Alex Criv­ille The un­usual sus­pect

Classic Racer - - THE 1992 DUTCH 500CC GP - Words: Frank Weeink Pho­tos: Don Mor­ley

It was a bizarre week­end – Wayne Rainey sat out the race af­ter in­jur­ing him­self at Hockenheim, Mick Doohan broke his leg in prac­tice, Wayne Gard­ner was a non-starter af­ter a heavy tum­ble and Ed­die Law­son and Kevin Sch­wantz crashed out of the race in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion. But that 1992 Dutch TT turned out to be one of the most thrilling races of the year, with Alex Criv­ille be­com­ing the first Span­ish 500cc Grand Prix win­ner. Among fall­ing stars, an­other one was born...

En­ter­ing Alex Criv­ille in the 500cc class was part of a tac­ti­cal mas­ter­plan. The 1989 125cc world cham­pion was poised to be Spain’s next poster boy in a class where his el­der com­pa­tri­ots had never ex­celled. By pro­mot­ing 22-year-old Criv­ille to the pin­na­cle of Grand Prix rac­ing, Dorna, the Span­ish pro­moter and owner of TV rights, hoped to boost in­ter­est in GPS in their lo­cal mar­ket. It was quite a bur­den on the shoul­ders of the shy but ta­lented, dark-haired Criv­ille, es­pe­cially as af­ter his 125cc world ti­tle he failed to upset the com­pe­ti­tion in the 250 class. As a rookie he fin­ished 11th on a Marl­boro Yamaha TZR250, fol­lowed by a 13th spot over­all in his sec­ond and fi­nal 250 year on an An­to­nio Cobas pre­pared Honda. With­out a 250 win or even a podium, Criv­ille seemed to lack what it took to be­come the great Span­ish hope – but he faired well. For his 500cc rookie sea­son, Barcelona-born Criv­ille teamed up with Sito Pons, a two-time 250 world cham­pion who tried his luck on a 500cc Honda, but re­tired from rac­ing af­ter two lack­lus­tre and in­jury-stricken sea­sons. Pons re­tained his faith­ful spon­sor Campsa and put his trust in Criv­ille. Much to Criv­ille’s de­light, Honda had man­aged to tame its NSR500, the wild beast that bit many a rider with­out warn­ing – or sym­pa­thy – and the 1992 Big Bang en­gine with a much sweeter and smoother power de­liv­ery pro­voked an en­gi­neer­ing rev­o­lu­tion in 500cc rac­ing. “I had just fin­ished my sec­ond and worst 250 sea­son when Sito of­fered me the ride”, re­calls Criv­ille. “I was aware that mov­ing up to the 500s would be a gi­gan­tic step, but it was an of­fer I could not refuse. But it surely wasn't easy.” Still, Criv­ille was soon to find out that even first ten­ta­tive steps could lead to spec­tac­u­lar offs. At his 500cc de­but at a wet Suzuka, he crashed hard. Two races later, Criv­ille showed po­ten­tial by fin­ish­ing third to Mick Doohan and reign­ing cham­pion Wayne Rainey at Shah Alam. “When I got on the podium with Doohan and Rainey in Malaysia I couldn't be­lieve what had just hap­pened”, smiles Criv­ille. “All of a sud­den I was rac­ing the best rid­ers on the planet... Doohan, Rainey, Sch­wantz, Gard­ner, Law­son... The level of rac­ing was so in­sanely high, maybe even the best ever un­til then. I was a great fan of Ed­die’s smooth way of rid­ing, but it was my goal to get as close as pos­si­ble to Doohan.”

Un­ex­pected turn

Af­ter the Hockenheim Grand Prix, the sixth race of the year, the sea­son took an un­ex­pected turn. Rainey crashed in prac­tice and be­cause of an in­jured and ex­tremely painful an­kle, failed to fin­ish the race. Two weeks later, it took the Amer­i­can eight laps on the de­mand­ing 3.7 mile Assen track to re­alise do­ing 20 in the race would be im­pos­si­ble. “It's time I lis­tened to my body”, said a dis­con­so­late Rainey when leav­ing Assen. When he ar­rived home, a fax awaited him, knock­ing him off his feet. Doohan, win­ner of five of the first seven GPS, had lost the front of his NSR do­ing over 100mph and broke his leg dur­ing prac­tice, lead­ing a long list of crash­ers which in­cluded Kevin Sch­wantz, Wayne Gard­ner, Ed­die Law­son, his team-mate Alex Bar­ros, Randy Mamola and rookie Criv­ille. “I al­most couldn't be­lieve it”, Rainey said later. He wasn't the only one. And just when you thought things couldn't get any cra­zier, they did. With cham­pi­onship leader Doohan out of the race and de­fend­ing champ Rainey back in the States, other rid­ers weighed up their chances. One of them was Ed­die Law­son on the beau­ti­ful scar­let Ca­giva. Four-time world cham­pion Law­son was not a big fan of the Assen cir­cuit, but he had won the Dutch Grand Prix in 1987. A win for the Az­zurri team in what was to be his last sea­son in Grands Prix, would be sen­sa­tional and a big com­pli­ment to the team’s en­gi­neers and me­chan­ics. On top of that, Law­son would be awarded with a blood red Fer­rari Tes­tarosso, the prize Ca­giva boss Castiglioni had promised him for a first win. The Ca­giva team, run by Gi­a­como Agostini, was the only qual­ity squad to run the ‘out­sider’ Dun­lop tyres. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing Law­son on the front row were Wayne Gard­ner, John Kocin­ski and dou­ble Dutch TT win­ner Sch­wantz, who was sec­ond in the stand­ings. Juan Gar­riga and fel­low countryman Alex Criv­ille qual­i­fied on the sec­ond row. It was Sch­wantz who took the holeshot for the 20-lap race, with an in­spired rid­ing Law­son on his tail, then it was young Bar­ros and Doug Chan­dler on the sec­ond Lucky Strike Suzuki. Criv­ille was a dis­tant sixth, mov­ing up to fifth when Chan­dler crashed. He wasn't the only one to go down: with 14 laps to go, Law­son touched Sch­wantz’s rear wheel go­ing into the first cor­ner, send­ing the Texan and him­self into the dirt. Law­son, who ended up in

ALL OF A SUD­DEN I WAS RAC­ING THE BEST RID­ERS ON THE PLANET... DOOHAN, RAINEY, SCH­WANTZ, GARD­NER, LAW­SON...

a ditch, blamed Sch­wantz whereas Sch­wantz pointed the fin­ger at Law­son. The Suzuki rider broke an arm and was livid, los­ing out on a chance to close that 53 point gap to Doohan. “I was about three sec­onds be­hind them so I couldn’t re­ally see what hap­pened to Kevin and Ed­die,” says Criv­ille. “I did see their bikes fly­ing through the air though. That in­ci­dent had a ma­jor im­pact on how the race would de­velop.” All of a sud­den 21-year-old Bar­ros was lead­ing the race. The like­able Brazil­ian had shown prom­ise and speed but had a ten­dency to get overex­cited dur­ing prac­tices and races. The Ca­giva rider clearly had dif­fi­cul­ties main­tain­ing the same speed as when he was fol­low­ing Sch­wantz and Law­son, and af­ter a few laps he was joined by Gar­riga, Criv­ille and Rainey's team-mate Kocin­ski. Th­ese un­usual sus­pects would be bat­tling for the win, but pick­ing a win­ner proved to be dif­fi­cult. Half­way through the race Criv­ille had gained con­fi­dence enough to slip by Gar­riga into sec­ond and a lap later he passed Bar­ros on the brakes. The Brazil­ian re­gained the lead, with Kocin­ski look­ing in­creas­ingly men­ac­ing. Of the lead­ing quar­tet, the Yamaha rider was the only one with a 500cc win al­ready un­der his belt, but he would have to fight hard to add a sec­ond to that in Assen.

Golden op­por­tu­nity

It was clear that th­ese four rid­ers were new to bat­tling for a 500cc Grand Prix win, with Kocin­ski, Gar­riga and Bar­ros run­ning wide nu­mer­ous times. The only one that seemed to run an er­ror-free race was rookie Criv­ille. In lap 14 of 20 he in­herited the lead when Bar­ros out­braked him­self, but Kocin­ski soon moved past. Kocin­ski, win­ner of the 250cc Grand Prix in Assen in his cham­pi­onship year 1990, saw the Campsa Honda slip­ping by again. “When I got into the lead, my men­tal­ity changed,” re­mem­bers Criv­ille. “I went ‘wow, I’m lead­ing this Grand Prix’. I re­alised this was a golden op­por­tu­nity for me and I had to do ev­ery­thing to take it. I had to push, not for 99% but for more than 100 and I had to stay fo­cused. “The four of us were run­ning an in­cred­i­bly close race. Juan Gar­riga was fast, Bar­ros was very strong on the brakes, but so was I, and then there was Kocin­ski. I guess he was the quick­est of us all. But I was on my favourite cir­cuit, the old Assen. The fast flow­ing cor­ners

suited my rid­ing style. Three years ear­lier, I was fight­ing for the win in the 125cc class but was beaten by lo­cal hero Hans Spaan, and in 1990 I qual­i­fied on the first row on a 250. “In 1991 I worked with An­to­nio Cobas again, af­ter I’d raced his bike to the 125 ti­tle in 1989. He joined me as a crew chief when I ac­cepted Sito’s of­fer. An­to­nio was very ex­pe­ri­enced and he gave me a great bike that day in Assen. “His 250 Kobas was slow in 1991, but the chas­sis he con­structed was amaz­ing. In Assen he lifted the rear of my 500, put in a harder spring and low­ered the front. I al­most crashed a cou­ple of times, be­cause in the fast sweep­ing cor­ners it felt like a snake some­times. But oth­er­wise it felt sta­ble.” With five laps to go, Criv­ille was lead­ing but two laps later a per­sist­ing Bar­ros squeezed past – just for an in­stant. “He passed me go­ing into the last chi­cane be­fore the startfin­ish straight, but I got him back brak­ing for the first cor­ner. He tried again, but I kept the door closed.”

First-ever GP podium

Lead­ing the race, Criv­ille started the last lap of what had been a crazy but fas­ci­nat­ing Dutch TT. Criv­ille was on the limit, touch­ing white lines here and there, while be­hind him Bar­ros lost sec­ond to Kocin­ski af­ter a ter­ri­fy­ing mo­ment that had him out of the sad­dle. Criv­ille kept a cool head and main­tained his small lead, which was only 0.762 to Kocin­ski on the line. In his slip­stream Bar­ros claimed his first-ever Grand Prix podium fin­ish. Criv­ille had not just won his first 500cc race in only his eighth start, Pons’ pro­tégé had also be­come the first Span­ish win­ner of a 500cc Grand Prix. His win­ning time was 35 sec­onds slower than when Sch­wantz won the race in 1991 and Gar­riga’s fastest lap was over two sec­onds shy of Sch­wantz’s lap record – but Criv­ille and the highly en­ter­tained crowd did not seem to mind. “When I crossed that fin­ish line.... I could not be­lieve that I’d won a 500cc Grand Prix in my first year,” smiles the now 46-year-old Criv­ille. “Of course I had been lucky, but I didn’t care. Sito was over the moon too. On the podium he even stood in front of me. Some­body shouted out to him ‘hey Sito, it was Alex who won, not you’. I was on the front pages of many Span­ish news­pa­pers and I had be­come a star overnight, the first Span­ish rider to win a 500cc Grand Prix... But I knew I wasn't ready for the world ti­tle. I was re­al­is­tic, I was far too in­ex­pe­ri­enced. But I did know that you could im­prove your­self if you’re ta­lented.” Af­ter that first il­lu­sive win, the sup­port Honda gave the Pons team did not change dra­mat­i­cally. How­ever, the his­toric win did do Criv­ille some favours. “Doors started open­ing for me at Honda. The year af­ter that the Honda sup­port grew, Marl­boro signed up as the team’s ti­tle spon­sor and in 1995 I was of­fered a spot in the Rep­sol Honda fac­tory team.” Fi­nally, Criv­ille joined Mick Doohan, the man that he had re­garded as the best 500cc rider around. Af­ter his maiden vic­tory in Assen, it took Criv­ille three years to rack up his sec­ond 500cc win, in front of a de­lighted home crowd in Barcelona. In 1996 the quiet Spa­niard turned into Doohan’s fiercest ri­val – and a silent as­sas­sin at times. The two team-mates scored eight one-twos for the Rep­sol Honda Team, with some mem­o­rable fin­ishes be­tween the two. In Jerez, Doohan passed race leader Criv­ille go­ing into the fi­nal cor­ner, while the crazy crowds had al­most in­vaded the track. A frus­trated Criv­ille high­sided out of the cor­ner, but took his re­venge in Brno later that year when he out­smarted Doohan to take the win by a mar­gin of 0.002 sec­onds. At Doohan’s home race in East­ern Creek the bat­tle came to an anti-cli­max when an over­am­bi­tious Criv­ille knocked Doohan and him­self out of the race in the last lap, hand­ing Loris Capirossi the win. “Your per­cep­tion of rac­ing needs to be fine-tuned,” an an­gry Doohan warned his younger team-mate in the pit­box af­ter­wards. It was Doohan’s prac­tice crash at Jerez in 1999 that fi­nally paved the way for Criv­ille. His home fans cel­e­brated a flaw­less win, the first of six that year.

His­tory books

With Doohan bow­ing out in­jured, Criv­ille wrote an­other page in the Span­ish rac­ing his­tory books when he was crowned the first Span­ish 500cc World Cham­pion in Brasil, a race be­fore the sea­son fin­ished. A de­serv­ing cham­pion in 1999, Criv­ille un­der-per­formed in 2000 and was trou­bled with bad luck in 2001. He left Rep­sol Honda to join the Yamaha team of countryman and for­mer racer Luis D'antin. Un­for­tu­nately, be­fore the sea­son started, Criv­ille was forced to throw in the towel, due to epilep­tic at­tacks, pos­si­bly caused by his many crashes. Criv­ille left the rac­ing com­mu­nity as a two-time World Cham­pion, and a 15 time 500cc win­ner. Af­ter his 1992 vic­tory he never won again in his beloved Assen, how­ever. Criv­ille claimed an­other two third places and three sec­onds in the Nether­lands, as well as some big and painful crashes. It seemed as if he had used up his por­tion of ‘Assen luck’ in 1992. “But that year, that win...”, ac­knowl­edges Criv­ille, “That was spe­cial. My first 500 win – and one of my best ever.”

I COULD NOT BE­LIEVE THAT I’D WON A 500CC GRAND PRIX IN MY FIRST YEAR

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