Daijiro Kato: 1976-2003

Daijiro Kato only commenced his full-time World Championship career in 2000 but was already on his way to becoming Japan's most successful GP rider of all time when, by the end of 2001, he had secured the 250cc world title and scored 17 GP wins to equal Japan's greatest GP winner Tetsuya Harada.

But tragically, Kato died from injuries sustained on lap 3 of the opening round of the 2003 season at Suzuka, when he lost control of his Telefonica MoviStar liveried RCV just afer the 130R corner at almost 200kph, and veered sharply left into a trackside barrier.

The massive impact left Kato in a coma, with serious head, neck and chest injuries - his heart also had to be restarted on the way to the circuit medical centre.

After being flown to a local Hospital, Kato defied the odds by showing slim signs of improvement (in terms of a slightly stronger heartbeat) in the following days, but the spinal damage to his neck alone would never have allowed him anything approaching a full recovery.

Almost exactly two weeks after his accident it was announced that Kato had lost his fight for life, and with it MotoGP lost one of its brightest stars. He had been tipped as a pre-season title favourite by none other than Valentino Rossi, and almost certainly represented Japan's greatest chance to date of a first premier-class World Champion.

Fittingly, whilst MotoGP mourned Kato's loss at round two in South Africa, his Gresini team-mate Sete Gibernau took an emotional victory (less than a week after Kato's death) which he dedicated to the Japanese, pointing skywards on the podium in a clear gesture to the lost #74.

"Daijiro was riding with me," he later said.

Kato started motorcycle racing at the age of five, in Pocket Bike competition. By 1985 he had won the Japanese Championship, then moved on to larger Mini Bikes, taking four National Championship titles.

Kato moved to 'real' motorcycles on his 16th birthday, racing 125 and 250 machines until 1994 when he contested the All Japan series and won his first big race at Aida.

He joined HRC in 1996, and raced to third place in the Japanese GP that year, riding as a wild-card. Kato went on to win the race in the next two seasons, again as a wild-card entry, before moving to the world championship in 2000, forming an enduring partnership with the Gresini Honda Team which would last to the end.

Kato finished third in the 250cc World championship in his debut season, scoring four grands prix victories, but his 2001 season was little short of sensational.

He scored 11 victories on his way to the world crown, beating Mike Hailwood's previous record of ten wins in a season.

For 2002 Kato moved to MotoGP, initially racing an NSR500 two-stroke, before being promoted to an RC211V at the German GP, in July.

Kato raced to a second place finish on each machine during the season, eventually finishing seventh in the series.

Kato's death was the last fatally in motorcycle grand prix racing until compatriot Shoya Tomizawa lost his life in the 2010 Moto2 race at Misano.

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8 years indeed... Great Champion, great person. R.I.P. Daijiro.