After a string of races across northern Europe, the Fortuna Yamaha Team makes its way with the rest of the MotoGP paddock back to the Iberian peninsula this weekend for the Portuguese Grand Prix in Estoril. This weekend's race marks the end of...
After a string of races across northern Europe, the Fortuna Yamaha Team makes its way with the rest of the MotoGP paddock back to the Iberian peninsula this weekend for the Portuguese Grand Prix in Estoril. This weekend's race marks the end of the European sector of the season before each team packs its equipment into freight cases for the string of four 'flyaway' races in Brazil, Japan, Malaysia and Australia. The nomadic paddock then returns to Europe for the final showdown in Valencia, Spain on 2 November.
After a six week lull, interruputed only by the Gauloises Czech Republic Grand Prix in Brno in mid-August and the ensuing Michelin tyre test at the Czech circuit, the MotoGP riders will be looking forward to getting back to the action in what has turned into an unusually close championship . The excitement reached its peak at the last race in Brno, when at mid-race distance the top five riders were covered by just 1.171 seconds, and the race win was claimed by just 0.042 seconds by Valentino Rossi from Sete Gibernau. The leading pack didn't just change positition on every lap but virtually every corner!
Fortuna Yamaha Team rider Carlos Checa was one of the strongest race contenders in Brno. Although he followed the leading five riders for the majority of the race, his times improved lap by lap and he closed in on the top group to finish in a solid fourth. His team-mate Marco Melandri had a more difficult weekend, struggling to get comfortable with his Yamaha YZR-M1 four-stroke machine but eventually overcoming his difficulties to finish what was an impressive tenth place, considering his seventeenth place starting grid position.
Checa and Melandri came away from the group Michelin tyre test which followed the Czech race feeling the benefits of the day. Checa continued to set impressively fast and consistent lap times, and Melandri made more progress conquering the troubles that had affected his performance during the race weekend. Both riders and their crews will return to Estoril this weekend not only with the confidence that they left the test with, but also fully relaxed and focused after the two week break since. The team's Italian director, Davide Brivio, knows how much extra effort his team has put in recently, and the result is making a difference. He is sure that the enhanced performances of both riders will improve even more this weekend.
"Carlos got pole position in Estoril last year so has a proven track record with the M1 there," said Davide Brivio about the elder of his two riders. "Also he's come from another positive race in the Czech Republic and at the races before it, with Brno probably the most positive. We are looking forward to this end of the season for Carlos - he was fighting again in Brno with the top group so his confidence is improving. We're working to get him on the podium soon.
"With Marco, his weekend in Brno was not as positive as we were expecting but I think that probably that track doesn't perfectly suit his riding style on the M1. However, he made the best of a difficult situation and by race day had made adjustments working closely with his crew, which made a lot of difference, and he was able to achieve a solid result despite a difficult grid position. This was all part of an important and steep learning curve! Estoril will hopefully be a different story. During the winter testing Marco had a small fall on the wet there, and hurt his shoulder but now he is so much more confident with the bike. I think we can have him back on good form this weekend.
"Both riders were pleased with the chance to test at Brno on the Monday after the race in the Michelin tyre test. Carlos' lap times were as good with the tyres he was testing as they were in the race on Sunday. His times were also consistent and the same as the pace setters were achieving in the race, so he has come away from the test feeling confident. The test was also positive and useful for Marco - a chance to clarify some doubts and improve some settings."
CHECA SIXTH IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP AND DETERMINED FOR HIGHER
Carlos Checa's season did not start out as one of his best but he is making up for lost time, and now just needs a podium finish to reestablish himself as one of the top protagonists in motorcycle racing's premier class. His season has improved slowly but surely, his change in luck starting at his home Barcelona Grand Prix in June when he finished fourth. Since then he has achieved another fourth in Assen, sixth in Donington, a frustrating eighth in Sachsenring, and then back on track to finish fourth at the Czech Republic Grand Prix three weeks ago. He has moved up to sixth position in the championship standings - eighteen points behind Ducati MotoGP rookie Troy Bayliss and nineteen points behind Bayliss' team-mate Loris Capirossi.
Checa will need to use every ounce of his determination this weekend to achieve Fortuna Yamaha's first podium finish of the season. Last year he finished second at the Portuguese circuit after a pole position start, and a hard-ridden race in harsh wet conditions. The Spaniard is looking forward to getting back into the championship after the break, and feels that the Portuguese circuit can provide the platform for his first podium of the season.
"I got the pole there last year, so obviously it's a track that I quite like," said the Spanish rider. "At all tracks you need good front and rear balance and good stability on turning, that's the basic character, and then you build on that from circuit to circuit. Estoril has a long straight, and you need hard braking on T1. Then about seventy percent of the track consists of slow turns where you need hard braking. The last section has the slowest corner, and for me it's the slowest corner of all the GP circuits. You need good handling there and connection with the throttle. The bike becomes very heavy at that point.
"The track doesn't look like it has any grip but actually when you're on the track the grip level isn't so bad. The last section is quite important for the lap time, and by the last section I mean the last two turns. It's easy to lose a lot of time in the slower area. I like the track in general but not the bumps, especially on the exit of turns one and two. That last slow section is too slow for us four-stroke riders really, it's too slow for 200 horsepower."
TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD AND READY FOR ACTION
Marco Melandri has spent the two short season intervals training, hanging out with friends, looking forward to the next race, and turning twenty-one! He celebrated his birthday just before the Czech Grand Prix, and the Brno Grand Prix was certainly a test of his maturity. The 250cc World Champion had a tricky weekend, struggling to find a set-up that he felt comfortable with, and didn't find a compromise until morning practice on race day, when he and his crew made adjustments that set him up for a steady race. He finished in tenth place, and now lies nineteenth in the championship.
His current championship standing belies the progress he has made in his rookie MotoGP season. Having missed the first two races of the year due to injury, and spending the following few races relearning the ropes, he amazed everyone by claiming his first MotoGP front row start at the French Grand Prix in Le Mans, then claiming a second front row start at the British Grand Prix in Donington when he fought with the race leaders before tumbling out of the race from fourth place. At the ensuing German Grand Prix in Sachsenring he brilliantly fought his way as high as second after a twelfth place start, unluckily falling off when he had difficulties changing gear.
Melandri's weekend in Brno was more complicated. Despite a reasonable test at the Czech circuit in mid-July, he struggled to find a set-up that he felt comfortable with during the race weekend. He and his crew worked harder than ever to overcome the difficulties, and after lowering the front geometry of his YZR-M1 on race day, the young Italian went on to complete a steady race, finishing tenth. The same set-up helped him complete a positive Michelin test the following day at the group tyre test in Brno. Now he moves on to Estoril
"Last year I finished second in Estoril, I was hoping for another win but couldn't quite make it. I was still winning the 250cc championship at that stage anyway so I have good memories of this circuit. However in winter testing this year I had a tumble when I was testing Michelin's wet tyres in the rain. I slid on an uphill chicane on my second lap in the wet, and had to be taken to the Clinica Mobile. They confirmed that my right collar bone had separated from my shoulder blade, it really hurt! At least I got to ride about 22 laps before the fall, with a reasonable time, so I do have some experience with the M1 on the Estoril circuit.
"All through the summer break I haven't been able to relax properly because I've been so focused on racing. After having such a good feeling with the bike in Donington and Sachsenring, I was so disappointed in Brno when I couldn't ride as I wanted to. It seemed that no matter what we did on Friday and Saturday, it didn't get any better. My crew worked so hard all weekend and then we made another change on Sunday and it immediately felt better.
"Now I'm just desperate to get back to the racing, and I really want to finish the race in a good position in Estoril. In some ways the frustration in Brno was good for me because it taught me that if you can't get the feeling you want at the start of the weekend, you have to be patient sometimes, trust your crew, and keep working without making too many changes."
In some ways many of the issues that plague the South African circuit, Welkom, also make racing at Estoril interesting, to say the least. The combination of its design and geography make it a technically challenging venue. Situated 32km west of Lisbon on the western coast of Portugal, 7km from the beach resort of Cascais, Estoril is regularly hit by offshore winds - resulting in a light film of dust on the track surface. This, combined with the circuit's flat camber and irregular use, means that grip levels are always minimal for the first couple of days during the Portuguese Grand Prix, until a clean racing line is formed.
As the circuit naturally becomes cleaner and faster over the course of the Grand Prix weekend, the chassis characteristics and the ideal setting continually change, making bike set-up difficult for all. The engine alone must cater for all extremes here; predictability, due to the low grip levels; low to midrange power, which must satisfy the drive needed off the half dozen second gear corners; and top-end over-rev, essential to make the leap between each bend.
Chassis wise the first target is a balanced, neutral geometry; offering good turn-in characteristics while also catering for the big braking areas, such as turn one. The base setting will be similar to that used at Donington, only with slightly higher rate fork springs to deal with the extra weight transfer under deceleration. Meanwhile the rear spring will be softer to improve feedback under power. This will be done while the technicians and riders focus on a set-up suited more on the latter part of the race, at which point the tyre grip levels will be fading, rather than on a one-off ultra fast time on new rubber.