Aoki finishes first – but it's a Honda Pons 1, 2!
3 June 2001
Alex Barros won a thrilling rain interrupted Italian Grand Prix at Mugello, the restarted race having been sensationally 'won' by Haruchika Aoki - but it was a West Honda Pons one, two on aggregate.
Such was the uncertainty regarding the weather, after the wet 125 and 250 races, that Kenny Roberts Jr's Suzuki team opted to start the warm-up lap from the pit lane, giving them extra time to change the bike set-up, and still allow the American to regain his second spot on the grid before the start.
Nevertheless, the track was almost bone dry by the start of the warm-up lap, despite the threatening clouds overhead, and the 500cc stars would all almost certainly start on slicks, given that the race would be stopped if it rained having not been declared a 'wet race' prior to the start.
The grid duly formed – with Italians Rossi, Capirossi and Biaggi first, third and fourth respectively – and waited nervously for the lights to go out. When they did it was Roberts who once again made a flying start to lead into the first corner, with Capirossi second, followed by Biaggi and pole sitter Rossi.
Rossi attempted to pass archrival Biaggi at the first corner on the very next lap – but ran wide – allowing Biaggi back past and Barros to follow, while Roberts inched ahead out front.
Marlboro Yamaha man Biaggi escaped from the West Honda Pons sandwich at the end of the second lap, when he overtook Capirossi and set off in pursuit of Roberts. Barros then put a brave move on his teammate soon after, pushing the fellow black and white machine wide as he elbowed underneath the Italian.
Lap 4 and Biaggi made his move for the lead of his home GP, slipstreaming past Roberts at the first corner – only to run wide and allow the #1 Suzuki back ahead, with Rossi now menacing Capirossi for fourth.
Biaggi finally took the lead - and held onto it - towards the end of the lap, moving firmly inside Roberts, while Capirossi (now back ahead of his teammate) tried to pass both Roberts and Biaggi at the first corner – but out braked himself and ran wide – allowing Biaggi back ahead.
Lap 5 and Barros followed his teammate past the Suzuki for third, with Rossi, in his unusual blue Hawaiian design, still looking desperately for a way around Roberts – as rain began to spit from the ever darkening sky.
By lap 6 Rossi had finally made his way into fourth, while Biaggi began to edge away – helped by the West Honda Pons teammates battling tooth and nail for second, and holding up the #46 NSR 500.
Rossi slid underneath Capirossi on the next lap for third, at the very corner he crashed at last year, while Roberts continued to slip back down the order being overtaken by Ukawa.
Back at the front Barros had now caught Biaggi's red and white machine, with Rossi now sitting on the Brazilian's exhausts. Barros' only hope of easing the pressure was to move ahead of Biaggi, and a neat slipstreaming manoeuvre saw him take the lead with 15 to go.
However, Barros raised his right hand midway around the lap to signal that the rain was now too heavy to continue, and the race was immediately red-flagged. The riders then returned to the pits to prepare for part two of what had been a thrilling Italian Grand Prix.
With positions taken from the preceding lap, the grid would line-up half and hour later as follows: Biaggi, from Barros, Rossi, Capirossi, Roberts, Ukawa, Criville, Abe, Checa and Gibernau tenth.
However, Rossi shocked his Nastro Azzuro team by crashing from his NSR Honda on the way to the grid when the rear stepped out. Rossi was sent sliding down the road – unharmed – but his Honda would take no further part in the proceedings.
The Italian hero made it back to the pits and jumped onto the spare bike ready to start the second race, which would now have the added complexity of aggregate timing deciding the outcome on a now drenched racetrack.
When the red lights went out, Biaggi made a storming getaway from pole, while Haruchika Aoki rode around the outside of almost everyone to move up to third – before overcooking the next corner and running into the gravel.
Meanwhile, wet weather specialists Roberts, Abe and Haga soon moved to the fore, while Barros overtook Biaggi on the track (but Biaggi still led on aggregate thanks to his 0.5secs advantage), ahead of Roberts.
Roberts took the lead on what was now lap nine, ahead of Barros, Biaggi, Abe, Ukawa and Haga. Meanwhile Rossi was way back in fifth (aggregate) but behind Aoki (who had rejoined the circuit) on the track.
Lap 11 and Barros continued to lead Roberts on the track, the Brazilian now also leading overall thanks to his slim time advantage over third placed Biaggi, while Roberts' position was good enough for third overall at this point (ahead of Ukawa and Abe).
Lap 12 and the battle for the lead on track was now a four-way affair between Barros, Roberts, Biaggi and Abe with Ukawa heading the second pack. Roberts moved ahead of Barros to lead the race, leaving Biaggi needing to stick to Barros' rear wheel to take the overall win – but the Roman was himself under pressure from Abe by now.
Meanwhile Aoki was now ahead of Capirossi on the track and chasing Ukawa hard for fifth – the ex-125cc star riding around the outside of the Repsol Honda, and revelling in the tricky conditions, with 10 laps to go.
Aoki now had his sights set on gate crashing the Abe/Biaggi battle for third, Abe, sensing the trouble he could find himself in from the charging Arie Molenaar Racing Honda, squeezed inside Biaggi soon after, giving him some breathing room from the fastest man on the track.
Any relief was only temporary though, because Aoki was soon past Biaggi – and after Abe once again! Meanwhile, Biaggi himself was soon embroiled in another battle with countryman Capirossi, who duly eclipsed, the #3 machine before the end of lap 16 of 23.
Across the timing beam for the seventeenth time and Abe swept into second, then into first, just a few corners later – with Aoki barging his way through Barros AND Roberts in the space of a few corners to keep now race leader Abe in his sights.
Barros blasted by Aoki (22secs down on Biaggi after the race was stopped) along the main straight to make full use of Honda V-four power, but Aoki was much quicker through the twisty sections and was soon back in front of the Brazilian.
5 to go and Capirossi out braked Barros (the leader on corrected time) into the first corner to give West Honda Pons a provisional one, two, ahead of Norick Abe (the leader on track), Roberts, and Rossi.
Back at the front and Aoki was still shadowing Abe, but he fell soon after hitting a puddle towards the end of the lap – meanwhile Roberts fell into the first corner – both riders losing potential podium places.
All this meant that Haruchika Aoki was sensationally leading the Italian Grand Prix (even if he was just tenth on aggregate), and making full use of the opportunity to show what he could do in front of the world best.
Therefore, with two laps to go, the aggregate order was: Barros, Capirossi, Biaggi, Rossi, Criville and Gibernau.
Rossi passed Biaggi and Criville on the track and set about building the gap necessary to take third. Meanwhile, Capirossi made a mistake to allow Barros to pull away from second (first overall).
Capirossi's mistake left the Italian under attack from Rossi – who forced his way through on the last lap – only to crash off his Honda through the esses (where Abe had fallen) his front wheel seemingly sliding away after hitting a puddle on the apex, Capirossi nearly followed his countryman while taking avoiding action, but hung on finish second on aggregate and complete a West one, two.
However, Aoki crossed the line first (even if he could only finish fifth overall) and was without doubt one of the many heroes in a thrilling Italian Grand Prix.
Full aggregate results to follow….
2. Capirossi +8.359secs
3. Biaggi +8.509secs
4. Criville +8.996secs
5. Aoki +20.651secs
6. Gibernau +24.723secs
7. Ukawa +27.745secs
8. Nakano +32.768secs