It may not have been quite that distinctive wail that the previous evening had brought memories flooding back of the Sixties, but the roar that rebounded from the packed Circuit de Catalunya grandstands still made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It was the sound that heralded a new era of grand prix motorcycle racing and it sounded pretty good.

Anybody who watched grand prix racing in the sixties will tell you that it was as much the sound of the motorcycles as the skill and bravery of the likes of the late great Mike Hailwood that made it such a golden era. To sit on a farm wall near Ramsey on the Isle a Man TT circuit and hear the piercing scream of Hailwood's six cylinder Honda battling with the more dulcet tones of Giacomo Agostini's three or four cylinder MV Agustas, both playing their repertoire through the gearbox as they approached you from at least six miles away, is a sound never to be forgotten.

It was not Honda or MV Agusta that gave us a hint of what to expect in 2002 but Yamaha, who took the unprecedented step of letting the 85,000 crowd and?millions of television viewers world-wide watch their new four-stroke grand prix bike perform in public before the start of the Catalunya Grand Prix in Barcelona. What a moment when the YZR-M1 Yamaha emerged into the sunshine from the darkened Yamaha garage with it's in line four cylinder engine revving merrily under the throttle hand of test rider Norihiko Fujiwara.

All preparations for the grand prix came to an abrupt end as both eyes and ears focussed on the progress of the YZR-M1 as Fujiwara rode round the 4.727km (2.937 miles) Circuit de Catalunya. It was over as quick as it started, with Fujiwara scuttling back into the darkness and security of the Yamaha garage after just two laps. It was just enough to wet the appetite.

Both current Yamaha grand prix riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa have tested the YZR-M1 machine and they carried on these tests in Barcelona last week, albeit not under the glare of public scrutiny. Unfortunately, in the final day of testing a broken hose caused American John Kocinski to crash and break his arm. He will be out of action for a month but the test programme continues. Yamaha will run a two rider four-stroke team next season and at the moment they seem the most advanced of the factories as they prepare for 2002.

The previous evening it had been Honda's turn to unveil their answer to the new four-stroke challenge that was their domain in the Sixties until the arrival of the two-strokes. Fittingly, to finish their dinner to celebrate their 500 grands prix victories they unveiled the 990cc RCV V5 engine that has already been extensively tested in the bike back in Japan. Honda has already built and tested three RCV machines and next year will field a two rider four-stroke team. World 500cc Championship leader Valentino Rossi also revealed he had ridden the machine at Suzuka in Japan before the start of the season.

The film and the sound of the new bike in action was a fitting end to Honda's celebrations. In many ways they were back where Soichiro Honda started when his RC142 machines took on the world for the very first time at the 1959 TT races in the Isle of Man. As always it's Honda that have pushed the limits by building a five cylinder V-5 machine when others have gone for more simple options. Soichiro Honda would definitely approved.

The speculation about world champions Suzuki's involvement in the new era was finally ended with a well-timed announcement in Barcelona. While lips were being licked at the prospect of the Yamaha demonstration and the Honda unveiling, out of the blue Suzuki announced its plans in true James Bond style. The company had wanted to wait until Assen this weekend to make the announcement, but its timing was perfect two weeks earlier.

The day before the Honda unveiling and two days before the Yamaha demonstration, Suzuki revealed that it is developing a 990cc 16-valve V-four engine mounted in the existing championship-winning chassis. The company will not enter the four-stroke fray until 2003 and next year will continue to campaign the successful two-stroke RGV-Gamma machines that brought Kenny Roberts the world title last year. The project has been code named the XREO and the engine, which features fuel injection, is predicted to produce more than 210 bhp.

The Suzuki announcement just highlighted what the 2002 season holds in store. The new unraced four-stroke machines fighting with the full developed two-strokes that have won the world 500cc title for the last 26 years. The battle will not just be confined to the all conquering Japanese factories either, as superbike star Ducati has already pledged its support with a $30 million development programme of a twin-cylinder grand prix machine. Formula One giant Sauber has also unveiled a four-stroke motorcycle engine and there are rumours that BMW is thinking about pitting its considerable skills against the best. Aprilia is certain to enter, while Kawasaki could be tempted. Kenny Roberts Sr is seeking funds to help him build a three-cylinder four-stroke machine.

Surely this is what grand prix racing is all about. Engineers pushing the parameters of technical innovation to the limit to provide the very best riders with the very best machinery.

Next year it could be a close run contest between two-stroke and four-strokes. After that there will only be one winner and Phil Read and MV Augusta's record of the last four-stroke winner in 1974 will disappear in a cacophony of sound.


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