AN ERA ENDS AT RIO
This weekend's Rio Grand Prix marks the end of an era. Saturday's 500 race is the last of its kind before big-bore four-strokes join the MotoGP World Championship in 2002. No surprises then that Marlboro Yamaha Team riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa are more determined than ever to score well at this race and thus end the golden age of 500 racing in style.
Rio is the 580th 500 Grand Prix and takes place 52 years and five months after the first-ever 500 GP, run as the Isle of Man Senior TT on June 17 1949. Ever since that day the 500 class has been considered the pinnacle of motorcycle greatness. Inaugural 500 World Champion and ex-WW2 bomber pilot Les Graham was the first of many 500 title winners, and the men who followed him, like Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and Mick Doohan amongst others, are the very essence of bike racing history.
After Saturday's race, GP racing moves into the future. In line with the four-stroke dominated streetbike market, 990cc four-strokes are joining next year's World Championship, and the intention is that they will eventually take over completely from the 500cc two-strokes that have dominated the class for the last quarter of a century.
Both Biaggi, who is battling for second overall in the last-ever 500 World Championship, and Checa have a part to play in next year's four-stroke revolution, but for the moment their hearts and minds are focused on this historic weekend, when two-strokes will reign supreme for the last time.
BIG WEEKEND FOR BIAGGI
As history is made this weekend with the passing of the 500 class, Max Biaggi inches towards another landmark in his remarkable career; Rio will be his 149th Grand Prix start.
Biaggi has become one of the sport's all-time greats since his debut in the 1991 French 250 GP. The second most successful 250 rider in history, the Marlboro Yamaha Team star has won four 250 world crowns and a total of 37 Grand Prix wins, 29 in 250s and eight in 500s. He is currently chasing second overall in the last-ever 500 World Championship and aims to make sure of that position with victory in Saturday's Rio GP.
"It would be good to secure second overall but to be honest my main priority now is next season," says Biaggi, already three times a winner so far this year. "Capirossi is quite close after my crash at Sepang, so we need a good result at Rio. This last race of the year is also interesting because it is the last time that the grid will be all 500s, so of course it would be nice to win here and make a little bit of history."
Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust understands his riders' keenness for a good result at this milestone event. "Everyone knows that the championship is going four-stroke next year," he says. "So both our guys will want to prove a point before we say goodbye to the 500s."
Biaggi has ridden a supremely determined 2001 campaign. Third in April's Japanese season opener, he stumbled at the next two races before commencing his challenge for the world title with a runaway win at May's French GP. Further victories at the Dutch and German GPs put him within striking distance of arch-rival and series leader Valentino Rossi (Honda) as the GP circus took its midseason break. But three tumbles at the next four races dashed his title hopes, and though he bravely remounted after two of the get-offs, Rossi had moved beyond his reach. That didn't stop Biaggi putting in a dazzling ride in the race of the year Phillip Island, where he fought brilliantly, missing victory by just 0.013 seconds. He was out of luck again at Sepang, where a collision forced him out of the race.
Biaggi was favourite to win last year's Rio GP after taking pole position at the Jacarepagua track but he faltered in the early stages of the race, mounting a stirring comeback to cross the line fifth, side by side with fellow Yamaha YZR500 riders Garry McCoy and Norick Abe, and just three tenths off a podium finish.
"I really like the track layout," says Biaggi. "But I don't like the poor condition of the asphalt. There's a lot of bumps and holes and the surface is pretty slippery, especially in the rain, which can sometimes make riding a bit of a lottery. We did struggle there last year, even though I got pole in qualifying, and I think it'll be a tough race this time. But as always I will give my maximum and hope for the best result."
CHECA: 'NOT HERE TO PARTY!'
Carlos Checa qualified on the front row for last year's Rio Grand Prix but tumbled in the race while chasing the leaders, remounting to finish 15th. This weekend the Marlboro Yamaha Team rider wants to make amends for that result and score his third podium finish of the 2001 World Championship season.
A good result on Saturday is a particular aim for Checa, and not only because that will allow him to turn up at the season-ending party with a smile on his face. "I think there'll be a big party on Saturday night, bigger than the usual end-of-season parties because we're marking the last 500 GP," says Checa who had a difficult time at the Malaysian GP two weeks ago, ending the race in tenth place. "But I'm not in Rio to party, I'm there to race!
"It will be a tough weekend for everybody because it's the end of a long season and we've just had three back-to-back races in Japan, Australia and Malaysia, so I think we are all a little tired. But at the same time everybody will be riding very hard to get the best-possible end-of-season result. The last race of the year is always the most vivid memory you carry with you through the winter, so for that reason it's important to get a good result to keep you smiling over the next few months."
Checa has had an up and down 2001, suffering an injury during an early season training accident at home, but recovering in typically determined style to score runner-up finishes at May's French GP and July's German GP. He scored both those results behind team-mate Max Biaggi, and no other team has scored a one-two so far this season.
Like most riders, 29-year-old Checa is looking forward to the new-look World Championship which allows up-to 990cc four-strokes to race against the current 500cc two-strokes. "After Rio we go forward to a new challenge," adds the Spaniard who has already been lightning fast on Yamaha's YZR-M1 four-stroke during development tests. "So far my feeling for the four-stroke is all good. I really enjoy riding the four-stroke. I don't seem to have to think so much about riding this machine, it comes more naturally to me, so I can play around with the bike and have some fun. And that's when you start going really fast. We will be doing some more tests after the end of the season, then I'll go on holiday, probably in the mountains somewhere in Europe."
Checa has yet to score a podium finish at Jacarepagua - the closest he's come was his fourth-place finish at the 1996 Rio GP - and he's keen to change all that on Saturday. "Jacarepagua is a really nice track but it's a little bumpy and quite slippery, and sometimes things can be a little confused there," he says. "Apart from that the circuit is really great, I think it's got one of the best layouts for 500 racing because it's quite fast."
The Jacarepagua circuit has been hosting rounds of the motorcycling World Championships on and off since the mid-nineties. The track staged its inaugural GP in September 1995, taking over from the original Brazilian GP venues of Goiania (which hosted the 1987, '88 and '89 Brazilian GPs) and Interlagos (which staged a one-off race in '92). The '96, '97, '99 and 2000 races at Jacarepagua have all been run under the mantle of the Rio Grand Prix.
The circuit itself is fast and open, encouraging close racing; in fact only one of the five 500 GPs staged at the track has produced a winning margin in excess of one second. Mostly fast, bumpy and slippery, the circuit may not allow gravity-defying cornering like some grippier tracks but its 1.1km back straight promotes slipstreaming, which helps keep riders bunched together all race long. Slipstreaming is a crucial game of cat and mouse played out on longer straights. Riders can gain advantage by chasing another machine, using the vacuum created by the lead bike to improve their speed and slingshot ahead.
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
Max Biaggi knows as well as anyone that Jacarepagua is a tricky circuit which requires inch-perfect riding and a user-friendly machine set-up. "The Rio track is quite difficult because the surface isn't in the best condition," says the Marlboro Yamaha Team rider. "That's why you need perfect machine settings and balance, because if you don't feel totally at ease on the bike you can't concentrate on riding, and with so many bumps and not so much grip, it's easy to make a mistake at Rio."
Of course, sweet handling isn't everything at Jacarepagua because the circuit features one of the longest straights in GP racing, where bikes exceed 300kmh. Horsepower is therefore every bit as important as grippy tyres and good chassis set-up. "Top speed is important, as is getting a good drive on to the back straight so you can slipstream other bikes," says team manager Geoff Crust. "But the riders definitely have to work hard through the other parts of the track, because with all the bumps and the lack of grip, they're always on the edge."
Carlos Checa came within a fraction of a second of scoring pole position at last year's Rio Grand Prix, so he knows what's required for a very fast lap. "Most of the corners are the kind that you flick into and then get straight on the gas," says the Marlboro Yamaha Team star. "The corners aren't too long and rounded like they are at some tracks, so you can really attack them, which is a lot of fun. But you also need a good engine, with plenty of top-end power for the long straight."
Checa's crew chief Mike Webb will have a double-edged focus for this weekend - aiming to give his man plenty of horsepower and plenty of grip. "Rio has one the fastest straights in racing," he says. "It's all engine power down the back straight. But the track is quite a mixture, and the rest of it is quite flowing. All the turns flow into each other, so if you get one wrong you get two or three wrong. But it's the tyres that are the single most determining factor. Tyres are everything in 500s and that's even more true at Rio because the bike is on its side for a lot of the time."