View our column profiling Yamaha's 50 years of involvement in racing. Vol.28A diamond in the rough catches the eyes of Rainey and Roberts
After only managing to qualify 11th, Norifumi Abe pulled off a super start from the third row on the grid to rocket past several riders and charge off in pursuit of the leaders. At the end of the first lap he roared past the grandstand in 4th position, having caught up to the defending champion, Mick Doohan (Honda). By the third lap he had caught the pole starter, Alex Criville and moved into 3rd position. After that he let Doohan past him but caught up with Katsuaki Fujiwara (Suzuki) and Alex Barros (Honda) to take 2nd position.
The scene was the GP500 race of the 1996 Japan GP, and Abe's stunning performance was reminiscent of the Japan GP two year's earlier.
Abe had won the title in the 500cc class of the All Japan Road Race Championship in 1993 riding for a Honda satellite team at the young age of 18. In 1994, he was riding for Honda in the All Japan Superbike class and looking for a chance to participate in the World GP. "The race two years earlier" was the Japan GP he had been a wild card entry.
In that race he had moved up soon after the start to battle fiercely for the lead with Kevin Schwantz (Suzuki) and Luca Cadalora. On the first corner of the 19th lap, however, he crashed out big-time. Even though he was unable to finish the race, he had made a big impression on the race community and the fans.
The first to take action was Wayne Rainey. Having watched Abe with great interest from the qualifying, Rainey told Abe that he would get back to him later. True to those words, Rainey sent an offer a few days later for Abe to join his Yamaha 250cc factory team. The offer said he wanted Abe to start riding for the 250cc with the possibility that he could then move up to the 500cc class after two years.
Normally, such a change of factories mid-season was unthinkable, but Abe was determined to move to the World GP. He announced that he was cancelling his entry in the Superbike All Japan Road Race Championship at Sportsland SUGO (Miyagi Pref.) on July 3rd and would join Team Rainey.
Two weeks later, Abe was at Donington Park in the UK. He was there to enter the GP500 class race in the British GP as replacement for the Team Roberts rider Daryl Beattie, who had injured his left leg badly in a crash at the French GP.
In fact, Abe didn't race in that GP. He had taken a fall in the free practice and broken a finger in his right hand. Nonetheless, he was able to enter the following Czech GP and the American GP rounds, both of which he managed to finish and impressive 6th. These performances won him a seat on Team Roberts for the full 1995 World GP season.
As it turned out, this was the start of a long and trying period of challenge for Abe. There was a seemingly unbridgeable gap between what he knew he could do and his actual results in race after race. By the time the 1995 season ended, Abe had only been able to manage one podium finish with a 3rd place and ended up disappointingly low on the ranking with 9th place.
Entering the 1996 season, things didn't seem to get any better for Abe. At the opening round in Malaysia he finished 8th and in the Indonesian GP he was 9th. More than anyone else, Abe himself was desperate to get back the kind of riding he had shown two years earlier.
He asked himself what it was he was lacking. He would look over the video of that 2004 Japan GP race time and again to try to regain that image of himself racing with fearless abandon. Winning was the only thing he had in his mind.
Finally the stage was set. It was April 21st, the day of the Japan GP. As he raced, Abe was a different man. He had recovered that feeling. On lap eight he passed Doohan to take the lead. It was indeed a replay of the race two years earlier. But the finish would not be the same. Unleashing all his pent up frustration from the past year, Abe power-slid his YZR500 through the turns and wouldn't lead anyone get the better of him. Doohan began to drop back through the field, and the stubborn Barros and Takuma Aoki (Honda) crashed out of the contest. Even Criville (Honda) who had held onto 2nd position gave up his chase as Abe pressed on.
Relentlessly, Abe stuck to his blazing pace and even quickened it in the closing stages to record the fastest lap of the race several times. At the finish he had opened up an awesome 7-second gap over the field.
After the finish, Abe was shouting one moment and crying the next, overcome with emotion.
"I told myself that even crashing would be better than not winning here today. So I went all out. After a while I was aware that no one was chasing me anymore, but I thought that if I slackened the pace I would lose. I was determined to win in style, giving it everything I had. But, I'm really glad I didn't crash!" he said with a laugh.