Alex Criville The unusual suspect
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.”
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.
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.
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