IF nervousness is just a state of mind, why hasn’t my brain told my legs and hands? Every inch of every limb is shaking in anticipation as the countdown to my ride begins.
I’ve ridden hundreds of the world’s most exotic bikes, but nothing can match this. This bike, in its various incarnations, has won more 500 GPs than any other (132, to be precise). And this specific bike is the one that won the last 500 GP as well as the last 500 world title.
It’s world champion Valentino Rossi’s priceless NSR500 and it’s the most bad-arsed bike ever to have ruled world championship racing.
My ride also marks the end of a glorious era of ring-a-ding two-stroke racing. From next season, GPs go four-stroke. Rossi will ride Honda’s new RCV V5, Max Biaggi will be aboard Yamaha’s YZR-M1 in-line four and Kenny Roberts will be on Suzuki’s XREO V4. Sure, there will still be 500s on the grids, but not for long. After a quarter of a century of world domination, this is the beginning of the end for 500 two-strokes and we will never see their like again.
Some people – not least the hundreds of riders who suffered bone-crunching highsides on 500s – won’t be sad to see the back of them. The earlier 500 strokers, like the Yamaha OW26 with which Giacomo Agostini won the first two-stroke title in 1975, were nasty pieces of work with wafer-thin powerbands from motors that might seize at any moment.
Rossi’s NSR is a world apart from the bad manners of its forbears, but it’s still an unforgiving bitch to ride.
With greater acceleration than many brains can react to, it is a truly wondrous piece of kit which simultaneously delights and terrifies like no other motorcycle.
And I’m getting emotional just waiting for my go. I know this should be the greatest ride of my life, but all the NSR does is make me feel desperately inadequate. It’s like being in bed with three women – there’s just too much to do all at once, there’s no way I can keep (it) up, so the whole thing becomes more hilarious than satisfying.
How do I describe the NSR’s acceleration? I could use the well-worn phrase " like a bullet from a gun " , but that would be inadequate. It’s more than ballistic, it’s insane.
I’m not just speeding forward, I’m also heading skyward in a stomach-churning crescendo of violent thrust, feathering the throttle to try to keep the front down, fighting to keep the bike from veering left or right, then shifting gears, shifting gears, and then shifting gears some more as the tacho needle nudges its 13,000rpm red line in what seems like a nanosecond at the swop of each ratio.
I’m scared, but wildly thrilled, though if I’m honest, I can’t afford to really let go and enjoy myself, because there’s a massive weight of responsibility resting on my shoulders.
There’s only one of these bikes in existence and I alone, at this very moment in time, am the only person in the world with the power to destroy it in an instant should I make a mistake.
That focuses my concentration, but makes my back end pucker more violently than a chewed up slick.
All of a sudden I’m deep into Jerez’s turn-one braking zone, hauling on the brakes, my arms buckling as the carbon stoppers bite like demons.
I aim for the apex and the NSR drags me in so quickly it’s like jumping off a cliff. The contents of my stomach turn and churn.
And all the time the thing’s willing me to crank it over more.
Limits are subjective things and the NSR’s go far further than mine. And I’m no slouch thanks to a long race career with some decent successes.
However heroic I think I am and however hard I feel the " G " nailing me to the Tarmac, I can sense the mighty NSR hissing derisively: " You’re rubbish, you are. You really are. "
Then, treating the throttle with more respect than I’ve ever given a throttle in my life, I ease it on, shift another gear and there I am, already at the hairpin, desperately trying to keep up with what’s going on.
The carbon discs and lunatic-fast steering take care of my deficiencies and I’m through nice and easy, doling out more respect as I shortshift through the fast double-left where NSR god Mick Doohan ended his career. And so on and so forth, in a breathless,
brain-frazzling maelstrom until I’m dead beat, my brain and reactions far more fried than my body.
I’m happy to see the chequered flag after my allotted four laps. That’s right, I’m knackered, so knackered I’m ready for bed, after just four laps.
Despite the madness, the NSR is incredibly easy to get around a race track, though. It depends on how well you resist the temptation to try too hard. Of course, you want to take it further, but the worst thing you can do is start to feel confident. This bike is as user-friendly as you could like, until you open the throttle properly, and then you’re no longer riding a motorcycle, you’re controlling a ground-attack missile.
To be honest, all analogies fall way short of the mark, so maybe putting it into numbers might give the uninitiated a better idea of what a 500 is really like. Here goes: Rossi’s bike weighs 130kg (286lb), the same as Honda’s 12bhp NSR125 road bike, and delivers 190bhp, all of those horses arriving in lightning-quick two-stroke style. Think about that.
Little wonder that Rossi is going to miss his NSR. Next year the Italian genius will race Honda’s 200bhp RCV, but he already knows which bike gives him the biggest kicks. At the last few GPs of 2001 the extrovert Italian did as many laps on the NSR as he could, muttering before the year’s penultimate race: " I have just two more GPs in which to ride a real bike. "
So why does he rate the 500 so highly? " The satisfaction of riding the 500 is a big motivation for me, " he explains. " I think it’s necessary to have big balls to ride the 500. The four-stroke may be faster, but for sure it doesn’t give the same sensation. When you’re riding the 500, the most difficult bike in the world, it’s necessary to have a perfect set-up and you’ve also got to ride perfectly all the time. "
It’s all about riding the razor’s edge. The new breed of GP four-strokes may be quicker, but they won’t give that same skating-on-the-edge-of-disaster feeling that racers crave. When a rider gets it right on a 500, he’s climbed Mount Everest.
Chris Walker, who had a torrid, crash-happy time with an NSR last season, puts it like this: " If you go through a corner on a 500, don’t get it quite right and think about it, you’ve missed the next turn! There’s so much thinking, the trouble is that everything happens so fast. If you make a mistake, you’re generally wearing it, whereas on a superbike you get some warning when it goes wrong.
" On a 500, you miss a gear going into a corner and that’s it, you’ve crashed. Do that on a superbike and you’ll probably be all right – you bang down the gears and find one, run wide and maybe touch the grass, but the chances are you get away with it. If you watch a 500 GP there aren’t many mistakes made because a mistake generally means a crash. "
Walker rode a year-old NSR last season, like the bike Rossi raced when he first came to 500s in 2000. Honda quickly realised the young genius deserved something more. " The old bike had a lack of rear traction compared to the Yamaha and Suzuki, so Valentino would be spinning the rear rather than going forward, " says Jeremy Burgess, Rossi’s engineer, who also looked after Doohan.
" They built a new bike for the last few races of 2000, with the engine higher and further back for better traction. The higher engine position also threw more weight on to the front during braking, improving traction into turns. Then we just played around with suspension and linkages to fix the speed of weight transfer from rear to front. "
Further improvements were made for 2001 – with different cylinders, ignition mapping and some very special carburettors – but it wasn’t until mid-season, when Max Biaggi and his Marlboro Yamaha had closed to within 10 points of Rossi, that Burgess and his crew got the best from the NSR.
" We changed a lot during the next few races – shocks, suspension links, geometry, engine bits, everything, " says the Australian. " That allowed us to make big improvements in handling, through suspension and geometry. "
From then on Biaggi couldn’t match Rossi’s pace, and maybe that’s why he crashed out of three races in six weeks, handing the title to his bitter rival.
Rossi attributes his end-of-season speed to Burgess’ expertise. " After mid-season we had a few better parts from HRC, but it was the team that made the difference because they changed their way of working to suit me, " says the champ.
" Mick had a different riding style from me, he didn’t use so much corner speed, so he had less of a problem with settings. He used to slide and go, like a real 500 rider. But I came from 250s, so I had to change my style to go into corners a little slower and though I learned to understand slide control and started to slide like Mick, I was still faster in the middle of the corner. Not because I’m a better rider, just because I have a different technique.
" And to ride with this style, using more corner speed, you have to have more accurate settings. All the suspension settings changed, to give me more front tyre grip, but most of all the bike started to turn better. The Honda 500 had always had a turning problem, it would always run wide. Now the bike is better from that point of view. "
All that effort and now the bike is being consigned to obsolescence.
Well, not quite. While Rossi and HRC team-mate Tohru Ukawa race the new RCV in 2002, Daijiro Katoh, Loris Capirossi, Alex Barros and Jurgen van den Goorbergh will ride NSR500s, and who knows, maybe the four-strokes won’t have it all their own way in 2002.