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Daijiro Kato: In remembrance of Japan´s brightest star

Daijiro Kato: In remembrance of Japan´s brightest star

Daijiro Kato: In remembrance of Japan´s brightest star

Born on the 4th July 1976 in Saitama, Japan, Daijiro Kato lived and ultimately died for motorcycle racing. As a toddler, Daijiro began riding pocket-bikes at the age of three, and was racing within two years. His rise through the ranks of national and international competition was spectacular and swift, and culminated with the 250cc World Championship title in 2001.

He progressed to the MotoGP World Championship, the ultimate aspiration of all motorcycle racers, where he excelled in his rookie season and established himself in many people's eyes as the greatest Japanese rider of all time, touted as his country's brightest hope of lifting the coveted MotoGP title. Over the years Kato built a reputation as a smooth, technically complete rider and a fierce competitor, whilst away from the racetrack his naturally calm and affable nature won him many friends, admirers and a legion of loyal fans across the world.

By the age of nine Kato had already begun demonstrating his immense talent as he conquered the Japanese pocket-bike championship. In 1987, aged eleven, he stepped up to mini-bike racing and was national champion for four successive seasons between 1988 and 1991. He made his full road racing debut in 1992 and took his first victory in the 250cc All Japan Championship in 1994, finishing the series in seventh place. In 1996 he was runner-up in the same series but the world was already taking note of his name, as he stormed to third place on his World Championship debut as a 250cc wildcard rider at Suzuka.

HRC made him their official rider for the 1997 season and he delivered the goods in unprecedented fashion, winning the All Japan Championship, setting pole position in the Suzuka 8 Hour and taking a stylish first Grand Prix victory on just his second wildcard appearance at the increasingly talismanic circuit. He repeated the victory one year later, this time from pole position, but had to wait patiently for his big Grand Prix chance, which came at the start of 2000.

$$$ Kato began his first full 250cc season with Honda´s Axo Gresini Racing Team, and instantly struck up a winning chemistry with the Italian outfit. In the pit box his precise, careful approach and quietly methodical nature blended perfectly with the passion and flair of his Latin colleagues, whilst away from the circuit he enjoyed a quiet life on the coast of Italy with his wife Makiko, as far away as possible from the fast cars and ritzy glamour enjoyed by many of his contemporaries. His broken Italian and English provided the paddock with brief glimpses behind the steely guard of his combative armour, revealing an acute sense of humour and a warm, sensitive nature.

In spite of fears that he would struggle to adapt to the World Championship circuits, Kato stormed to victory at Estoril, Rio and Motegi – as well as Suzuka - and fought for the title with Olivier Jacque and Shinya Nakano until the final race. Kato capped an incredible 2000 season with a first victory in the Suzuka 8 Hour Endurance race alongside his close friend and factory colleague Tohru Ukawa.

$$$ Team boss Fausto Gresini wasted no time in sealing Kato´s signature for the following season, when the Japanese promise began as many people's favourite for the title. However, nobody within the sport was prepared for the domination Kato would demonstrate in just his second year in World Championship competition, as he set new records for the most wins in a season – his incredible total of eleven beating the previous record of ten set by MotoGP Legends Mike Hailwood and Anton Mang - and the highest ever points total in the quarter-litre class.

Gresini and Kato stepped forward together in 2002 as they took delivery of the last ever factory Honda NSR500 and prepared to take on the elite of motorcycle racing in the MotoGP World Championship. Despite the dominance of the new generation four-stroke prototypes that season, in particular the Honda RC211V, Kato took second place in his third appearance aboard the NSR at Jerez, the highest placed finish of any two-stroke rider that year.

$$$ During the summer break Kato confirmed his four-stroke potential with a second Suzuka 8 hour victory alongside Colin Edwards on the VTR1000SPW, and at Brno Honda decided to switch him to an RCV. The results were instant, as he qualified second on the grid and took second position in the race. It would prove to be Kato´s only podium appearance with the RC211V, however, as technical problems blighted his adaptation to the machine over the remaining six races and allowed him only the small bonus of pole position at Motegi.

$$$ Kato´s fans eagerly anticipated the start of the 2003 season, when their hero would return to Suzuka, the scene of his greatest triumphs, to begin a fresh assault on the MotoGP title with the RC211V. However, their devastating loss after three laps of that tragic race would be shared by the MotoGP community across the world. For thirteen days Daijiro Kato fought for his life with the bravery and courage that marked him out as a hero on the racetrack, but which ultimately put paid to his life - doing what he loved the most, in front of his adoring fans, at his talisman circuit.

Japan´s brightest star has faded, but will continue to burn brightly in his two young children and in the hearts of all those whose lives were touched by his talent and personality from near and from afar, both on and off the racetrack.

MotoGP, 2003

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