Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Riders Aim To Master Mugello
As the fourth round of the scintillating MotoGP series prepares to beckon the strongest ever line up of competitors to the Tuscan circuit of Mugello, the Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team members have only one goal in mind - propelling both Valentino Rossi and Carlos Checa to the top two podium slots. With both riders having already battled their way to the podium individually this year; Rossi's exceptional race one win in Welkom and Checa's significant second place in round three at Le Mans, the entire team's determination for victory is at an all-time high.
Five-time World Champion Rossi is currently third overall in the Championship standings. His 51 points have been earned from a total of one win and two fourth-place finishes. His team-mate Checa bettered him during the recent Le Mans weekend, however, with his first podium of 2004, underlining the strength and depth of the 2004 Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team rider line-up. At Le Mans Checa was only 1.671 seconds shy of winning his first race of the year, and the Spaniard now lies fifth overall in the Championship fight with 36 points.
Despite both riders running race set-ups at Le Mans which needed more time to refine to an optimum level, the capabilities of the 2004 Yamaha YZR-M1 were made obvious once more, impressing all observers in what is shaping up to be the most open World Championship for a number of years. After the stop-go nature of the short Le Mans circuit, the flowing corners, high speed chicanes and endless elevation changes of the mighty Mugello will provide a very different challenge for the YZR-M1, its attendant technical staff and riders.
Rossi, from Tavullia in the Marche region of Italy, is hoping for his third Italian MotoGP race win in a row this weekend. Now resident in London, Mugello is nonetheless Rossi's home Grand Prix and he will be performing in front of his adoring ranks of home fans, who spread themselves across the sides of the circuit's picturesque valley location like a highly vocal private army. This race therefore has significance for Valentino far beyond the otherwise all-important matter of securing maximum championship points. Rossi is fully aware of what success at Mugello means, not just for himself but also for several members of the cosmopolitan Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team, which is based in Italy.
For 31-year-old Catalan Checa, one of the most popular and personable stars in the MotoGP firmament, a place one step higher up the podium from his Le Mans finish will be his firm aim at the 5.245km Mugello track. Checa has worked his way onto the Mugello podium in recent years, taking second place on a Yamaha YZR500 during the 2000 season.
ROSSI HOMES IN ON CAREER WIN 61
Having only recently joined the Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team after a four-season Honda career in MotoGP, Rossi has made stunning progress from the very beginning of his new partnership. Although the ultra-fast 1.141km main straight and relatively high speed nature of Mugello will offer a new challenge for the Yamaha YZR-M1, especially after the comparatively stubby and convoluted layouts of Welkom, Jerez and Le Mans, Rossi feels he will have some important weapons in his own armoury.
"I think the Mugello track is quite good for the Yamaha, especially on the corners," he said. "There are chicanes and different types of corners, which is where I think we will have an advantage. The problem is the main straight, where we could be at a disadvantage."
During his pre-race build up, the Welkom victor said, "Mugello is always a high pressure race, the most special for me of the year. There are a lot of Italian press there and I always have many weekend commitments, so it's quite a lot of pressure. But I love racing there, in front of the Italian crowd, the paddock filled with beautiful people! It's always a difficult weekend and in some ways it's a relief on Sunday night when it's all over."
If more motivation were needed for the most successful rider of the past five years, his two recent off-podium finishes will provide it. "The Le Mans weekend was a difficult one and we didn't finish where we had hoped to," said Rossi, "but we had a good day of testing on the Monday afterwards, and made some positive steps. I am looking forward to trying the M1 in Mugello for the first time at that circuit. Last year the race there was perfect for me, with all the riders giving 100%. It is bound to be a brilliant battle again this year."
CHECA READY TO CLIMB ANOTHER PEAK
The recent runner-up spot at Le Mans provides additional motivation for the popular Spaniard, at what is one of the most rewarding circuits on the 16-round MotoGP trail.
"I am feeling very comfortable about Mugello," affirmed Checa. "It's not just a good track, one that I like, but the situation we find ourselves in now is great. All of my team have got their smiles back! Since the Jerez front row, and of course after finishing second in Le Mans, we have all recovered our enthusiasm and motivation. We are working in quite a different way at the moment; we know we still have limitations but we are in a position to fight to win now, as long as we make no mistakes. The extra day of testing in Le Mans was also useful just to confirm that our race setting was the right one.
Of the Mugello track layout itself, Checa commented, "Mugello has a long straight and as we are not quite as fast as some of the other bikes right now, we can lose 1 or 2 tenths of a second along there. Our strength lies in the corners where we can catch up or pass. At the moment I am having some problems when the bike is leaned over at an angle. But I have confidence in myself and I feel good on the bike right now.
"Le Mans was a great race for me; I did not make any mistakes and was fast. Valentino had some problems there, but I think that he has done amazing things already this year and can be at the top again, especially in Mugello. It was really satisfying for me to be ahead of every rider except one in Le Mans and next time I want no riders ahead of me."
DAVIDE BRIVIO EXPLAINS THE MUGELLO APPROACH
Team Director Davide Brivio gave his insight into what is expected to be a pressure cooker of a race. "Mugello is of course a very special race for us. It is Valentino's home circuit so there is added pressure for him, but it is also the home Grand Prix for the team. Even though our team is very international, we are based in Italy and we feel Italian!
"After three races I think that Yamaha has definitely created a competitive package. We have had a win in South Africa, Carlos a strong second place in France and also a good showing so far from Melandri. We have been high up the order at all three races with different riders and in different conditions, so we are feeling confident. We are now going to push even more and aim to stay at the top; we are looking for the next victory.
"Mugello is a good circuit for both Valentino and Carlos and I think we can have a competitive race with both of them. Valentino has the additional motivation from the Italian crowds and Carlos is coming from a good race in Le Mans, so he is feeling confident. After the race we stayed on for a one-day test and spent some time working on race settings. We collected some good information from both riders and we are feeling in good shape."
At 5.245km the Mugello circuit is one of the longer contemporary MotoGP circuits, in no small part due to the fact that unlike many other classically sculpted tracks it has retained its original length and layout. Running across two sides of an impossibly scenic Tuscan valley, Mugello also differs from other super fast circuits in its frequent changes of gradient and the speed of its chicanes. There is a mix of slower and high-speed corners, although even the slowest corners are wide, allowing several 'ideal' lines.
Having foregone the modern tendency to reduce speeds by creating 'bus stops', Mugello's four significant chicanes are taken at a relatively high pace. Balancing out the need for firmer suspension on the high-speed sections, which compress front and rear suspension due to centrifugal forces, is the requirement for enough pliability to give tyre side grip and traction around the slower off-camber corners.
The suspension set-up quest is further complicated by the fact that on one section of the track the approach to the corners is uphill, on the other half downhill, altering the parameters in the search for ideal spring and compression damping rates.
Top speed is a significant factor for the first time this year, with the long Mugello straight a possible passing place for those who enjoy a peak horsepower edge. Top speeds of well over 300kmph are expected to be commonplace, with the magic 200mph barrier also set to be breached repeatedly.
Good top speed aside, the rideability and balance of the machine have to be second-to-none at Mugello, such are its spread of corners. A magnificent but stern test of the complete machine, Mugello demands perfection lap after lap, but rewards precise and spirited riding. With Rossi and Checa each having their own degree of measurable success at this track the time taken to reach a good race set-up should be less than at some previous venues.