MotoGP will head to the Tuscan circuit of Mugello in Italy this weekend for the fifth stage of the World Championship, with eleven more races to be held before the season end in Valencia, Spain in November. The Fortuna Yamaha Team will be aiming...
MotoGP will head to the Tuscan circuit of Mugello in Italy this weekend for the fifth stage of the World Championship, with eleven more races to be held before the season end in Valencia, Spain in November. The Fortuna Yamaha Team will be aiming high in its home country of Italy after a disappointing end to the wet Le Mans Grand Prix in France two weeks ago.
Despite excellent qualifying results which saw its riders Marco Melandri and Carlos Checa start from the first two rows of the grid in France, the Fortuna Yamaha Team's chances for a podium finish were marred when the heavens opened during the 28 lap race. Checa was unlucky enough to slip on a wet area of the track, grazing his hand badly and putting him out of the race. His team-mate Melandri was near the front of the pack when the race was red-flagged after 16 laps because of the rain, and then restarted a short time later. Melandri restarted from eighth position having chosen intermediate rear and full wet front tyres. The new rules introduced this season only take into consideration the rider position on the track at the time of the red flag, and not the advantage. Melandri's tyre choice did not pay off as the track dried very slowly, and he slipped back to fifteenth position by the end of the race.
The Mugello circuit provides the ideal platform for the four-strokes to show off their speed capability, and during last year's final qualifying session Tohru Ukawa made history when he clocked 322.3kmh on Mugello's 1.14km uphill main straight (equivalent of 200.27mph). During last year's race Yamaha's YZR-M1 machine set the second fastest speed of the race, with 322.8kmh (200.6mph).
The Italian crowd is sure to be bigger than ever before to see even more four-stroke bikes than 2002, and no less than eight manufacturers now participating in the World Championship. Last year saw 93,969 spectators cram into the hills surrounding the action during the weekend with 65,000 attending on race day, and no doubt the figures will be higher in 2003.
FORTUNA YAMAHA TEAM RETURN HOME FOR TUSCAN TUSSLE
With four races behind it and a recent test at the Mugello circuit, the Fortuna Yamaha Team will be more motivated than ever to perform to its home crowd and do well. The team has had to work extra hard to remain optimistic after a difficult start to the season. Melandri's accident at the opening Japanese Grand Prix was the start of the run of bad luck, as the 250cc World Champion was forced to sit out the first two races, replaced by Yamaha test rider and wildcard Norick Abe. Melandri broke his leg in several places and needed time to convalesce before his return to the Spanish Grand Prix in Jerez just one month later.
Melandri's team-mate Carlos Checa also had a tricky start to the season, not showing his full potential at the first two races. Then when things were looking up at the Spanish Grand Prix in Jerez, and Checa was on fighting form up with the race leaders, his Yamaha YZR-M1 suffered electrical problems and stopped on the third lap, forcing him out of the running. This combined with the weather factor at the Le Mans Grand Prix two weeks ago, has contributed to one of the toughest season starts that the factory team has faced.
Davide Brivio, director of the Fortuna Yamaha Team, feels sure however that the potential to win is there and he is eager to show off the progress that his riders and team have made until now at his team's home Grand Prix this weekend.
"After Le Mans we saw an incredible improvement from Marco with his fantastic front row start," said Brivio. "Then he was unlucky with the weather because before the race was stopped he was fighting with the best riders and got up to third position for a few laps. It was just the rain that stopped him from getting the position he deserved. Carlos was also in the top group when he had an unlucky tumble.
"We are really looking forward to Mugello to get back to the position that we deserve. We had a test in Mugello a few weeks ago which was quite good but it's not our bike's favourite circuit. Nevertheless we will use our testing feedback and our riders' recently improving performances to aim for the top there. Last year there Carlos fought for the win in the top group, and Marco is getting stronger and stronger, so we can expect a good day. The team is based in Italy, we have an Italian rider and many Italian staff so we feel like it's one of our home Grands Prix and we want to do well there."
Located in the beautiful Tuscan hills Mugello boasts a sequence of undulating medium to high-speed corners combined with a straight where even the former 500cc two-strokes were capable of producing an outright top speed of 315kmh. The factory team YZR-M1 took that benchmark up to 322kmh during the 2002 race.
Although picturesque, the Italian circuit has a reputation as a very demanding venue on chassis set-up and engine performance. In fact Mugello is a circuit that requires the best from every aspect of a race motorcycle. It is for this reason that the Fortuna Yamaha Team used the chance to test in Mugello prior to the Le Mans Grand Prix, where they evaluated not only the handling but also the braking and power capabilities of the 2003 YZR-M1.
Mugello is all about finding a balanced geometry that will provide the rider with the ability to change direction quickly through the high-speed switchbacks, and especially through the tricky right-hander at the end of the main straight. This corner, to some extent, is the key to a fast lap time around Mugello as it influences the next sequence of turns dramatically. In addition to this the chassis will need to provide a front-end with high feedback while trail braking into the numerous downhill Mugello turns. This is especially the case onto the front straight, as it influences corner exit speed and eventual top speed.
Following the team's recent private two day test, held May 14-15, Checa and Melandri are confident they have found a neutral geometry that will provide the balanced character required to deal with these demanding circuit trademarks. It involves lowering the front of the M1 to improve front-end feel and lighten the handling response through the chicanes. This is also possible as Mugello doesn't require a front-end to be dialled in as firmly regarding its fork springs as in Le Mans, since the braking needs are not quite as extreme.
To ensure that the M1 will be able to find the necessary drive a medium to high rear spring-rate will be used, along with progressive rear suspension linkage rates. It will also be necessary to prevent squatting as riders wind the power on in the well-banked, high G-force corners. As for the in-line four-cylinder powerplant, it will be tuned to offer a stronger midrange and top end power delivery, in turn increasing the top speed potential. Yet this will be done without sacrificing the predictability off the turns.
CHECA NEEDS CHANGE OF LUCK AT CRUCIAL STAGE OF SEASON
Having finished last year's World Championship in sixth position, it has been an inconsistent start to the 2003 season for popular Spanish rider Carlos Checa, who currently lies in sixteenth position in the championship standings. The Catalan-born racer known in his home country as 'El Toro' could not find his usual form at the first two races of the season, finishing in tenth and ninth positions in Japan and Africa respectively.
Checa's 'bullish' form returned at the following two races - his qualifying performances were consistent and his lap times close to those of the top riders. However his luck did not improve, as he was forced to stop after only three laps in Jerez at the Spanish Grand Prix. He was then forced out of the wet French Grand Prix in Le Mans two weeks ago in just the second lap of the race when he slipped on a wet patch.
Checa knows that Mugello will be a crucial chance for him to gain extra points and raise his position in the championship standings, and there is no reason why he should not do so. Last year the now thirty-year-old missed the Mugello podium by a fraction, riding a determined race to fourth position having started from third place on the front row. He crossed the finish line just a few metres behind third-placed Tohru Ukawa. Also the Fortuna Yamaha Team tested at the circuit just a few weeks ago so its nature is fresh in Checa's mind, and he set a lap time of 1'52.1 during the test, beating the circuit lap record (1'52.601) and just off the circuit best lap (1'51.258).
"For sure it was useful to have a test there recently," said Checa about Mugello. "I felt quite good riding there although I did have some falls. I find it quite difficult to know the limit in Mugello and I pushed a bit too hard. It's quite a difficult circuit but generally I think the four-strokes are very well suited to it.
"I haven't had a good start to the season at all but the nature of racing is that you have good times and bad times. I am still completely focussed and know that I am capable of fighting with the top riders. I've already proved this in Spain and France, and now it's just a question of keeping the consistency throughout a race and hopefully not having any more dramas! The team are being great and my mechanics are working so hard that I want to get a podium finish as much for them as for myself. It would be good to do that in Italy where the team is based. All I can say is that I will try to stay calm during the two days of qualifying, get a good grid position, and go for it."
MELANDRI KEEN TO PERFORM WELL TO HOME CROWD
Twenty-year-old Ravenna born Marco Melandri has impressed everyone with his strength and determination to race no matter what so far this year. After a serious fall at the opening Japanese Grand Prix where he fractured his ankle in two places and chipped his femur, the Italian was forced to miss the first two races while he received physiotherapy in Italy. It was decided that Melandri was fit to return for the Spanish Grand Prix just one month later and the young rider put in a determined performance despite some back pain - a side effect of his earlier accident, finishing in seventeenth position.
At the French Grand Prix two weeks ago Melandri incredibly earned himself a front row start and during the wet race fought his way up to third position but an unlucky tyre choice meant he was unable to keep up with the race leaders and he eventually finished in fifteenth position. The youngster has already shown that he is full of promise and is desperate to gain a good result in this weekend's Italian Grand Prix.
"I think it will be the most difficult race for me so far this year," admitted Melandri, "because all the Italian riders will be wanting to make a good race in front of the public. My condition is getting better every day so that won't hold me back. I made some good laps in Le Mans but finished in fifteenth position because we made a mistake with our tyre choice and I'm not totally used to riding my M1 in the rain. Now I want to finish a race in a good position and I will try for this in Mugello. It is my dream to get a podium finish in Mugello on the M1 but it's very difficult to turn that to reality because this year so many riders are good, every race is different with different people fighting for the victory."
Melandri is trying not to let the pressure of a home Grand Prix affect him and will aim to keep the same level of concentration that he would for any other race, "My team are good because they won't put any extra pressure on me in Mugello even though most of them are Italian," he said. "They will keep me calm but of course I will naturally feel an extra desire to perform well in front of my people. My fan club will be there which should be nice. When I rode in the 125cc class I had my first ever podium in Mugello in '98 - I came second. I also rode my first ever race in my life on a 125 in Mugello, and then won the 250cc race there last year. It's a very difficult circuit because it has every kind of corner; slow, fast, and chicane, as well as a very fast straight. But I love this track! We tested here a few weeks ago and I took things slowly because of my physical condition."
Melandri also has a treat in store for him before his home Grand Prix because he has been invited to go to meet the President of the Italian Republic, Mr. Azeglio Ciampi, on Tuesday of the week leading up to the race. Melandri will attend the special occasion alongside current MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi and other MotoGP riders. Both Rossi and Melandri won World Championship titles in 2002, Rossi the MotoGP title and Melandri the 250cc title. Commenting on the event Melandri beamed, "I'm very excited to meet him and I'm proud to have been asked to go - the only thing I'm not sure about is what I'm going to wear!"