This year's 500 World Championship moves past one-third distance at Catalunya this weekend with the points battle tightening up after a sodden Italian GP a fortnight back. Winner of the season's opening three GPs, Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro...
This year's 500 World Championship moves past one-third distance at Catalunya this weekend with the points battle tightening up after a sodden Italian GP a fortnight back. Winner of the season's opening three GPs, Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) has scored just 16 points from the past two races while Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) has scored 41 to move into second overall, closing in on his arch-rival.
Biaggi isn't the only one with Rossi in his sights. After last month's French GP a gaping 47 points covered the top five in the championship, now that gap is down to just 31 points. No doubt about it, Rossi needs to return to his winning ways on Sunday if he's to maintain his thrust towards a first 500 crown.
Italian GP winner Alex Barros (West Honda Pons-Michelin) is one of the five men hunting Rossi down, the Brazilian's heroic Mugello victory having moved him to fifth overall. Mugello was the first 500 GP win for Michelin's recently introduced 16.5in rain tyre, but Barros & Co will be hoping they'll be back to racing in the dry this weekend, though if last year's Catalan GP is anything to go by, we could be in for another wet race.
THE RIDERS AND CATALUNYA
Italian riders are dominating this year's 500 World Championship with four wins from the five races so far. But two weeks after Italian GP mania hit Mugello, the action returns to Spain, where bike racing is the country's most popular sport after football. The nation's four factory 500 riders Alex Crivillé (Repsol YPF Honda-Michelin), Sete Gibernau (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin), Carlos Checa (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) and Jose Luis Cardoso (Antena 3 Yamaha-d'Antin- Michelin) can all count on massive partisan support at Catalunya, the second of the year's three GPs on Spanish tarmac.
Crivillé is Spain's most successful 500 rider and the first and only Spaniard to have won the 500 crown. The local hero, born a short ride from Catalunya in the hill town of Seva, won the title in 1999 and is now back on form after a disappointing title-defence season. Twice a winner at Catalunya (in 1995 and 1999) Crivillé will be out for a third success on Sunday to lift himself from his current sixth- place overall.
"I feel like I'm riding well again and the last few races we've been on the pace," says Crivillé who scored his first podium in a year at May's Spanish GP. "Maybe we need to improve our speed in qualifying to ensure I get closer to the front of the grid but otherwise I'm happy. I think my ride to third at Jerez showed that I'm strong again and the support I got from the fans there was just incredible. For sure, they gave me a real boost and I'll be aiming to repay their faith this weekend.
"Catalunya is a good track and I know how to be fast there. There's a lot of long corners where sidegrip is very important, so I think everyone will be back on Michelin's 16.5in rear because the tyre gives a bigger contact patch at high angles of lean."
At Mugello two weeks ago several top riders raced with Michelin's 17in rear, which has been somewhat out of vogue for the last year or so, the 16.5 having won every dry race since last August's Czech GP. Like everything in racing, both alternatives have their advantages and disadvantages the 17 offers better manoeuvrability while the 16.5in gives superior race-long grip. Mugello's many high- speed chicanes demand ultra-quick steering and that's why Max Biaggi, Sete Gibernau (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin), Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin) and Carlos Checa all chose 17s in the dry.
But rain spoiled the day and the Mugello 16.5 v 17 debate didn't reach a conclusion. Like everyone else, Biaggi was disappointed with the weather: "The rain was frustrating because we were very curious to see how the 17 would work over full race distance. We would've learned a lot about tyres but the weather has left us with a few question marks."
Like Biaggi, Crivillé appreciates the 17's lighter handling but is equally impressed by the 16.5's longevity. "The 17 has a nicer feel but the 16.5 has better endurance," he says. "With the 16.5 you can do your fastest lap right at the end of the race, the tyre seems to offer the same grip from start to finish! I'm sure that will be the way to go this weekend, though it'll be a new feeling for me because I was still using the 17 when we raced at Catalunya last year and I've not tested there since.
"Catalunya is similar to Mugello in that you need a perfect bike set-up, it's not the kind of track where you can just ride around a problem. We'll be working hard during practice because the 16.5 also demands perfect settings to work at its best.
"I think the most important part of the track is turn three, the long right hander that seems to go on forever. If you're quick through there it makes a big difference to your lap times. Turn four is the most fun it's very easy to get very sideways through there because the surface is flat and you pick up the bike very early. Of course, enjoying yourself with too much wheelspin can lose you time, but the next corner is very close, so exit speed from turn four isn't crucial."
TYRES AND CATALUNYA
Catalunya is a complex racetrack that demands much from riders, bikes and tyres. The circuit features many long corners that require very grippy tyres but the surface is both bumpy and slippery. To complicate matters further, track conditions change frequently, confusing the task of machine set-up and tyre choice.
Michelin Grand Prix manager Jacques Morelli knows more about Catalunya than most, because Michelin tyres have won all but two of the nine 500 GPs staged at the venue since its inaugural Grand Prix in 1992.
"It's a difficult track for us, but not so much because of the surface and layout, more because of other circumstances," he explains. "The track condition can change a great deal from one day to the next, and our four-wheel colleagues come up against the same problem when they work at Catalunya. We think it's related to super-fine dust blown on to the circuit, possibly from a nearby quarry. When the wind blows from a particular direction, the dust reduces grip dramatically and causes excessive tyre wear because the granules works against the rubber like sandpaper."
Catalunya is also subject to greater-than-normal temperature changes during the day, which can make tyre compound selection difficult. "We'll be offering a wider range of compounds this weekend for that reason," adds Morelli. "Conditions change so often that you need a wider difference between our softest and hardest tyres.
"This will be an interesting race for us because it will be the first time that we've come to Catalunya with so many riders using the 16.5. We think it'll be a good track for the tyre because there's so many long corners through which riders spend a lot of time at high lean angles. Some of these turns are also pretty fast, so they're tough on the rear tyre because riders are leant over, trying to get on the throttle as early as possible, then controlling wheelspin with the throttle. You really see that at turn four, where some riders spin the rear so hard that you see smoke!
"The long corners put a lot of pressure on the tyre and generate a lot of heat build-up, so you need a stable tyre construction. But the 16.5 should be good this weekend. It offers a larger contact patch at high angles of lean for more grip. The extra rubber on the road also helps the tyre run cooler to improve tyre life, and that in turn allows riders to use softer rubber. That's an important consideration at Catalunya, where there's not so much grip."
Morelli believes that Michelin's new softer-construction front slick, which offers riders improved feel for a marginal trade-off in turning ability, may prove popular at Catalunya. "There's not a lot of pressure on the front at this track, so this tyre could be good," he says. "But it's always difficult to get riders to use a new front tyre. If they're happy with what they've got, they usually stick with it, because finding the limit with a new front is more risky than finding the limit with a new rear."
PROVISIONAL STANDINGS 2001 Pos. Rider Nat Points JPN SFA JER FRA ITA 1 ROSSI VALENTINO ITA 91 25 25 25 16 2 BIAGGI MAX ITA 70 16 8 5 25 16 3 CAPIROSSI LORIS ITA 65 8 20 8 9 20 4 ABE NORICK JPN 64 13 11 20 13 7 5 BARROS ALEX BRA 60 10 7 10 8 25 6 CRIVILLE ALEX SPA 57 7 10 16 11 13 7 NAKANO SHINYA JPN 50 11 13 13 5 8 8 ROBERTS KENNY USA 37 9 9 9 10 9 UKAWA TOHRU JPN 36 16 11 9 10 GIBERNAU SETE SPA 29 6 6 7 10 11 CHECA CARLOS SPA 28 6 2 20 12 McCOY GARRY AUS 27 20 7 13 GOORBERGH J VD NED 23 5 5 3 6 4 14 AOKI HARUCHIKA JPN 19 4 4 11 15 CARDOSO JOSE LUIS SPA 11 3 3 5 16 HAGA NORIYUKI JPN 10 4 6 17 WALKER CHRIS GBR 5 1 4 18 HASLAM LEON GBR 3 3 19 WILLIS MARK AUS 3 3 20 WEST ANTHONY AUS 3 2 1 21 VENEMAN BARRY NED 2 2 22 JANSSEN JARNO NED 1 1 JACQUE OLIVIER FRA 0 RYO AKIRA JPN 0 STIGEFELT JOHAN SWE 0 VINCENT JASON GBR 0
CATALUNYA DATA Lap record Alex Barros (Emerson Honda Pons-Michelin) 1m 46.810s (1998)
Pole position 2000 Alex Barros (Emerson Honda Pons-Michelin) 1m 45.914s
Recent winners of the Catalan GP 2000 Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin), 51m 31.504s (wet race) 1999 Alex Crivillé (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 44m 55.701s 1998 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 44m 53.264s 1997 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 44m 56.149s 1996 Carlos Checa (Fortuna Honda Pons-Michelin), 44m 56.885s
Michelin's Partners - 500cc class
No. Rider Nation Machine Team 1 Kenny Roberts USA Suzuki Telefonica Movistar Suzuki 3 Max Biaggi ITA Yamaha Marlboro Yamaha Team 4 Alex Barros BRA Honda West Honda Pons 5 Garry Mccoy AUS Yamaha Red Bull Yamaha WCM 6 Norick Abe JPN Yamaha Antena Tre Yamaha d'Antin 7 Carlos Checa SPA Yamaha Marlboro Yamaha Team 8 Chris Walker GBR Honda Shell Advance Honda 9 Leon Haslam GBR Honda Shell Advance Honda 10 Jose Luis Cardoso SPA Yamaha Antena Tre Yamaha d'Antin 11 Tohru Ukawa JPN Honda Repsol-YPF Honda Team 12 Haruchika Aoki JPN Honda Arie Molenaar Racing 14 Anthony West AUS Honda Dee Cee Jeans Racing Team 15 Sete Gibernau SPA Suzuki Telefonica Movistar Suzuki 16 Johan Stigefelt SWE Sabre V4 Sabre Sport 17 Jurgen Vd Goorbergh NED Proton KR3 Proton Team KR 19 Olivier Jacque FRA Yamaha Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 21 Barry Veneman NED Honda Dee Cee Jeans Racing Team 24 Jay Vincent GBR Pulse Pulse GP 26 Vladirmir Catska SVK Paton Paton 28 Alex Criville SPA Honda Repsol-YPF Honda Team 41 Noriyuki Haga JPN Yamaha Red Bull Yamaha WCM 46 Valentino Rossi ITA Honda Nastro Azzurro Honda 56 Shinya Nakano JPN Yamaha Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 65 Loris Capirossi ITA Honda West Honda Pons 68 Mark Willis AUS Pulse Pulse GP