Archives: Criville’s Place in MotoGP History

Larry Lawrence | August 8, 2018

Archives: Criville’s Place in MotoGP History

A photo posted of 1999 FIM 500cc Motorcycle Grand Prix Champion Alex Criville on Facebook generated a lot of reaction. Criville is one of those past GP champions who are often overlooked. Crammed between the domination of Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi (along with American Kenny Roberts, Jr. in 2000) Criville’s accomplishment of winning the premier GP class is often discounted because his came, some say, as a result of Doohan’s crash at Jerez early in the ’99 season, that brought about the Aussie legend’s retirement.

Archives: Criville’s Place in MotoGP History

Alex Criville comes away with a massive legacy as not only the first Spaniard to win a premier class GP race, but the first from his country to win the 500cc Grand Prix World Championship. (Henny Ray Abrams photo)

Another factor may be the timing of Criville’s world title in terms of GP overall popularity. It’s hard to imagine now, but GP racing was at a low point in worldwide popularity as the two-stroke era had seemingly stagnated. Meanwhile World Superbike was flying high and challenging the premier series in terms of attendance and TV ratings. So that fact may further erode the prestige in some people’s eyes of the riders who won GP titles in this quiet era of the championship.

Yet, looked at in a different light, Criville comes away with a massive legacy as not only the first Spaniard to win a premier class GP race, but the first from his country to win the 500cc Grand Prix World Championship. Undoubtedly Criville was an inspiration to young Spanish riders and arguably set in motion the dominance that country would exhibit a decade later with world champs like Lorenzo and Marc Marquez and a host of other leading road racers.

Criville was a wunderkind in Spain, so much so that his birth records were altered so he could start racing at age 14.

His World Championship career got off to an incredible start, taking second place on his debut in the old 80cc class in 1987. In 1989 he won his first 125cc World Championship on his first attempt, winning five races.

The 1992 season saw Alex Criville work alongside another great Spanish rider, Sito Pons, in his 500cc team. It was during this season that Criville took Spain’s first premier class victory, winning the Dutch TT. By 1994 Criville was in the factory Honda team alongside fellow MotoGP Legend Mick Doohan. From 1995 to 1998 Criville would take seven wins and finish no lower than fourth overall. In 1999 the planets aligned and Criville took Spain’s first premier class title, winning six races in the process. He would eventually retire at the end of 2001. Criville was made a MotoGP Legend in 2016 and now works with young riders and alongside Movistar TV during Grand Prix weekends.

His 1999 championship season got underway with most pundits seeing little hope that anyone could prevent Doohan from winning a sixth-consecutive World Championship. Doohan was after all, coming off a dominating 1998 where he’d won the final four rounds of the season to pull clear of his nearest challenger, Max Biaggi. Criville had been solid in ’98, with seven podiums, including two wins. He’d finished third in the standings.

The final season of the first century of motorcycle racing got underway with Kenny Roberts, Jr. taking victory in the opening rounds in Malaysia and Japan. Criville had actually beaten his Honda teammate Doohan in Malaysia, but Doohan moved up to second in the championship standings after a runner-up result to Roberts in Motegi. After Japan Criville was fourth in the series, jut a point behind Carlos Checa.

Then came Jerez and the practice crash that ended Doohan’s career. It had been wet earlier that Friday. It was drying, but paint lines were still slick when Doohan hit one and was high-sided, suffering numerous bone fractures, including his wrist and again the right leg he’d shattered to pieces in a crash at the ’92 Dutch TT.

Archives: Criville’s Place in MotoGP History

Criville CN Cover-1
Criville (right) shared the cover with an up-and-coming young rider named Valentino Rossi after the pair won world championships in 1999.

Surprisingly Criville stepped up and actually seemed to relish the opportunity to be Hondas lead rider. Starting in Jerez he immediately went on a four-race winning streak, pulling clear in the title chase. Two more wins in the second half of the year sealed the deal. Spain finally had a world champ. Criville had beaten Roberts, Jr. by 47 points.

But then Criville’s magic seemed to go away almost overnight. He would win only one more GP in his next two seasons with Repsol Honda and finished 9th and 8th respectively in the championship of 2000 and 2001. Roberts got his title in 2002 and then the Rossi Era began.

After being dropped by Honda, Criville planned on returning on a support Yamaha squad, but he had a mystery illness that resulted in fainting and his doctors advised him against racing, so he stepped away.

To this day Criville’s legacy remains mixed. On one hand is the popular theory that but for Doohan’s accident, he would have never held the No. 1 plate. But then there is the undeniable circumstance that he did, in fact become world champ and a flood of inspired Spanish youngsters would become the generation who kicked off the ultimate Spanish conquest of MotoGP and its support classes.

Perhaps long respected racing journalist Michael Scott sums up Criville’s career best when he says:

“Of course, Criville was overshadowed by his teammate Doohan, who was one of the true greats, one of the top five or so in all of history.  And of course, he was given a lot of support by Dorna, as well as Repsol (and by extension Honda), anxious to have a Spanish champion.

“He was (is) also a quiet, modest and likeable character, who did little or nothing to promote his own fame and image. He left the big talk to others, who more often than not finished behind him. His title defense foundered on an arcane medical diagnosis, which some might prefer to disbelieve, but in his year, he was the best rider on the track.

“To win the championship, you have to beat the people you are racing against. Was Doohan less of a champion because all his titles came after Rainey was out injured, and Schwantz a spent force? I don’t believe so, and I think Criville deserves the same courtesy.”

Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.