Inside Line No 7
Dutch Grand Prix
Assen, June 28/29/30 2001
HERE COMES HISTORY...
This week Grand Prix racing returns to the hallowed tarmac of Assen, where history always hangs heavy in the air. And the 2001 Dutch GP will be of particular historical significance. The famed venue, only surviving track from the inaugural World Championship of 1949, hosts its 53rd and final 500 Grand Prix on Saturday, and that race will also be the last GP to be run on the fabled 6.049km circuit. Next year's Dutch world round will both sound and look different - with all-new big-bore four-strokes racing the existing 500 two-strokes around a modified circuit.
And yet the passing of history will mean little to Marlboro Yamaha Team riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa. While both men have already tested Yamaha's new YZR-M1 four-stroke GP bike, their current focus is two-stroke, aimed at winning that last-ever 500 crown.
Biaggi scored his third successive podium at Catalunya two weeks ago, continuing a strong drive towards the World Championship; no one has scored more points over the past three races than the Italian. Meanwhile Checa aims to get back on track after a couple of difficult races. The Spaniard has scored a top-three result at Assen in the past and this weekend he aims to repeat his podium finish at the recent French GP.
Whatever the team's results, there will be little time for celebration on Saturday evening, for the season continues next weekend in Britain, halfway point of the 2001 World Championship.
MAX ON THE PACE FOR FASTEST RACE
Max Biaggi comes to the Netherlands this weekend all set for the fastest race of the season. Not only is Assen the most historic event on the GP calendar, it is also the quickest, with riders averaging almost 180kmh through the circuit's sinuous high-speed twists.
The track is also narrower than most and requires an artful, inch-perfect riding style, just like Biaggi's. The four-time 250 World Champion is renowned for his ultra-precise riding technique that works like a dream around Assen's demanding curves. Biaggi has won two 250 GPs at the track and has also finished on the 500 podium there. On Saturday he aims for a first 500 win at the venue, and he's currently producing the kind of form that suggests he's well capable of victory. Winner of last month's French GP, and third and second at the subsequent Mugello and Catalunya races, Biaggi is building a strong challenge for this year's World Championship. In fact, no one has scored more points at the past three races than Biaggi, who currently lies second overall, just 26 points behind series leader Valentino Rossi (Honda).
"We have already shown that we can win when everything is going right," says Biaggi, who led a Marlboro Yamaha Team one-two in France, ahead of team-mate Carlos Checa. "Since we tested at Mugello in May my bikes have been good and the team is working really well.
"I love Assen and I think we can have another good weekend there. It's a very unusual circuit, different from the other tracks we go to, and that always makes it a bit special. As usual, I'll work with Fiorenzo (Fanali, Biaggi's crew chief) and the rest of my team to make sure we have a good set-up for the race. The season is going pretty well for us at the moment, we've had some good results but we still need to work hard to reduce the points gap."
Biaggi's 2001 form has been superbly consistent. He has scored podium finishes at all but two of the six races so far and has started from the front row on four occasions, including one pole position.
"Max is highly motivated and getting the kind of results he needs to challenge for the championship," says Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust. "Assen is very demanding for riders, it requires a special technique and Max is that style of rider, he's very accurate. The biggest problem is the weather, we don't want another two-part race like we had at Assen last year, and also at Mugello a few weeks back."
Following the recent Marlboro Catalan GP, Biaggi stayed on at Catalunya to evaluate new performance parts for his factory YZRs. "We had some engine parts and some chassis parts to test," reveals Marlboro Yamaha Team director Hiroya Atsumi. "Although we are developing our YZR-M1 four-stroke for 2002, we are still working very hard on our two-stroke 500 engines. We want to win the last 500 World Championship!"
Biaggi, who turned 30 years old on June 26, finished fourth in last year's two-part Dutch GP, stopped and restarted due to rain. He ended the race just two seconds off a podium finish.
CHECA GOES DUTCH TO MOVE FORWARD
Carlos Checa has a straightforward target for Saturday's Dutch Grand Prix - to move on from a difficult weekend at Catalunya a fortnight back. Hoping to perform at his best in front of his home crowd, Checa was beset by set-up troubles and could only manage an eighth-place finish.
Both the Spaniard and his crack Marlboro Yamaha Team crew believe they shouldn't suffer the same difficulties at Assen, which is an entirely different kind of racetrack.
"Catalunya was bad for us, things can only get better at Assen," says Checa, who has had an up-and-down season so far. Forced to miss April's South African GP after injuring himself in a training accident, he bounced back to score an impressive second place at May's French GP, just behind team-mate Max Biaggi. He aims to repeat that podium performance at Assen.
"It's a fantastic track, somewhere very special," says Checa, who finished second in the 1997 Dutch Grand Prix, behind track master Mick Doohan (Honda). "Unlike other circuits, the corners are quite heavily banked and there's a lot of grip, so you can really throw the bike around. I know I can be fast there if we have the correct set-up."
Marlboro Yamaha Team director Hiroya Atsumi will put all his efforts into getting Checa up front again this weekend. "We will be working very closely with Carlos to help him get the feeling back," says Atsumi.
Checa's crew chief Mike Webb is sure his man will be back on the pace in Holland. "After Catalunya we tested at the track, working on a solution to the chatter problem he suffered there, as well as trying new stuff," says the New Zealander. "We had some new engine parts to improve power delivery and a couple of new chassis items to improve rear tyre feel.
"Assen is an agility track, with a lot of very high-speed direction changes, and traditionally Yamahas have gone well there. It's got a lot of grip but it's not the kind of place that you get chatter. Carlos likes it, if we can give him the machine he needs, we'll be hoping to see him back on the podium."
Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust agrees: "Carlos knows he's capable and we know he's capable. Catalunya was tough for him but he's a strong guy with a great attitude and it's our job to keep him in a positive frame of mind. Carlos goes well at Assen and after the tests we did in Spain last week we shouldn't have any more major chatter worries."
Chatter is one of bike racing's most nebulous phenomenons, a troublesome riddle to which no one has a certain answer. Some technicians believe it's a harmonic kickback created by the massive forces generated as a motorcycle is pushed to the limit through a corner. These forces, they say, generate an ultra-high-frequency resonance that is too fast for suspension hydraulics to absorb, and is thus transferred to the tyres, causing a potentially disastrous high-frequency vibration at the tyre contact patch. Other technicians, however, believe chatter is the tyre sliding and gripping, sliding and gripping, hundreds or thousands of times a corner.
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
Max Biaggi has twice tasted victory at Assen and he appreciates the circuit's unique characteristics. "It's a great track, the kind of place where riding ability is more important than anything, and you can have a lot of fun there," says the Marlboro Yamaha Team star. "But of course, it's not easy, not at all. It's very fast and quite narrow, so there's no room for mistakes. You have to be very accurate with your riding, especially on a 500, otherwise you can get into big trouble."
Biaggi's engineer Fiorenzo Fanali is confident that his man can continue his recent form. "Max knows Assen very well and the Yamaha works very well there," he says. "It's a high-speed, high-grip track with a lot of positive-camber turns, so suspension stroke is very deep. You need a very stable chassis and the suspension set-up is different from other places, not just stiffer, but different. We think it could be a track for Michelin's 17in rear, rather than the 16.5 we run at most places."
Like most motorcycle racers, Carlos Checa looks forward to Assen because it presents a unique riding experience. Based on an old public roads circuit, it is faster and more twisty than modern purpose-built tracks. "It's a completely different racetrack - all the time you're turning, turning, turning, even the straights aren't straight!" says the Spanish Marlboro Yamaha Team man.
"You carry a huge amount of lean angle through the turns because they're banked and the tarmac is very grippy, which also means that it's difficult to use wheelspin to steer the bike, which is what I usually do. You've got to ride more like you're riding a 250 - easy on the brakes and maintaining a high corner speed. The banking also means you can flick into turns harder than at most other tracks. And it's difficult to get your reference points because the track is so flat and the grass is tall in some places, obscuring your vision. The chicane is the only really slow bit and there's a little less grip there too."
There is no other racetrack in the world like Assen. The circuit is the only remaining GP circuit based on public roads and as a result features both a unique layout and surface. Although it is GP racing's fastest and longest track, it is also paradoxically the most twisty; even Assen's straights have kinks in them, and this is the circuit's defining characteristic.
Engineers usually run stiffer-than-normal suspension to allow their riders to fight through the high-speed wriggles as fast as possible. But the stiffer set-up has a pay-off - the bike becomes more difficult to control in the slower sections.
Assen also offers more grip than most circuits, because of its abrasive tarmac and also because many of the corners are banked. In fact the whole circuit is crowned in the middle, like a public road, to aid drainage, and while this offers positive cambers in some areas, it also means negative cambers in others. Riders must therefore cope with ultra-tricky changes as they criss-cross the crown at speeds of up to 300kmh. <pre> MAX BIAGGI DATA LOG Age: 30. 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: 140 (52x500, 88x250) Pole positions: 42 (9x500, 33x250) First pole: Europe, 1992 (250) World Championships: 4x250 ('94, '95, '96, '97) Assen 2000 results. Grid: 5th. Race: 4th
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: 110 (82x500, 27x250, 1x125) Pole positions: 1 (500) First pole: Spain, 1998 (500) Assen 2000 results. Grid: 9th. Race: 5th