Flashback Friday: 1991 Malaysian Grand Prix

Cycle News Staff | October 11, 2013
Pulled from the Cycle News Archives - Australian Mick Doohan  3  leads Jon Kocinski  19   Wayne Gardner  5  and Juan Garriga  6  early in the first-ever 500cc Grand Prix of Malaysia. Photography by Patrick Gosling

Australian Mick Doohan (3) leads John Kocinski (19), Wayne Gardner (5) and Juan Garriga (6) early in the first-ever 500cc Grand Prix of Malaysia. Photography by Patrick Gosling

For this week’s flashback Friday, we’re looking back to not only the first Malaysian Grand Prix, but also Jon Kocinski’s first win in the premier class. He would go on to win three more Grands Prix afterwards – one more with Marlboro Yamaha and two with Cagiva.

By Michael Scott

SHAH ALAM, MALAYSIA, SEPT. 29 – The Malaysian Grand Prix was a little bit of history. It was not only the first race in this country, and the last GP of the 1991 season -but also the first 500cc-class victory for John Kocinski.                          .

The win, in sweaty and humid conditions at the grandiosely named Shah Alam Motor Sport Paradise outside Kuala Lumpur, may have been achieved in the absence of two of the leading players. But it will surely not be the young American’s last.

Double champion Wayne Rainey and rival Kevin Schwantz were both out, injured the week before in testing crashes. But the 1990 250cc World Champion’s Marlboro Yamaha had already dominated the tests by then, and he kept right on through timed practice and into the race itself, leading from the second lap to defeat Wayne Gardner’s Rothmans Honda by six seconds. In the process, he also beat the Australian former champion for fourth place in the championship.

After a first 500cc season that began with brash brilliance but soon ran into the doldrums, it was the second coming of a massively talented rider. And this time, as he said before the race, he was here to stay.

Michael Doohan was a distant third, after his Rothmans Honda ran into handling problems. The result meant that the Australian, already second in the World Championship, failed by just one point to match title winner Rainey ‘s gross points score (final results are taken only after dropping the two worst scores).

Ducados Yamaha’s Juan Garriga was fourth, with fifth going to Kevin Magee, riding a Yamaha in his first GP since April, when he rode a Suzuki in the Australian GP at Phillip Island.

The 500cc race was processional and rather thin, with Eddie Lawson also absent due to  injury, and Cagiva teammate Alexandre Barros failing to return as hoped.

But the 32,000-strong crowd had a thrilling 250 race, with Carlos Cardus and Luca Cadalora (Repsol and Rothmans Hondas, respectively) battling virtually from start to finish. On the last lap alone, the lead changed hands five times – but it was new champion

Cadalora who crossed the line first, by less than a tenth of a second.  Title runner-up Helmut Bradl and his HB Honda was third; with Aprilia’s Loris Reggiani just fending off Martin Wimmer and the Lucky Strike Suzuki to take fourth. Wilco Zeelenberg had been up near the front, but crashed early on without injury.

The 125cc GP was a minor epic, with seven bikes disputing the lead at one point. It was won by double-champion Loris Capirossi, who stamped his authority in the closing laps to draw narrowly away from the pair of Japanese riders Kazuto Sakata and Nobuyuki Wakai, both on the rostrum for the first time.

500cc GP

For just one lap, there was still a chance that it might be an exciting race. Doohan led from Kocinski, with Gardner hard up behind, Garriga hanging on gamely, and Jean-Phillipe Ruggia on his heels.

On the second lap, Doohan was still in front at the end of the back straight and into the second-gear Lucky Strike Loop. But Kocinski got the power on early and hard on the exit, nipped past into the next bend – and from then on he was never headed.

There was another flutter of excitement on lap four when Gardner moved through into second. Could he catch Kocinski, and keep control of fourth place overall in the championship?

It soon became clear that he couldn’t, with Kocinski now pulling away at half-a-second a lap or better, so that by lap l0 he was more than four seconds in the lead. Now the only hope for his rivals was that he would tire, or lose concentration – but there was none of that either.

“I know a lot of people thought that might happen in the heat,” said Kocinski afterwards. “But I didn’t have any trouble, and I was even able to back off in the last four laps without losing concentration. It was only after I undid my leathers that suddenly my body temperature seemed to go up by 20 degrees.”    

He managed a becoming modesty in victory, saying: “I have a lot of people

to thank – my team kept their motivation even when we went through a dry patch. I still have a lot to learn. I won’t feel satisfied until I can finish up front weekend after weekend.”

Gardner kept on, still pushing so the gap never really did get much larger than six seconds. “You never know what’s going to happen in racing, and you never give up.” But he was having trouble getting the power down on the corner exits, with the usual problem of persistent wheelspin. ” It wasn’t the heat-it was just difficult to get grip,” he said, without actually putting the finger on Michelin.

Which was nice of him – in fact his rear was shredded.                    .

He added: “The bike wasn’t working any better to get my best result of the year. I was riding it harder.”  By race end, the evidence of that was clear to see, with the tire comprehensively shredded.

Doohan kept dropping back to finish 15 seconds adrift of Gardner. “In some ways it was my worst race of the year,” he said. “If Schwantz and Rainey had been here I would have been fifth, and as it was I got a signal that (he guy behind was catching me.” (It was Ruggia, soon to retire with engine trouble.)

“The thing was wobbling its brains out. When John came up behind me, I could feel it weaving. It felt like a broken frame, though I don ‘t think it was that really. But the bike was perfect in the morning, and bad in the afternoon. I even had to back off into the fast corner at the end of the straight.” After the race, his mechanics were still investigating;   while Michelin were examining his tires, to see if they could trace the problem.

Behind this battle, Garriga had been fending off Ruggia until his rear tire started sliding, and he was unable to keep the pressure on. Then, with four laps left, Ruggia pulled out  with motor problems.

Meanwhile, Kevin Magee was also not quite able to get closer to the Spaniard than a tantalizing two seconds at the finish. “We had engine trouble, and had to change everything the night before the race,” the Australian said. “We had to guess at carburation and gearbox settings, and we weren’t quite spot-on.” But he was happy enough to have started at all and to have finished strongly.

Sixth-placed Mackenzie fought his way through after losing ground at the beginning with a clutch that slipped for the first two laps. “I hit (Didier) de Radigues a couple of times, and I also had some wheelspin,” he said.

“But later on I could match Magee’s times, though I was too far back to catch him.” He finished 20 seconds behind the Australian.

He and fellow Sonauto-Yamaha rider Adrien Morillas were mixed up with de Radigues, who was troubled with front and rear wheel sliding on one of Schwantz’ s bikes, which he had found (like Schwantz) was a sensitive machine that was either set up perfectly or was way off. His was the latter, and he said: “I nearly crashed so often.” In the end, Morillas led him across the line for seventh by just over half-a-second.

They were the last riders on the same lap as the leaders, with Papa’s Honda triple leading the privateers, and two laps adrift. There were 14 finishers.

As well as Ruggia, the retirements were Sito Pons, who had been riding strongly in seventh before he was forced to retire with his injured hand badly swollen; and Doug Chandler, who pitted after only seven laps with terminal front wheel chatter.

Thus the last race was completed in the absence of the first and third placed people in the championship, Rainey and Schwantz, with Doohan’s second place in any case secure. Kocinski and Gardner finished equal on points, but the American’s better results (includ­ ing this win)” gave him fourth place overall. The absent Lawson was sixth.

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