Into round six of the 2001 Grand Prix season and the battle for the last-ever 500 World Championship is really hotting up. Two weeks ago at a rain-lashed Mugello, Marlboro Yamaha Team man Max Biaggi finished a brilliant third to move into second overall and close the gap on series leader Valentino Rossi (Honda).
Now Biaggi comes to Catalunya, another of his favourite circuits, his championship challenge gathering momentum. Winner in France last month, he's out for more success at the Spanish venue, where he enjoyed a fruitful pre-season test session back in March.
Team-mate Carlos Checa is also aiming to get back up front after a disappointing race at Mugello. Second in France, where he helped his Marlboro Yamaha Team to a dominant one-two, the Spanish favourite has already tasted success at his home circuit; he won his debut GP victory at Catalunya in 1996.
Fans who flock to the Barcelona venue to cheer Checa and his fellow Spaniards will also be the first to experience the sights and sounds of GP racing's new four-stroke era when Yamaha's new YZR-M1 makes its public debut on Sunday morning in the hands of test rider Norihiko Fujiwara. The M1 is the first of the new generation four-strokes to run in public and the bike will stay on for private tests next week when Biaggi and Checa will ride the machine alongside Yamaha testers. The M1 will be a part of next year's World Championship when big-bore four-strokes enter GPs for the first time in the sport's history.
BIAGGI CLOSES THE GAP
Max Biaggi goes into the Marlboro Catalan GP 21 points shy of World Championship leader Valentino Rossi (Honda) and aiming to take another bite out of his compatriot's series lead. The Marlboro Yamaha Team ace has been the highest-scoring rider at the past two Grands Prix, scoring a win at May's French GP and a third place in Italy two weeks ago, so he has the momentum to home in on Rossi.
Biaggi started his 2001 season in brilliant form in Japan, taking third behind winner Rossi and fellow YZR rider Garry McCoy. But his results slumped at the next two races in South Africa and Spain, where he was eighth and 11th, while Rossi continued his winning ways, securing a winning hat trick. In France Biaggi became the first man to inflict defeat upon Rossi, dominating the Le Mans race ahead of team-mate Checa.
"We're getting closer to perfecting our bike set-up," says Biaggi. "Of course, we've still got some work to do but we're not far away. It's also good to be closer on points, though I think it'll be two or three races before we can really start thinking about the championship situation; at the moment I'm just taking it race by race. Catalunya is one of my favourite tracks, I won four races there in my 250 days and we should have a good set-up for this weekend."
Biaggi spent two days at Catalunya in early March, lapping 0.8 seconds inside the lap record (at 1m 46.0s), even though conditions weren't ideal. "I was very satisfied with that test," adds the 29-year old who finished fifth in last year's wet Catalan GP. "We concentrated on engine parts and suspension, and we had no vibration with either 16.5 or 17in rears. Of course, we've learned more since then, especially when we tested at Mugello last month."
Although Michelin's 16.5in slick has been the most popular rear tyre over the last 12 months, Biaggi used a 17 at Mugello. He battled for the lead in the early laps but rain prevented the race going full distance in the dry. The event was restarted on a soaking track, the final result counted on aggregate time. "The rain was frustrating because we were very curious to see how the 17 would work over full distance," he adds. "We would've learned a lot about tyres but the weather has left us with a few question marks."
Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust is confident Biaggi can continue running up front whatever tyres he chooses. "To win in France, then come away with a good podium finish in such awful conditions at Mugello shows that Max is going well," says Crust. "The team is on a bit of a high at the moment and we aim to keep that rolling at Catalunya."
Biaggi is due to stay at Catalunya next week to test his YZR500s and Yamaha's all-new YZR-M1 four-stroke. But the former 250 king is set for a hectic few days because he plans to jet back to Genoa for a charity football match on Monday evening, returning to Catalunya early on Tuesday. "It's a bit of a crazy schedule but I feel it's important to do this kind of work," says Biaggi who will play alongside a number of F1 stars, raising aid for Africa.
CHECA ON HOME GROUND
This weekend Carlos Checa contests the second of the year's three Spanish-based GPs. Bike-crazy Spain currently hosts three GPs a season - the Spanish GP in May, this weekend's Catalan GP and September's Valencia GP. Like most things in life, there's good and bad in it for Checa. On the plus side, he can rely on massive partisan support, as well as the buzz of riding on home ground. On the other hand, there's even more pressure to perform, from the fans, from the media and from himself, as well as increased demands on his time. The ever-affable Checa always likes to please but there's a limit to how many autographs he can sign!
Checa has experienced the highs and the lows of home races. Born near Barcelona, he won his maiden GP victory at Catalunya in September 1996 and his second GP success at Jarama, outside Madrid, in June 1998. But he had a torrid time at the Spanish GP six weeks ago, crashing heavily in qualifying and limping to 14th in the race.
"We have a lot of races in Spain so I'm used to the pressures of racing in front of my fans, it doesn't have a great effect on me any more," he says. "What happened at Jerez was just unlucky. If everything goes well this weekend I know I can be up front again and I'll be trying very hard to give the Spanish fans some more good memories."
Checa has already proved this year that he can run up front. He led last month's French GP, eventually finishing second behind team-mate Max Biaggi after fighting off a strong challenge from Valentino Rossi (Honda). And his lap times during his team's pre-season tests at Catalunya (including a best of 1m 46.5s) suggest he should be on the pace again this weekend.
"We did some good work during those tests and I know and like the track, you always like places where you've won!" he smiles. "I qualified on the front row last year and that will be my aim once again for Friday and Saturday. I know I can be competitive because we've made a lot of progress on bike set-up in recent months and I'll be aiming to put what we've learned to good use. Most of all I hope the weather will be good on Sunday. It rained on race day last year and I crashed - the difference between grip and no grip in those conditions is very small."
Checa was similarly luckless at Mugello. Running well before the rain came, he was forced out of the restart with clutch-slip problems. "That was very disappointing for Carlos but he's a very strong rider who knows how to bounce back from difficulties," says Marlboro Yamaha Team director Hiroya Atsumi. "He had a strong pre-season test at Catalunya, in fact he was strong everywhere we tested, but he's had some really bad luck since the start of the season. It would be great to see him going well again, like he did at Le Mans."
Checa has had one other no-score this year - he missed April's South African GP after a fall while training in Spain. Next week he stays on at Catalunya to test his YZR500s and evaluate Yamaha's YZR-M1 four-stroke racer.
Catalunya is one of the more complex racetracks on the Grand Prix calendar, requiring painstaking work from both riders and engineers. The layout is dominated by long, rounded corners that require riders to spend a lot of time near maximum lean. Sidegrip is therefore crucial and it's likely that the fastest riders will run Michelin's 16.5in rear tyre after several top men, including Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa, raced 17s at Mugello.
Catalunya is also very bumpy, partly thanks to the frequent visits made to the track by F1 car teams, and there are several corners that feature negative camber, some with blind entries. Such features require a well-balanced chassis, though engine performance is also important for the 300kmh-plus straight.
Bike set-up is further complicated by the region's variable weather pattern. Wind direction often changes at Catalunya, playing havoc with gearbox settings, as well as blowing sand and dust on to the circuit. And there can be big changes in temperature during the course of a day, making tyre selection difficult.
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
Max Biaggi has yet to add 500 victory at Catalunya to his 250 successes at the track but he's expected to be right in the hunt this weekend. His pace at the past two GPs suggests he has found a bike set-up that works whatever the track, whatever the conditions. "I think we should be okay at Catalunya," he says. "But it can be a strange track with conditions often changing. Our likely plan is to start by combining the settings we ran during our pre-season tests at the track with what we learned from our recent Mugello tests. The bike was good in March but we've made it even better since then."
Biaggi's chief engineer Fiorenzo Fanali is confident. "We shouldn't need to make any huge setting changes from what we ran at Mugello," he says. "I'm sure we'll be back to running 16.5in rears after we used the 17 at Mugello, but that's just a case of minor adjustments."
A winner at Catalunya in 1996, Carlos Checa knows better than most how to get around this demanding track with winning speed. "You need good front contact but you also need good rear grip," he says. "The surface is slippery and the tarmac is very aggressive which makes life hard for the tyres because they're sliding around and the tarmac tears into the rubber. But I like the place, it's fun if you've got the right set-up."
Crew chief Mike Webb agrees. "Carlos has a happy feeling about Catalunya," he says. "We had a good pre-season test there and some of the stuff we've learned since then should translate well to what's required. It's not a very grippy track so we'll be back to the 16.5 because that tyre helps when there's not much traction. Of course, it can be a tough race for Carlos but he's better than he used to be at handling the pressure of home GPs."
<pre> MAX BIAGGI DATA LOG Age: 29. Lives: Monaco Bike: Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500 GP victories: 35 (6x500, 29x250) First GP victory: South Africa, 1992 (250) First GP: France, 1991 (250) GP starts: 139 (51x500, 88x250) Pole positions: 42 (9x500, 33x250) First pole: Europe, 1992 (250) World Championships: 4 x 250 ('94, '95, '96, '97) Catalunya 2000 results. Grid: 8th. Race: 5th
CARLOS CHECA DATA LOG Age: 28. Lives: London, England Bike: Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500 GP victories: 2 (500) First GP victory: Catalunya, 1996 (500) First GP: Europe, 1993 (125) GP starts: 109 (81x500, 27x250, 1x125) Pole positions: 1 (500) First pole: Spain, 1998 (500) Catalunya 2000 results. Grid: 4th. Race: DNF