CHECA TO BE JOINED BY ABE IN 2003 SEASON FINALE
Exactly 30 weeks since the 2003 MotoGP season kicked off at the Japanese Grand Prix in April, a bizarre twist of fate now brings the Fortuna Yamaha Team back to a similar situation to the one it faced for the season-opening round. Just as Norick Abe stepped in to replace Marco Melandri after his serious first morning practice accident in Suzuka, Japanese Abe will once again fly the flag for Yamaha's factory team this weekend by replacing the young Italian rider for the Valencia Grand Prix. Melandri dislocated his right shoulder in a fall during the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island nearly two weeks ago, and will undergo surgery this week to repair the damage to his shoulder cap. Abe will join Carlos Checa in the Fortuna Yamaha Team's Valencia line-up.
Spanish rider Carlos Checa last rode at the Valencia circuit during Fortuna Yamaha's winter testing and is looking forward to racing there again. The recently turned 31-year-old has had an interesting past at the Spanish circuit, last year narrowly escaping injury in a start-line collision. Having qualified fifth, Checa was looking forward to a good ride but he unfortunately stalled his YZR-M1 as the pack pulled away from the starting grid, and was rammed from behind by fast moving Jose Luis Cardoso. Neither rider was hurt but Checa was disappointed to miss out on the last chance of the year to pull off a good result. The previous year Checa was forced to start the Valencia GP from the pit lane after a sighting-lap crash. He carved his way through the 20-strong pack of riders to a stunning fourth place finish.
This year Checa would love to please his local fans with a podium finish, and has been enjoying set-up improvements to his M1 machine at the past few races. He currently lies eighth in the championship standings and is keen to gain extra points and if possible improve his position in Valencia.
"It's my last chance this year to go for it in Valencia," said Checa. "Of course my crew and I have tried our hardest all season but for one reason or another things haven't gone quite the way we hoped. Hopefully in front of my home crowd of fans I can give them something to cheer about this weekend.
"The settings that we used in winter testing won't really apply now because of the difference in conditions but at the last races we have found a good direction, and hopefully that will work in Valencia as well. My target is to get the maximum points I can. Valencia is quite hard work because there are so many corners so the bike needs very light handling. It's a fun circuit to ride at because it's an amphitheatre-style layout for the crowd, and you can hear the echoes of their cheers all around the circuit."
MELANDRI TO MISS VALENCIA DUE TO SHOULDER OPERATION
Melandri was on fine form in what was his last Grand Prix of 2003, leading some of the first half of the 27-lap race, and fighting amongst the top three riders. He made some impressively daring moves at the high-speed circuit but was unfortunately high-sided out of the race at half-distance. The 21-year-old sought expert medical advice on his return to Italy last week and has since decided to proceed with an operation this week. Although saddened that he will not be able to participate in this weekend's Spanish race, Melandri and his team feel that the operation makes sense in order to avoid further risk of injury and to ensure a full and speedy recovery. The 250cc World Champion currently lies fifteenth in the championship standings in his MotoGP rookie season, and expects to be back in action for Yamaha's winter testing in January 2004.
"It's a real pity that Marco cannot race in Valencia because he gave such an impressive performance in Phillip Island, and made many improvements towards the end of the season," commented Fortuna Yamaha Team director Davide Brivio. "We are really happy with the progress he has made this year, and having discussed his injury with him we decided together that it would be for the best for him to undergo surgery on his shoulder this week. That way Marco will be able to start testing for 2004 in January in perfect condition. We wish him a speedy recovery and look forward to him coming back even stronger for 2004.
"We have nominated Norick as his replacement, who we know very well, and who is the perfect replacement under these circumstances. He has always been a good ambassador for Yamaha, and I'm sure he can do a good race in Valencia.
"This will be one of Carlos' home Grands Prix, and as the last race of the season it's his last opportunity to try to get the best result possible before winter testing begins for 2004."
This weekend's Valencia Grand Prix in Spain is the sixteenth round of the championship, and marks the final of the 2003 MotoGP season. The closing race is always a popular event, and an important opportunity for the riders to make their mark before the five-month interval away from racing. What is known as the "off-season" brings no chance to relax, as riders and their teams embark on a busy testing schedule throughout the winter months before the 2004 season restarts in April.
ABE LOOKING FORWARD TO CHAMPIONSHIP COMEBACK
Norick Abe's relationship with Yamaha goes back a long way. The Japanese rider first rode for the marque in 1994, when he replaced an injured Daryl Beattie in Kenny Roberts Snr's Yamaha effort in the 500cc series. By the following year Abe had earned himself a permanent place in the Roberts squad, and he remained there for two years while he proved his reputation for consistency and gained a first victory in Suzuka in 1996. Then it was on to Yamaha Team Rainey for the next two years, where he achieved a string of podium finishes. Abe's next move was to the Spanish-based Antena 3 Yamaha d'Antin team, where he remained until just last year.
In 2003 Abe has performed an official role as Yamaha's test rider, scheduled to race as a wildcard rider at several of the MotoGP championship races. However, he was asked to stand in for Marco Melandri with the Fortuna Yamaha Team at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka in April this year, when the young Italian was injured during the first day of practice. Abe raced both in the first round at Suzuka and the ensuing race in Welkom, while Melandri convalesced, and he finished eleventh and eighth respectively. Since Welkom Abe has also raced at the Le Mans and Sachsenring as a wildcard, finishing eleventh and tenth respectively. Abe is delighted to be representing Yamaha's factory team in this weekend's Valencia Grand Prix.
"I am really looking forward to riding as a substitute for Marco in Valencia," said the 28-year-old Japanese rider. "I haven't raced since the German Grand Prix in July but I have been maintaining my physical condition since then, however, by training as much as I can. So I think I'm in pretty good shape right now.
"I do feel a bit of pressure now after three months away from the circuit. Before I leave Japan for Valencia this week, I plan to go riding at a motocross track a couple of times as I've always found it useful preparation. Valencia isn't one of my best tracks but nevertheless, now that I have this chance to race again, I am certainly going to try my hardest to do well. I won't go into this thinking that Valencia isn't my favourite track, I am just going to give it my all."
The Valencia circuit has good positive camber and an abrasive surface, however the combination of its undulating layout, stop-and-go corners, bumps, and a tight and twisty design increases the chances of front-end crashes. In order to achieve front-end feedback, the Fortuna Yamahas will sport a geometry that will raise the front slightly compared to what is run at most other circuits, with the rear lowered. This will allow for stability under brakes and a solid front-end through the transition as the rider trail brakes into the turn. With the forks set to use their full stroke the agility of the bike is not compromised to too great an extent.
A common mistake is to focus too much on agility by loading up the front with a more aggressive geometry. Experience has shown that this only leads to a loss of front-end feel and, eventually, a loss of confidence. With a more stable bike the rider can be more assertive and therefore more likely to produce a faster lap time. With the YZR-M1 much of this front-end feel will be sought through the bike's rear suspension unit. The movement of the rear shock will be tuned to offer a linear action, and it will be dialled in to deal with the higher loads produced by such a powerful bike driving off such well cambered slow-speed corners. This will also help reduce the likelihood of the bike trying to wheelie off the turns.
Since acceleration is a key factor Yamaha will target the engine performance towards throttle linearity and good low to mid range. This will be more essential for a fast lap time than for an outright top speed, but even so over-rev must be factored into the equation.