Fortuna Yamaha Team men Carlos Checa and Marco Melandri advance to Australia 's picturesque Phillip Island circuit this weekend for the last but one stage of the MotoGP World Championship. The battle for first place is already over, as Italian rider Valentino Rossi took a stunning victory to win the 2003 premier class championship in style in Malaysia last weekend. Rossi's season track record has been customarily impeccable, never finishing off the podium and taking seven victories. Despite the title having been clinched, and a less than perfect season for Yamaha, motivation in the Fortuna Yamaha camp remains high as both Checa and Melandri strive for that elusive podium finish.
The team has suffered its worst season since being formed in 1999. However, as a truly professional unit standards do not slip and everybody involved is striving 100% to give Checa and Melandri the means to succeed in the final two rounds. The pair had a mixed time in Malaysia last weekend. A misunderstanding during final qualifying put them both in the gravel before Checa bounced back to smash the previous best ever lap of the stunning Sepang circuit and took second spot on the starting grid behind Rossi. The Spaniard showed spirit and determination as he battled hard throughout the race despite suffering grip problems in the slightly cooler conditions. He eventually brought his YZR-M1 home in fifth place.
Melandri, on the other hand, had a weekend to forget after his stunning ride in Japan the week before where he fought back from 19th after being involved in the first corner melee to finish fifth. In Malaysia, however, Melandri struggled again to get a comfortable set-up and came home 11th.
This weekend's Australian Grand Prix marks the last of a grueling three-week programme of back-to-back races. With just enough time to recover from the jet-lag that the westward journey back to Europe inevitably brings for most paddock workers, the championship will conclude in Valencia, Spain on 2 November.
The director of the Fortuna Yamaha Team, Davide Brivio, is conscious of progress that the team is making in the latter part of the season, and hopes that the riders can lift the spirits of all involved in the project before they head into the winter "off-season".
"It has certainly been a frustrating year for all of us," explained Brivio. "There have been quite a few races where we've made progress only to find that at the next race we've encountered problems again. Carlos rode a great race in Malaysia and pushed hard all the way to the end. If we can alleviate some of the problems he was having there I would love to see him up on the podium this weekend. That would give us all a lift as we head back for the last race in Europe. Marco too needs to forget about Malaysia and let's see the form that saw him cut through the field so effectively in Japan two weeks ago.
"We should be used to this three-week schedule in Japan, Malaysia and Australia by now but it is always very tiring. However, I am very proud of the team as they continue to work hard and they never give up."
CHECA AS DETERMINED AS EVER
Carlos Checa arrives in Australia after a gritty performance in Malaysia where he finished in fifth place having qualified second. The Spaniard, who will turn 31 on Wednesday, never gave up despite suffering grip problems in the cooler conditions. After some inevitable birthday celebrations he will switch his focus to the stunning Phillip Island circuit but has certain reservations after a difficult trip there last year when he finished the race in 11th place.
"Phillip Island was the worst result last year that all the Yamaha M1 riders had. We had big problems there changing direction for some reason. The bike has changed a bit since then so I hope that the feedback we gave last year means that the bike will handle a little better there now. It's the most picturesque track we go to and one of my favourites. I really like the place and the people, and like last year I will spend my birthday on the Island. I just hope that we can be more competitive for my birthday present!"
MELANDRI HOPING FOR INSPIRATION IN PHILLIP ISLAND
Phillip Island is a very special place for Marco Melandri, who wrapped up his 250cc World Championship there last year with a thrillingly close win over Fonsi Nieto. Melandri is hoping that a return to the circuit will inspire him to show some of the hard-charging form that has seen him challenge the leading group of MotoGP riders on a number of occasions in his debut year in the class. Unfortunately injury in the early part of the year, a few bits of bad luck and a few difficult weekends have made the 21-year-old's "learning year" a pretty tough one. But the Italian is certainly determined to succeed. He arrives in Australia after two very different races. In Japan he rode superbly, after being forced off the track in the early stages, to recover from 19th place and record a fifth place finish. A week later, however, and he was struggling with set-up and grip and finally finished in 11th place at the Malaysian GP.
"I won the 250cc title in Phillip Island last year so it's a very special race for me," reminisced Melandri. "But even before that it was one of my favourite circuits. It's very beautiful to be so close to the ocean, and riding there makes me feel relaxed. It's one of the faster tracks, with very high corner speed and sometimes very strong winds.
"I think it will be quite a difficult circuit with the four-stroke bike. We didn't test there in the winter but I don't think it would have made a huge difference if we had. For example, when we tested before the Brno GP at the Brno circuit mid-season, I had a really good test but then a really difficult race. I don't know what changed but I just didn't feel as comfortable. That's the nature of the challenge this year for me, so I'm not worried that I haven't tested the four-stroke at Phillip Island before now. I can't tell what will happen there but I will certainly be working as hard as I can with my team, as usual!"
The fast flowing nature of Phillip Island is a favourite for many riders, lending itself to close racing while allowing riders the rare opportunity to attack the circuit despite the 220 horsepower powerplants that propel them. The set-up of the machine will need to offer good acceleration and turning ability, rather than braking stability considering there is just one hard braking area. "The Island", as it is often referred to, offers a variety of cambers throughout its 4448m sweeping layout, both positive and negative.
The key component to success, therefore, will be the rear suspension unit. It will need to offer enough feedback and predictability without pumping through its stroke as the rider tries to drive hard off the side of the tyre, or squatting as the weight transfers onto the rear. The latter will unload the front of the motorcycle, in turn causing it to understeer and push wide - affecting exit speed and eventually lap times. On the other hand a too stiff rear shock will lead to the front wheel lofting while the rider powers off each of the slow and medium speed turns. It will also lead to the deterioration of the rear tyre and increase the likelihood of a highside.
To achieve all that is needed of the rear shock, it must sport a slightly softer spring rate to aid feel, with a reasonable amount of preload to prevent rear-end squat. As for the damping, it will be dialed in to help balance out the package over some of the finer bumps, located in some of the high-speed sweepers. The front forks will mimic the rear set-up to ensure an overall balanced geometry. Too hard, and the front will become vague in its feedback, and at these high speeds and lean angles this can be detrimental. Too soft, and the basic feel will be too loose to be efficient. This has been the basic approach of the YZR-M1 technical team over the past few races, and with the experience gained this could prove quite beneficial at the Island, where rider confidence counts for so much.
Power is tuned to offer a stronger midrange to top-end as acceleration is the key to a fast lap time, especially off the final fast turn where momentum can make the difference between winning and losing. Helping with the top speed potential of the YZR-M1 will be the recent engine improvements and increased rpm ceiling, which was first put to the test in Motegi two weeks ago. Also the new ram air intake, which made its first appearance in Malaysia last weekend, should be ideally suited to the high-speed circuit.
As the 2003 YZR-M1 has featured smaller and more aggressive bodywork since the first race at Suzuka in Japan earlier this year, the Yamaha bikes should not suffer the effects of high cross winds to the same degree as they did in 2002. The improved 2003 aerodynamic package's biggest advantage is its positive influence on agile handling at speed, while also reducing the drag coefficient effects in such strong cross winds.