GAULOISES YAMAHA TEAM TAKES TITLE QUEST TO FRANCE
The Gauloises Yamaha Team returned to Europe last week in tired but contented mood after continuing its excellent start to the 2005 campaign with another victory at the first ever MotoGP event in China.
The historic trip to Shanghai wielded a second 25-point haul of the season for Valentino Rossi and extended his lead in the current World Championship standings to the same margin. Another determined ride against the odds from Rossi's team-mate Colin Edwards consolidated Gauloises Yamaha's supremacy in the teams' and manufacturers' standings after three eventful rounds.
With the bikes and team equipment taking the direct route to France in readiness for this weekend's eagerly-anticipated fourth round, the past week has provided the riders and staff with a welcome opportunity to take a brief rest and prepare for another assault on the podium at Le Mans. The Bugatti circuit has taken on an extra significance for the entire team as they look to improve on Rossi's comparatively disappointing Le Mans result of fourth place from last season and confirm the recent progress of the 2005 version YZR-M1.
Its advantages over last year's machine have already been made evident by winning performances from Rossi at Jerez and Shanghai, as well as a solid second place in mixed conditions at Estoril. A repeat podium performance at Le Mans would not only extend the team's principal objective of defending the championship lead at every round but provide definitive proof that the YZR-M1 is in better shape than ever to continue dominating until the end of the season.
The historic Le Mans circuit first opened its gates to the MotoGP World Championship in 1969 and has been home to the series intermittently since then. Circuits at Albi, Rouen, Reims, Clermont-Ferrand, Paul Ricard, Nogaro and Magny-Cours have also played host to the French Grand Prix in the past but the Bugatti circuit has been a fixture on the MotoGP calendar for the last five seasons.
VALENTINO ROSSI: UNFINISHED BUSINESS
Valentino Rossi has a score to settle at Le Mans, one of only five tracks at which he missed out on the podium last season. The performance of his updated YZR-M1 machine in all manner of conditions during the opening three rounds of the season, particularly the progress made with the wet set-up in Shanghai, has given the World Champion extra confidence in its ability to adapt to any circuit, in any weather.
"The changes we made to the M1 on the morning of the race in Shanghai benefited us and helped us to win my first wet race with Yamaha," explained Rossi. "Basically we made the forks softer, less rigid, and I think these changes will benefit us in the dry as well.
"Le Mans is not one of my favourite tracks, I had a difficult race there last year and only finished fourth. I hope we leave there having resolved our problems, whatever the conditions are, and I have a feeling that we will. It can be quite tricky there if the weather is bad, so I really hope we have a bit of luck and it's dry, but at least if it rains we know we are in a much better position than in the past."
Whilst Rossi has dominated the championship standings ever since taking victory in the opening round at Jerez, his nearest challenger has changed with every Grand Prix. After Sete Gibernau and Alex Barros, the man now closest to the World Champion after three rounds is his young compatriot Marco Melandri, who lies some 25 points adrift.
"To beat Sete Gibernau and Alex Barros in those conditions at Shanghai was the most incredible thing," admits Rossi. "Melandri did really well - also in the dry he is doing a good job. For me to be so fast in the rain was fantastic. I had never won in the wet before with Yamaha, so it was very special and the points are so important.
"We were a bit worried over the Shanghai weekend because Gibernau was so fast. Gibernau and Barros are always positive in these wet conditions and I'm sure they expected to beat me in the wet, so the win is also great for our morale!"
However, Rossi admits that his biggest threat this weekend could come from an entirely different source, with home favourite Olivier Jacque set for a second appearance after finishing just 1.7 seconds behind the race winner on his return to MotoGP in Shanghai. "I am a bit worried about Olivier Jacque now because before the Shanghai race he said that he was only riding in China as a kind of training to learn the bike, and then he could concentrate on racing in Le Mans. He finished second in China so who knows what might happen in France!"
COLIN EDWARDS: BETTER TIMES AROUND THE CORNER
Colin Edwards makes his way back to Europe via the same route he headed out to China, having dropped by his home in Texas for a brief visit before completing a journey halfway around the world. The American heads to France hoping for an upturn in the fortunes that have marred his start to the season, the latest being a gear-shifter problem that limited him to eighth place despite a spirited ride through the pack from the fifth row of the grid in China.
"It's been a funny season for me so far and I'm just hoping everything comes together in France," explains Edwards. "China was very similar to Estoril in that I showed I had the race pace but, through a series of circumstances out of my control, I didn't get the opportunity to push for the podium.
"Nobody is more disappointed about that than myself and I certainly don't expect to be battling it out for eighth place even at this early stage of the season. The main thing is, though, that the positive signs are there and the whole team is working hard. All we need now is a little turn in luck and we'll be there.
"I don't mind Le Mans as a circuit too much -- last year was only my second time there but I set provisional pole position and finished fifth in the race. It's a real 'stop and go' track, as everybody says, with hard braking, tight corners and hard acceleration. We'll have some work to do with the set-up of the bike but we've made a lot of progress over the last few weeks so hopefully we can make it count."
DAVIDE BRIVIO: RESTED AND READY TO GO RACING
Gauloises Yamaha Team Director Davide Brivio's insatiable thirst for racing action took him to Pesaro in Italy this weekend, where he was taking part in a round of the Italian Rally Championship as co-driver to Valentino Rossi's father Graziano. For Brivio it was a welcome chance to take a break from the intensity of the MotoGP paddock as he predicts another highly competitive weekend from his team in France.
"The bikes and all the equipment have been flown straight to France from China so the past few days have been a good opportunity for the team to get some rest after an intense start to the season," explained Brivio. "China was a very important weekend for us; we worked very hard and made some good progress with the setting of the bike in the dry and we completely solved the problems we have had in the past in the wet. Now we are hoping to take advantage of that at Le Mans.
"Le Mans is one of the circuits we didn't do so well at last season, so we want to make up for that with a victory this time around. It was a similar situation at Jerez in the first round of the season and we managed to win there, so it would be really nice to do the same thing in France. Valentino has been able to take advantage of the improvements we have made to the bike in the last few rounds and, if the bike is good again this weekend, we should see Colin join him at the top."
BLAST FROM THE PAST: CELEBRATING 50 YEARS OF YAMAHA GLORY
Whilst the Le Mans circuit and the rain were two of Yamaha's most challenging obstacles last season, a combination of both proved to be anything but a problem in the factory's first win at the Bugatti circuit almost two decades ago. The eighth round of the 1987 500cc season saw Randy Mamola streak to a convincing victory over Honda's Pier Francesco Chili by some 34 seconds, his second wet weather win that season after taking the opening round at Suzuka by an even bigger margin.
"The YZR handled really well and it was always fast through the chicanes, so it was perfect for Le Mans," remembers Mamola, who went on to finish second in the championship that season to Wayne Gardner. "I'd been on the podium twice before for other factories at Le Mans so to get my first win there with Yamaha was a special honour.
"Because of its history it is hard to think of another track so synonymous with racing as Le Mans and in the modern day nobody works harder than them to create an event around the Grand Prix. The fans there are incredible and the feeling you get as they cheer you into turn one is an unforgettable experience -- especially if you are leading the race!"
Mamola raced for no fewer than 14 years at the top level of Grand Prix racing and admits that signing for Yamaha's factory squad, run by his boyhood hero Kenny Roberts, was one of the highlights of his career. "When I was a 14-year-old I earned a contract with Yamaha USA and my first race bike was a Yamaha TA125. At that time Kenny Roberts was the leading dirt-tracker in America and he was my hero. I used to ask him to sign posters for my bedroom. In 1986 I got the chance to ride for Yamaha in the World Championship and be a part of his team, so it was a dream come true for me."
The 4.180 km Le Mans circuit is an archetypal stop-go track, with the added complication of one of the highest speed curves of any circuit on the calendar, just after the short start-finish straight. There are several hairpins and chicanes, calling for not just balance and control under hard and repeated braking, but a neat and swift transfer from full braking to full acceleration on the exit of the corners. With nine right-handers and only four lefts, the track is also particularly hard on one side of the tyres.
Firmer front fork settings and spring rates are usually needed to handle the frequent braking demands, whilst a slightly softer rear spring, with a higher than normal pre-load, is adopted to allow the machine to hold a line exiting corners, due to the reduced ride height which will be necessary to help the M1 remain stable under hard braking.