, by finishing second at Assen in a race best remembered for a last turn showdown between Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards.
2006 Australian Grand Prix In addition to his third place start at Jerez, Nakano illustrated his and the Bridgestone-shod ZX-RR's raw speed by qualifying second on the grid three-times during 2006, the last occasion being at Phillip Island.
October 2006 Kawasaki confirms that star rider Nakano will leave the team (for an ill-fated satellite Honda ride) at the end of the 2006 season.
2006 Valencian Grand Prix Nakano's final season at Kawasaki ends with 14th in the world championship and 92 points, while de Puniet's first in MotoGP is marked by 16th position and 37 points. Kawasaki slips to sixth in the constructers' championship (109 points) and seventh in the teams' championship (129 points).
November 2006 Kawasaki splits from Harald Eckl, who had run its MotoGP team since 2002, due to his 'serious involvement with a competitor's MotoGP activities' (rumoured to be Ilmor). Kawasaki takes its restructured MotoGP race team 'in-house' for 2007 but the upheaval, combined with scepticism over the team's new 800cc machine, mean no top riders are interested and Jacque - who had been given a test and development role after his Shanghai success - finds himself promoted to a full time race seat alongside de Puniet for 2007.
2007 Catalan Grand Prix Despite its troubled 'birth', Kawasaki's first 800cc machine shows potential in the hands of de Puniet, who claims his first front row start at round seven in Catalunya. By contrast, Jacque suffers a difficult, accident littered, start to the season - scoring points in just one race - and steps back to the role of test and development rider after missing Catalunya due to injury.
2007 British Grand Prix 250cc and World Supersport race winner Anthony West drafted in to replace Jacque from Donington Park onwards, where the Australian scores five points on his ZX-RR race debut.
July 2007 Competition manager Michael Bartholemy confirms that Kawasaki has signed John Hopkins for 2008 and 2009. Hopkins goes on to finish fourth in the 2007 world championship for Suzuki with four podium finishes.
2007 Japanese Grand Prix de Puniet scores his first and only Kawasaki MotoGP podium with second place at round 15, Motegi. It marked the ZX-RR's fourth, and perhaps last, rostrum finish.
August 2007 With Hopkins confirmed, West and de Puniet look set to fight for the remaining 2008 seat, but de Puniet surprises the paddock - and Kawasaki - by signing for Honda LCR before any final decision about Hopper's team-mate is made. West is duly confirmed as staying at Kawasaki, alongside Hopkins, five days later.
2007 Valencian Grand Prix de Puniet finishes eleventh in the world championship with 108 points while Kawasaki takes fifth in the constructors' championship (144 points) and seventh in the teams' championship. West scores points in all but one of his eleven starts, with a best of seventh.
January 2008 Kawasaki causes a stir by debuting a prototype 'screamer' engine during testing at Sepang, but it is never used in a grand prix. Indeed, Kawasaki opts not to introduce a new 2008 version of the ZX-RR, choosing instead to develop the 2007 model.
January 2008 Hopkins injured at Phillip Island test, forcing him to miss vital pre-season development.
2008 Portuguese Grand Prix Hopkins finishes fifth during his third ZX-RR start. It would be his best result of the season and possibly as a Kawasaki MotoGP rider.
2008 Catalan Grand Prix Hopkins fractures vertebrae in Friday practice highside in Barcelona but returns to take tenth in the race.
2008 Dutch TT Hopkins sustains leg fractures in 230km/h qualifying fall at Assen, forcing him to miss both the Dutch TT and next two rounds.
2008 Czech Republic Grand Prix West scores MotoGP best of fifth at Brno, the highlight of an often miserable season in which he struggles with a chronic lack of rear traction.
September 2008 Kawasaki confirms signing of former MotoGP World Championship runner-up Marco Melandri to ride for Kawasaki in 2009 and 2010. "I'm confident that Marco will adapt quickly to Kawasaki's Ninja ZX-RR and that, together with John, he'll be able to take us to the next level with the development of the all-new 2009 bike,” said Bartholemy. "What is certain is that, with Marco and John, we will go into 2009 with our strongest rider line-up since Kawasaki made their full-time return to the premier class in 2002."
October 2008 A deal for Jorge Martinez 'Aspar' to run a third ZX-RR in 2009 breaks down over rider choice; Aspar needs a Spaniard to please the sponsors lined up to back the project while Kawasaki wants Nakano to return.
2008 Valencian Grand Prix What might have been the ZX-RR's final season ends with Hopkins 16th in the championship and West 18th, out of 18 full time riders. Kawasaki is fifth and last in the constructors' championship with just 88 points and is ninth out of ten in the teams' championship.
October/November 2008 Kawasaki takes part in post-season testing at Valencia and Phillip Island - during which Melandri makes a promising debut on the ZX-RR.
January 2009 Kawasaki announces 'suspension' of factory MotoGP activities for 2009 as a result of the worldwide financial crisis. The ZX-RR could yet race on if a privateer team, such as Aspar, can be found to run the machines, and Kawasaki can provide the necessary technical support. This scenario may also represent the best chance for Hopkins and Melandri with all other scheduled 2009 seats already occupied.
Kawasaki MotoGP results summary: 2002-2008
Front row starts: 8
Fastest laps: 0
Highest riders' championship ranking: 10th (Nakano - '04, '05)
Highest constructors' championship ranking: 4th ('04, '05)
Highest teams' championship ranking: 6th ('05)