The 2000 World Championship draws to a close at Phillip Island this weekend, the last of 16 Grands Prix that have taken the GP circus around the world and back again. Sunday's Australian GP takes place more than seven months after the season-opening South African round, won by Australian hero Garry McCoy (Yamaha).
The 500 World Championship may already have been decided, in favour of Kenny Roberts (Suzuki), but there's still plenty of racing to be done. The last race of any season is always important, for a good result will carry a rider into the off-season and towards 2001 in confident mood. Marlboro Yamaha Team duo Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi have further reason to give it their all on the Island, for both men are racing for third place in the 500 World Championship.
Although the 2001 campaign doesn't officially begin until next March, riders and teams get little rest and relaxation before they commence their off-season testing programmes. Checa and Biaggi have already agreed to renew their contracts for a third year with the Marlboro Yamaha Team and will soon start testing their 2000-spec YZR500s.
Most riders count Phillip Island as one of their favourite events on the Grand Prix calendar. Unlike most modern circuits, many of which have been built to contain the flight of F1 cars, the Island is dominated by high-speed turns and curves that test rider skill to the limit.
The Victorian state venue is the second fastest currently used for motorcycle GP racing (after Dutch GP track Assen, another favourite with riders) and also demands much of machines and tyres.
Phillip Island hosted its first motorcycle races way back in the twenties, when riders competed over a 12 mile street circuit, and the only access to the island was by boat! The circuit fell into disrepair but was redeveloped in the late eighties and hosted Australia's first bike GP in 1989, when national star Wayne Gardner won a thrilling race. Since then the circuit has been renowned for creating ultra-close action.
CHECA GOING FOR THIRD
Carlos Checa comes to Australia determined to cement his best-ever World Championship result. The Spaniard currently holds third overall but there are no less than five riders who have a mathematical chance of overhauling him. A good Island result is therefore essential, and the Marlboro Yamaha Team man feels confident he can do it.
"We've got some really good settings for the bike now," says Checa, who rode a strong race to fourth place at Motegi a fortnight ago. "I feel more and more confident with my machine and I like Phillip Island a lot."
Checa, who has been training and holidaying in Cairns since Motegi, rode a great race at Phillip Island last October, coming through from a slow start to finish fourth. He has been on great form at the last few races, though unlucky, after a mid-season slump in results. His start to the 2000 season was spectacular, with four second-place finishes from the first six GPs.
"I feel I can get back on the podium if everything goes right," he adds. "And I know I can help Yamaha win the Constructors' World Championship if I get a very good result. I've already agreed to stay with the team for 2001, we're like a family, so it would be great to repay them for all their hard work."
Checa's hard-charging fourth place at Motegi came despite three falls in qualifying, including a big highside. Since then his crew have been urging him to take it easier, especially in practice. "Like a lot of riders, Carlos tends to rush things a bit," says Marlboro Yamaha Team senior race engineer Mike Sinclair. "As soon as he slows down, he goes faster."
Checa's crew chief Mike Webb believes his rider can get it together this weekend. "We love Phillip Island," he says. "Last year he struggled in practice but came right in the race. This time he comes off a great result at Motegi and his head is in the right place. We've had an excellent basic set-up since we tested at Valencia last month, and we're trying to make it so mistakes don't happen. That's partly down to him but the critical thing we're working on is mid-turn front-tyre feel."
BIAGGI AIMING BIG
Max Biaggi has been one of the strongest scorers in the second half of this year's 500 World Championship and aims to complete his season with a resounding victory at Phillip Island.
The Marlboro Yamaha Team star has every reason to be confident of a top result in Australia, after coming so close to victory at last year's event. He battled for the win with Tadayuki Okada (Honda) and Regis Laconi (Yamaha), only losing out to Okada three corners from the flag. And Biaggi has extra motivation this weekend, because his performance could well give Yamaha its first Constructors' World Championship since 1993. Yamaha currently lead the chase by two points from Honda.
"Our target is to win on Sunday and that's what we've got to do," he says. "I aim to have a big race, it's important for me, for the team and especially for Yamaha because they want the constructors' title so bad. I hope I can give it to them."
Biaggi can also do great things for his own World Championship position this weekend. He currently lies sixth in the series, but a good Island result could move him to third overall, the position now occupied by team-mate Carlos Checa. Biaggi started the year with an injury and without luck, failing to finish four of the first five races. But he has fought back in typically gutsy style, scoring a win at August's Czech GP and taking a thrilling third place at Motegi two weeks back. He hasn't finished outside the top four at the last six races.
"We've got the bike working really well now," he adds. "At Motegi we had the bike right from Friday. We are close to our real potential, but, of course, we still have more work to do. I know I can do better than I did at Motegi."
Biaggi's chief engineer Fiorenzo Fanali is also convinced his man will finish 2000 with a flourish. "We've got the right direction with the bike set-up, so he's getting good feedback and that gives him confidence," says Fanali. "At Motegi he could go really late on the brakes and he likes Phillip Island. A good result is important to take us into 2001."
THE CHAMPIONSHIP SITUATION
END OF A GREAT YEAR
Grand Prix racing can go into this weekend's year-ending Australian GP happy in the knowledge that it has put on one of its greatest-ever seasons.
In particular, the 500 class has enjoyed a magnificent year of fast, close and highly unpredictable racing. This is the kind of motorsport that fans love to watch and there's every sign that 2001 will be at least as good. The competition has been closer than ever before, with just one second often covering the top ten during qualifying. That kind of tight-packed action means that no rider has anything like the upper hand, so come Sunday, the race result is impossible to predict. Just as it should be.
No wonder it took until September's rounds 12 and 13 for anyone to get close to dominating the racing from one venue to the next. Garry McCoy was the year's first back-to-back victor when he won those races in Portugal and Valencia and so far there have been no less than eight different winners, an all-time record in 500 GPs. The previous record was seven different winners, back in '92 and '93, an era of legends that included men like Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Gardner, Mick Doohan, John Kocinski and Luca Cadalora. Winners so far this year include recently crowned World Champion Kenny Roberts (four), McCoy (three), Valentino Rossi (two), Alex Barros (two), Max Biaggi (one), Norick Abe (one), Alex Criville (one) and Loris Capirossi (one). Marlboro Yamaha Team man Carlos Checa is the only rider amongst the current top nine riders who hasn't scored a win but the Spaniard has scored four runner-up finishes and he could still complete his year with a victory this weekend.
Not only has the action been frighteningly close and unpredictable, it has also been very, very fast. Since five-time 500 World Champion Mick Doohan stopped racing early last year, it's been a common misconception that the absence of the super-fast Australian has allowed lap times to slow. The rock-hard Honda rider ruled the 500 class for years, dazzling rivals with his lightning speed and relentless determination, but his successors have lapped quicker at most circuits. Current riders have bettered Doohan's best race and qualifying laps, as well as his fastest race times, at Sepang, Suzuka, Jerez, Assen and Brno. And his best qualifying laps have also been surpassed at Mugello and Rio.
But undoubtedly the best aspect of the post-Doohan era is its unpredictability. When Mighty Mick was racing, the paddock and GP fans around the world would wake up on race morning knowing who would win the day's 500 race. Only on very rare occasions would they be proven wrong. Now the result is always in doubt, often right up to the last lap! And there's plenty of new talent taking the premier class into the new century. While Roberts recently became the youngest winner of the 500 World Championship since fellow American Freddie Spencer took the 1985 crown, there are other new stars too; men like Valentino Rossi and Garry McCoy have made their mark, joining established stars like Max Biaggi, Checa, Criville, Barros and Roberts.
The racing has been just as close from a technical point of view. After years of Honda domination, Suzuki won the riders' World Championship for the first time since 1993 and Yamaha are currently leading the Constructors' World Championship, by just two points from Honda. Yamaha hasn't won this prestigious title since '93.
Is there any chance that next year's 500 World Championship could be even better? You bet!