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Hollywood ending hands Azuma victory

21 September 2002

Masao Azuma sensationally won a wet/dry/wet 125cc Rio Grand Prix – from just eighteenth on the grid – as the veteran used all his experience to catch and overtake Poggiali and Vincent in the very final stages of the race, while the two championship contenders would battle to the flag.

Having ruled both qualifying sessions, Manuel Poggiali would start from pole for the fifth time this year, and needed to close the gap to championship leader – and second fastest qualifier – Arnuad Vincent after his early Estoril exit.

Behind the championship contenders, Gabor Talmasci had turned heads by qualifying for his first ever front row start, in third, ahead of Alex de Angelis, who had suffered a spectacular crash in practice that saw him run over by his own machine (see the Crash.Net latest MotoGP pics from Rio)

Meanwhile, needing a good start would be eighth fastest - and outside championship contender - Daniel Pedrosa, who crashed out of the Rio Grand Prix last year, but has finished in the top ten in every GP since then.

However, the pre race form was rendered well and truly useless when the weather took a distinct turn for the worse this morning and covered the track with a consistent layer of water – although it was much less than had been seen at the Estoril crash fest two weeks ago, and could well dry out throughout the race.

Nevertheless, it was with more than the usual amount of tension that the 125's took their places on the grid, with winner in wet Estoril Vincent perhaps concealing a wry smile under his helmet, while rival Poggiali looked visibly flustered by the challenge ahead.

When the lights went out and the 125's fed the power through their back wheels and onto the damp track, it was Talmacsi (paddling with his foot) and Vincent who 'stormed' ahead into turn one, ahead of Barbera – with Poggiali back in eighth.

Over the opening laps Poggiali, knowing he cannot afford to lose more points to Vincent, worked his way slowly up the field to fifth, while Lucio Cecchinello used all his experience to slip into third and set off in pursuit of the top two - with the #1 Gilera rider soon following him.

Lap 3 and rain hater Pedrosa's poor Rio GP came to an abrupt end when he dropped his Honda from a lowly 15th position, effectively ending his championship hopes… providing Vincent and Poggiali finished.

Meanwhile, up front Cecchinello worked his way past Talmacsi for second – but almost immediately the Italian lost the front of his Aprilia around a slow right-hander sending him in to the gravel. Cecchinello wouldn't take his hand off the clutch however, and was soon back on track.

Following Cecchinello into the gravel was Thomas Luthi, who had worked his way impressively into the top eight, before spiraling from his Honda and deep into the Rio gravel – although he too would return.

Although it couldn't be confirmed, a 'dry line' was starting to develop round the bumpy 4.933km circuit and it could have been the difference in grip levels between this and the otherwise wet track that was causing the 'offs' – and even if not, the wets would surely start to disintegrate later because of it…

By lap 6 (of 21), the Rio fans who had braved the conditions were witnessing a tense duel between Vincent and Poggiali, with just 0.5secs between them, for the lead of the Grand Prix, with the pair holding a 3 second lead over the battling Talmacsi, Barbera and Nieto – this was now a two horse race.

Over the following two laps Poggiali – surprisingly - continued to press Vincent, and indeed was crawling all over the Frenchman's rear wheel thanks to a series of fastest race laps, and by lap 9 Poggiali got a good slipstream down the pit straight and sliced into the lead at turn one.

Vincent responded immediately, and the San Marinese rider obliged by allowing the #21 machine back into the lead with little attempt to resist. This was repeated one lap later with the pair swapping places for the lead in exactly the same locations, as their lap times appeared to be slowing – were they playing games, or just looking after their tyres…?

Behind the pair, Pablo Nieto had put himself into a potential podium position after overtaking Talmacsi – but both were visibly swerving off line to find some tyre cooling water.

With 9 laps to go at least part of the track was now bone dry, leading those eagled eyed fans to search for those who had started with a dry set-up – of which Azuma and Perugini were prime suspects – which could have proved a brilliant decision. However, they were still down in seventh and eight places and would need to use any advantage quickly if they were to stop the top two.

No longer in contention for points was Youichi Ui, who unfortunately crashed out of eleventh on his 100 Grand Prix, while almost instantly a rain storm hit the Rio circuit once again, changing the conditions entirely, before disappearing almost as quickly.

Not that Poggiali and Vincent were worried though; the two were side by side at a handful of corners on every lap as the lead went back and forth like a Tennis ball – with just six laps to go.

What would worry them was when they crossed the start line at the end of the lap and saw that rain master Azuma – now up to third – had closed the gap by over 3secs between the leaders and chasing pack, which consisted of the Japanese, Perugini, Talmacsi and a dropping Nieto.

Five to go and the gap was down to 4.5secs – this was going to be a Hollywood ending – as Azuma and Co were now well in sight of the top two and itching for a fight. Such was the Gilera team alarm that they were frantically pointing at Poggiali's pit board to illustrate how close Azuma now was when he next crossed the line.

But it was too late! With just 4 to go Azuma, who had now dropped Perugini, was all over the leading duo and took second place from Vincent after the long back straight, then used his Bridgestone rubber to power past Poggiali three turns later.

Poggiali now faced a dilemma: Chase Azuma for maximum points and risk falling, or concentrate on denying Vincent. The San Marinese seemed to try his luck at staying with the veteran, but the orange machine began to ease ahead, and Poggiali now had his hands full with Vincent.

And so it was that the race long duel between the two would go down to the final corner, with Poggiali starting the last lap with only the smallest of advantages over Vincent. The Frenchman tucked into the Gilera's slipstream along the back straight and with the bravest of outbraking manoeuvres took second – but Poggiali hadn't given up and looked inside the Aprilia at every turn, albeit to no effect, and the order was Azuma, Vincent and Poggiali as they crossed the line – with Talmacsi taking a career best fourth.

Vincent now holds a championship lead greater than the psychological one race advantage and Poggiali's body language showed his disappointment after giving his all.

But the day belonged to 31 year old Azuma, who once again taught the youngsters how to ride in the wet as he claimed his tenth 125cc Grand Prix victory in the most challenging of conditions – and from just eighteenth on the grid.

Full results to follow…

1. Azuma
2. Vincent
3. Poggiali
4. Talmacsi
5. Nieto
6. Perugini
7. Lorenzo
8. Kallio


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