On 20th April 2003, Japan’s biggest hope, 26-year-old Daijiro Kato lost his life in an accident at the Suzuka circuit, a rising star who was destined for greatness.
Many people tipped Kato to be the next big thing since Valentino Rossi who was making waves in the class, dominating race after race, however, Kato was the man who could have stopped this.
In 1996-1999, Kato made an annual wildcard at the Japanese 250cc race, racing at Suzuka between 96-98 and Motegi in 1999. In 1996 on his 250cc debut Kato would take a third-place finish, stunning everyone, in his 1997 and 1998 wildcards Kato would win both times, still as wildcard, preferring to concentrate on the All Japan Road Race Championship GP250cc class which he won in 1997. Kato would take an impressive 5th place at Motegi in 1999 before finally signing for Gresini Honda in the year 2000 in the 250cc world championship.
Kato did not disappoint in the year 2000, he finished in 3rd overall in the standings taking 4 wins and 9 podiums, including winning at Suzuka before racing the prestigious Suzuka 8 hours with Tohru Ukawa and winning that too. The man was a star, he had talent and speed running through his veins and was getting results no one expected.
In 2001 Kato once again rode a Telefónica Movistar Honda NSR250 and won the 250cc world championship with style, wiping the floor with his competition taking 11 wins and 13 podiums over 16 races, beating an incredibly consistent Tetsuya Harada who also took 13 podiums but 3 race wins. Kato was absolutely unstoppable and was making a name for himself.
Kato moved to the MotoGP championship for 2002 racing with the Fortuna Honda Gresini team once again, starting the season on a two-stroke Honda Honda NSR500 before moving to the more competitive full factory-supported Honda RC211V halfway through the season following impressive performances. Kato would take a 10th placed finish on his debut at Suzuka before following this up with a fourth-placed finish, his first MotoGP class podium would come just a round later finishing in second place, completing a Honda trio joined by Tohru Ukawa in third and race winner Valentino Rossi. The difference is that Kato was on a two-stroke, the Repsol Honda boys were on the incredibly fast RC211V.
Kato would once again take a second place at Brno on the Honda RC211V finishing behind Max Biaggi. Although Kato would take 6 DNF’s in his rookie season, he took nine top 10 finishes along with 2 podiums and pole position at Motegi, an incredible rookie season with the best yet to come.
Unfortunately, we never got to see what was to come, HRC had fully backed Kato for 2003 with a factory RC211V in the Telefónica Movistar Honda squad and Kato looked to impress, however at the opening round at Suzuka where Kato had claimed 4 x 250cc wins, Kato crashed hard and sustained injuries which would take his life.
He was a star and his memory shines on brightly, it is not uncommon to see a rider with a ’74’ on their leathers, especially Japanese riders, Takaaki Nakagami runs the number’74’ and ’48’ on his leather hump for Kato and Shoya Tomizawa who also tragically lost his life.
The question which will be asked by many is ‘would Valentino Rossi still have 9 titles if Kato did not pass?’ A question we will never know the answer to but it is fact that Kato has left his mark on MotoGP history.
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