The Fortuna Yamaha Team travels to Motegi this weekend hoping for a positive result in Yamaha's home country. Spaniard Carlos Checa will be looking for a similar weekend to the one he had here last year, when he started from the front row having qualified just 0.172 seconds behind pole-sitter Daijiro Kato. Unfortunately he had a tough race but managed to salvage a commendable fifth place after some small set-up changes left him less comfortable with his YZR-M1 machine.
It was announced last week by the FIM that the Japanese Grand Prix, which has always been held at the Suzuka circuit, will be held in Motegi in 2004. Various modifications to improve safety at the Suzuka circuit will not be complete in time for April 2004 when the race there would normally take place. So next year the Motegi round of the championship will lose its current name of 'Pacific Grand Prix' and will bear the new title of 'Japanese Grand Prix'.
Checa's team-mate Marco Melandri will certainly be looking forward to a positive weekend in Japan, as his last trip to the Far East ended in serious injuries after a bad fall on his first day of qualifying at the Suzuka circuit. As a result Melandri was forced to sit out of two races while he recuperated, and made a terrific comeback on his return, gathering momentum and confidence during the European rounds of the championship. Both Fortuna Yamaha Team riders come to Japan wanting to put behind them the difficulties they experienced at the last Grand Prix in Rio two weeks ago.
"The last race in Brazil was difficult for us as we suffered a lack of grip," explained the team's director, Davide Brivio. "But before that we were improving and had some good races, particularly in Sachsenring and Brno. So now we would obviously like to go back to that standard and higher. We've got three races in a row now so hopefully we can get a good momentum and it will give us the opportunity to achieve a higher standard.
"Carlos had a good race in Brno, and Marco did in Estoril, and both are capable of having a good end of season. We will work as hard as we can to improve their feeling with their bikes. We have recently improved our engine performance and now the focus needs to be on the chassis and set-up. Next year Motegi is going to be the only race in Japan further to the decision of the riders, FIM and the promoter. I think everyone respects that decision to take Suzuka off the calendar as it's the safety of the riders at stake."
The Pacific Grand Prix is just the beginning of an endurance test of three back-to-back events, with the Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang next weekend and the Australian Grand Prix in Phillip Island the week after that. The championship will conclude on November 2 at the Valencia circuit in Spain. Championship leader Valentino Rossi has a mathematical chance to win the 2003 World Championship if he wins this weekend but only if current championship runner-up Sete Gibernau finishes in fifteenth place or lower. This would give the Italian Honda rider his third successive premier class world title.
CHECA AIMS FOR HIGHER IN JAPAN
Carlos Checa had a tricky weekend in Rio two weeks ago, as he struggled to finish in the top ten riders, finally ending the race ninth. Despite all efforts made by the Spanish rider and his crew, little could be done to overcome the lack of grip on the bumpy circuit. Starting from tenth on the grid, Checa was hopeful of a good start but in the end was unable to make a pass on the opening few laps. As the race progressed, the tenth-placed rider remained focused and determined, and managed to snatch ninth from Ducati rider Troy Bayliss on the penultimate lap.
The one thing that was lucky at the Brazilian race was the weather, and the Fortuna Yamaha man is hoping for the same blessing at the Pacific Grand Prix this weekend, "Motegi is a circuit that I quite enjoy but only if it's not raining!" jokes the Spaniard. "It's important, as all the races are, but especially being in the home country of Yamaha. It's always great if you can have a good result in front of your bosses. We had problems in Rio two weeks ago but everyone is working flat out to try to resolve those problems. It was especially bad in Rio because of the lack of grip, and the Motegi circuit is quite different.
"Motegi has a lot of uphill and downhill sections, which I like. There's a lot of hard acceleration, so hopefully our bike will be fast this weekend. It's going to be a long time away from home and we'll be very busy with the three back-to-back races but we're all used to it. Also, the races are in similar time zones so there's no great problem with jet-lag."
MELANDRI HOPES TO SHINE IN FRONT OF YAMAHA BOSSES
For twenty-one-year-old Marco Melandri, going back to Japan will no doubt evoke some poignant memories. The Ravenna-born rider had a bad fall in Japan at the beginning of his 2003 season, at the opening round of the championship in Suzuka. He is now fully recovered and will be all out to impress his Japanese chiefs from Yamaha in Motegi this weekend. In the closing stages of the 2003 championship the young Italian lies fifteenth in the championship standings, a position which belies some of the impressive race-moves Melandri has made.
"I quite like the Motegi track because the asphalt is good, and I can normally find a good grip there as it's not too bumpy. Grip was one of my main problems at the last race in Rio so hopefully it should be much better in Motegi. There are a few hairpins which I like. The biggest problem is the weather, which can be overcast and rainy.
"I came second in Motegi last year on the 250cc, and the year before that was terrible because I had to go to hospital in a helicopter after an accident. My last race in Japan with the M1 earlier this year ended badly when I crashed out on the first day and had to miss that race and the following race. In a way that first stage of the season made me stronger because it made me realise how difficult this class can be, and it gave me time to focus on my training programme. I'm sure that next year I will look back on this year and be grateful for a difficult first season in MotoGP.
"Obviously Japan will be a very important race for me again as I would really like to do well in front of my Yamaha bosses. Many Yamaha staff have only had one chance to see me ride in Japan before my accident on the Friday in Suzuka at the start of the year. Hopefully I can get a result that will make them proud."
Like many things designed and built by the Japanese, Motegi is unsurpassed in its design and circuit quality. The surface is seamlessly smooth, offering high levels of grip, and the facilities are exceptional. Yet despite this high attention to technical detail the Motegi layout looks more like a series of uncreative drag strips linked together by continual radius second gear corners. Even so it is still technical enough so that outright power isn't the be all and end all when it comes to winning races here.
In fact in some respects too much aggressive power can be a hindrance at this particular venue. For this reason Yamaha has increased its efforts to further improve the YZR-M1's tractability and predictability on the power. These performance characteristics are essential since most of the power will be driven through second and third gear while exiting slow speed turns, only moments after completing some rather heavy braking.
This combination of hard braking to hard acceleration over a very short distance complicates things further for the riders with aggressive weight transfer a catalyst for instability. Although circuits such as Le Mans share a similar reputation of a stop and go layout Yamaha's success with such a layout is yet to present itself in Motegi. For this reason a balanced and usable base geometry will be the focal point for those riding the M1.