Australian Grand Prix, Phillip Island
October 12/13/14 2001
An Island For Bravehearts
Grand Prix racing makes its furthest foray from its European heartland this weekend, to the deep south of the state of Victoria for the Australian Grand Prix. This is one of the most popular races on the calendar, not least because the local fans are more knowledgeable about bike racing than most, and also because the Phillip Island circuit is beloved by riders and teams alike.
Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust speaks for many within the paddock when he says the high-speed venue is for the brave hearted. And both his riders - Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa - have all the skill and daring necessary for tackling Phillip Island, one of the fastest circuits in GP racing. Biaggi won last year's epic Island race after Checa led the very early stages.
This week the pair are back Down Under and aiming to reproduce the one-two dominance they've already shown twice this year - taking the first two places at May's French GP and July's German GP. Biaggi currently lies second in the 500 World Championship, while Checa is seventh and chasing fifth overall.
The Australian GP is the middle event of three back-to-back GPs. Biaggi and Checa dashed to the event from last weekend's Pacific GP in Japan and after Sunday's racing they will head directly to Kuala Lumpur for next weekend's Malaysian GP. The 2001 season concludes with the Rio Grand Prix in Brazil on November 3.
BIAGGI GOES FOR REPEAT
Max Biaggi rode one of the greatest races of his career at Phillip Island last October. The Marlboro Yamaha Team rider bounced back from a tumble in qualifying, which left him on the third row of the grid, to win a breathtaking four-man battle for victory. The success secured him third place in last year's 500 World Championship.
This weekend the Italian star returns to the Island determined to repeat his 2000 win. Currently second overall behind series leader Valentino Rossi (Honda), Biaggi's title hopes all but ended when he crashed out of the lead of last Sunday's Pacific GP in Japan. Three times a winner so far this year, Biaggi has also proved himself to be the quickest rider of all, scoring no less than six pole positions from 13 races.
"My crash at Motegi was very frustrating, once again I can't explain why I fell, I guess I was just having to ride over the limit to stay ahead of Rossi," says Biaggi, who trails Rossi by 67 points with three races to go, the Malaysian and Rio GPs following Sunday's race. "The title is probably gone, congratulations to Rossi and all I can say is that I'll still give 100 per cent for the last few races."
One thing is for sure - Biaggi is looking forward to getting reacquainted with the Island's supremely fast turns. "Phillip Island is a very particular track with very fast corners, a lot of gradient changes and sometimes very strong winds," he says. "It's a beautiful place because you're right by the ocean, in fact you almost feel like you're on the sea! Coming down the start-finish straight you head over a brow and all you can see for a moment is the sea, it's like you're riding straight at the water, at 300kmh! I like the layout and it's the kind of place that we usually go well. You never know this year but I'm sure we'll be able to fight for victory again."
Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust is also certain that Biaggi will be in the frame on Sunday afternoon, because he knows the Italian is brave and his bike's got the speed to engage in the breathtaking slipstreaming battles that are usually the highlight of Island battles. "The straight is long at Phillip Island and there's usually a whole lot of slipstreaming going on, so it's important to have a fast bike there," explains the Briton. "It's also important to be brave hearted because it's a very fast track with a lot of high-speed corners. The riders are always talking about how exciting and exhilarating it is to ride."
Biaggi has a distinguished Australian GP record that stretches far beyond last year's stunning win. The previous year he was second in the 500 GP, just 0.085 seconds off victory, and he won the '96 250 GP at the Island and the '94 250 GP at Eastern Creek.
CHECA'S UNFINISHED BUSINESS
Carlos Checa comes to Phillip Island determined to achieve his aim of winning another 500 GP before the close of the last-ever 500 World Championship. Already a two-time 500 winner, the Marlboro Yamaha Team rider has scored two runner-up finishes so far this season and knows he can go one better if everything goes right for him this weekend.
"I have finished second many times over the past couple of seasons," says the affable Spaniard, who also scored four runner-up spots last season and won his first GP in 1996. "Okay, so second is a good result in a 500 Grand Prix but I hate finishing second now, I want to win another race before the end of this season."
Checa is keen to switch to four-stroke power next year, when up-to 990cc four-strokes will race head-to-head against the 500cc two-strokes that have dominated bike racing's premier category for the past quarter of a century. And he's already run some super-impressive lap times aboard Yamaha's all-new YZR-M1 four-stroke, the bike that Yamaha hopes will win the new-look 2002 world title.
"I think everyone will be trying harder than ever over these last few races because they know this is the end of an era," adds Checa, who scored seventh at Motegi. "All the riders want to end this era with a 500 win and that means the racing will be very close, and very exciting for the fans."
Checa is happy to be returning to Phillip Island, even though it's never been the kindest of tracks to him. So far he has yet to score a podium finish on the Island, though he did take third place at the 1996 Australian GP, at Sydney venue Eastern Creek. "Phillip Island is a completely different track from Motegi where we raced last Sunday, it's a very special track, an unbelievable track," he says. "It's one of my favourites because there are so many fast corners, and I think pretty much everyone loves the layout. You 're going so fast all the time that you need total concentration, especially through the fast corners where you use a lot of lean angle. There's no real chance to relax."
Phillip Island is also a major challenge for race engineers, as Yamaha's 500 GP project leader Masahiko Nakajima explains: "It's a high-speed circuit that most of the riders really enjoy. But it's also quite bumpy and sometimes there's not a lot of grip, so we must work very carefully to find the correct suspension settings and make the correct tyre choice. Engine performance is also important, of course."
Last year Checa qualified a good seventh at the Island and led from the green light, only to fall as he attacked the slow-speed MG turn for the first time. He remounted, but tumbled again a few laps later as he rode into the fast turn one.
There are three essentials for a good result at Phillip Island: guts, determination and a very fast motorcycle. Most riders count the track as one of their favourites because unlike many modern circuits that have been built to contain the flight of F1 cars, the Island is dominated by high-speed curves that test rider skill and daring to the limit.
The Victorian state venue is the second fastest currently used for motorcycle GP racing (after Dutch GP track Assen, another rider favourite) and also demands much of machines and tyres. It's only negative is the area's unsettled early spring weather that can whip up dangerously strong winds off the nearby Bass Strait.
Phillip Island hosted its first motorcycle races way back in the Twenties, when riders competed over a 12-mile street circuit, and the only access to the island was by boat! The circuit fell into disrepair but was redeveloped in the late Eighties and hosted Australia's first bike GP in 1989. Since then the circuit has been renowned for creating ultra-close action.
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
MAX Winner at Phillip Island last year, Max Biaggi loves the track but knows that it has its difficult points. "It's very fast and not so easy," he says. "The biggest worry can be the weather, because the wind from the ocean can be very strong and that can make things a little dangerous, especially in the fast corners. Philip Island is a technical and demanding track which you have to be able to ride well. It's not very wide, and has very fast and narrow corners where you need to be in total control of the bike."
Biaggi's crew chief Fiorenzo Fanali will be doing everything in his power to once again give his man a winning bike on Sunday. "The important thing for all the fast turns is stability, and last year Max gave us some useful feedback on that after warm-up," he says. "From his comments we made adjustments that helped him win the race, so we should have a good base set-up this time, especially since we already raced with the 16.5 last year."
Like his 500 rivals, Carlos Checa knows that one of the greatest concerns at Phillip Island is tyres. The circuit is fast with many long corners, through which riders try to get as much power to the ground as they can. That means a massive amount of heat is generated within the rear tyre, especially through the final high-speed lefts. "Tyres have a hard time there because you're going so fast, using a lot of throttle and with a lot of lean," says the Marlboro Yamaha Team man. "You need a good set-up to save the tyres and to help you to keep your pace. But we should be in good shape because we raced Michelin's 16.5in rear there last year and that's what we'll be using again."
Checa's chief engineer Mike Webb knows all about the Island. "You need a lot of talent there because it's got a couple of the fastest corners in GP racing," says the New Zealander. "If it's really windy we lower the bike and go for geometry that gives stability rather than agility."