This weekend, the 500cc two-strokes open the door of the last chance saloon in Valencia, as the final MotoGP race of the season gives them one more chance to beat the swanky new four-strokes.

They arrive at the tightest venue of the season in diminishing numbers, with those left to continue fight-battered - both physically and mentally. It will be a sad day for the two-strokes, which have dominated the premier class of grand prix motorcycle racing since 1975 when Giacomo Agostini brought Yamaha the first two-stroke 500cc world title. From then until the opening grand prix of this season, it's the screaming four-cylinder two-strokes that have been the willing steeds of some great world champions who have produced almost three decades of fabulous grand prix racing.

It only seems like yesterday the green flag at Suzuka in Japan this year signalled a new era in grand prix motorcycle racing. It was a crisp sunny Friday morning in April when the MotoGP fraternity assembled in the pit-lane to watch the 990cc four-strokes take on the all-conquering 500cc two-strokes for the first time in combat. The general consensus of opinion that was it would be a hard fought seven-month battle throughout the 16 rounds, with the four-strokes likely to come out on top.

It turned out so very differently, however. If it had been a boxing contest, it would have been stopped before half distance to prevent the two-strokes taking any more unnecessary punishment. They have been simply pulverised by the new four-strokes who've pressed home their advantage with a savage contempt for the past. Only twice in 15 weekends of racing has there been a glimmer of hope for the two-strokes and, on both occasions, their optimism was quashed - once by a bit of self-destruction and, the second time, by an opening blast from the start line that left the two-strokes licking their wounds and fighting among themselves for the scraps.

Leading the two-stroke crusade has been the West Honda Pons duo of Loris Capirossi and Alex Barros. It's been a tough time for the pair of them, having to take on the opposition on a far from level playing field. They never gave up the fight, but the difference between the NSR 500cc two-stroke Honda, that had dominated grand prix racing for the last decade, and the new 990cc five-cylinder RCV 211V four-stroke Honda was never more clearly illustrated when Barros defected to the four-strokes for the last four races of the season.

On his very first appearance on the machine in front of the Honda bosses at the Pacific Grand Prix at Motegi in Japan, Barros won, beating the new world champion Valentino Rossi into second place. A week later at Sepang in Malaysia he was involved in another tremendous battle with Rossi before, finally, having to settle for third place after some fairing bashing with the champion that would have made the two-strokes proud.

Seven days later, on just his third appearance on the machine, Barros was at it again around the magnificent Phillip Island circuit in Australia. He led until five-and-a-half laps from the finish and then fought tooth-and-nail with Rossi, despite a clutch problem, only to take to the slip road at the hairpin on the very last lap and eventually finish second.

Ironically, it was Barros who had the best chance of the season of inflicting the only defeat on the four-strokes. There was a sniff of surprise in the air when the grid lined up for the 30-lap race at the Sachsenring in Germany. Two two-strokes up with the elite on the front row, with Olivier Jacques Yamaha in pole and Barros's Honda in fourth place, providing the bread in the sandwich of the four-strokes of Tohru Ukawa and Max Biaggi.

For once, the grid did not lie and both Barros and Jacque had taken their turns at the front as they prepared for the final assault by Rossi, chasing his seventh consecutive victory on the RCV Honda four-stroke. With just four laps remaining, it was going to be close as they raced across the start and finish line with the two-strokes of Jacque and Barros leading Rossi by a whisker.

The frustration of banging his head against the four-stroke wall for the previous nine races boiled over at the first bend, a tight downhill right-hander, however, and Barros went up the inside of Jacque on the brakes while Rossi could only watch from behind. The Brazilian had left it very, very late to apply the anchors and, as it turned out, too late. He went down amid the sparks and took Jacque's Yamaha with him, like a ten pin bowler despatching that very last pin, leaving the path clear for Rossi to secure yet another victory.

Nearly three months later, at Phillip Island, there was even a whiff of sensation in the strong wind that whips from the Bass straight and across the circuit with four - yes four - two-strokes completing the front row of the grid. Could this be the day the two-strokes staged a final last-ditch stand?

Not a chance. By the time the leaders had reached the first corner at the end of the straight, the two-strokes had been blown into that Bass Straight wind and the familiar story unfolded.

For Capirossi, in particular, it's been a harrowing time, not that you would know from his performances. Going into a race knowing you have little or realistically no chance of victory is not pleasant experience for a double world champion. Twice he's put the NSR Honda on the podium. The first time in South Africa where he chased Tohru Ukawa and Rossi to the line, and at Motegi where he celebrated a great day for the West Honda Pons team by finishing a superb third in a race won by Barros, at a race track that was surely built with four-stroke power in mind.

Capirossi also paid a painful penalty for fighting the two-strokes cause when he broke his wrist when he crashed in the Dutch TT in Assen and missed two races. He seeks fresh pastures next year. His bravery and determination on the track, which is in total contrast to his friendly courteous nature once out of the saddle, will be sadly missed by everybody in the Barcelona-based team. If Capirossi could not bring the two-strokes a victory this season then nobody could.

The Valencia race on Sunday will signal the end of an era. The two-strokes may be gone when the chequered flag drops for the last time this season, but they will never be forgotten and who knows when, or if, they will return.



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