The 2001 World Championship steps up another gear at Mugello this weekend as Italy welcomes the GP circus for round five of the fastest 500 series ever. Race records have been smashed at every GP so far this year and Mugello should be no exception.
The men who've been destroying all the records are Italian heroes Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda- Michelin) and Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin). Rossi won the first three GPs in Japan, South Africa and Spain to comfortably lead the series but Biaggi fought back to win in France two weeks ago, setting the scene for an enticing all-Italian duel at Mugello.
Except Rossi and Biaggi won't be the only Italians vying for a vital victory on home tarmac. Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons-Michelin) is the third member of Italy's speedy trinity of 500 stars and it was Capirossi who won at Mugello last year after an enthralling race-long skirmish with Rossi and Biaggi. The 2001 Italian GP has all the makings of a classic confrontation as the threesome does battle once again in front of the seething Mugello crowd.
Michelin will be right there in the thick of it, working with each of the Italians to give them the best tyres for Sunday's race. Rossi, Biaggi and Capirossi can be sure they'll have more grip than ever before at Mugello the record-breaking pace of this year's 500 World Championship has been largely attributed to improved grip from Michelin's latest slicks.
THE RIDERS AND MUGELLO
All eyes will be on Italy's trio of 500 superstars this weekend. The three-way contest between Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin), Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons-Michelin) and Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) will captivate the GP paddock, the Mugello fans and most of Italy.
"Mugello is a great race for the Italians because there's me, Loris and Biaggi all going very fast on 500s," says Rossi, who tumbled out of last year's Italian GP just after taking the lead. "There's a lot of expectations on everyone and it's an amazing atmosphere because there are so many fans. I think it'll be even bigger this time, it's great, I love it. Last year was an incredible race. I'd overtaken Capirossi and was trying to raise my rhythm, so I could break away and win. Then I crashed I was just pushing too hard!"
Despite his happy-go-lucky attitude, the hugely popular youngster insists he does feel the pressure of racing at home in front of an army of fans. "If you care about the result, it's never easy, you always feel the pressure," smiles Rossi who appreciates the Mugello layout and has won two GPs at the track, the 125 in 1997 and the 250 in 1999. He went on to secure the 125 and 250 crowns in '97 and '99, so victory this weekend would be a good omen.
"I like Mugello," he affirms. "The hardest thing is set-up, it's more difficult to get the bike right at Mugello than it is at most other tracks. It's very technical, and the most technical part of the circuit is the Casanova-Savelli chicane and the two Arrabbiata rights that follow. It's very fast there, so you can make the difference through that section of the track, though the bike needs to be just right. You need a lot of grip, especially from the front through Casanova, because it's downhill with so much adverse camber."
Last year at Mugello HRC general manager Mick Doohan opined that Rossi was still riding his NSR500 too much like a 250 riding it too deep into turns and that's why he fell. Since then Rossi has been working hard on his rear-end style because rear-end control is the sine qua non of 500 racing. With 190 horsepower available, the rider must learn to control wheelspin and use that to his advantage, helping him to steer the bike out of corners. "I've changed my style a lot," adds Rossi, who trains on a Honda dirt bike. "Now I can spin the rear and that's so important, and fun too big fun!"
Capirossi, who won Mugello 2000 after Rossi and Biaggi fell in the frantic final laps, can't wait for a chance to repeat his famous home success. "It's a very special race for the three of us, and we all want to win more than ever!" he says. "To go fast at Mugello, the thing you really need is good front-end feeling. The front is always important but at Mugello it's especially so. There are a lot of fast corners that you go into really hard. I have a good front-end feeling with my NSR and Michelin tyres, so that makes me confident."
Biaggi comes to Mugello fresh from a storming win at the French GP and keen to take more points to move him closer to series leader Rossi and second overall Norick Abe (Antena 3 Yamaha-D'Antin-Michelin). The Italian's crew attributed Biaggi's Le Mans win to a change of tack on machine set-up and tyre choice. They are now focusing exclusively on Michelin's 16.5 rear and are also running a different Michelin front. "In the past Max sometimes tried 17s but we've worked to improve our range of settings with the 16.5, so we can react better if we encounter set-up difficulties," explains Biaggi's team director Hiroya Atsumi. "The different front has also helped. Our thanks to Michelin for their input."
Biaggi changed direction during recent tests at Mugello, which should help the Roman this weekend. "We changed our chassis configuration, so I'm getting better feel from the bike," says Biaggi. "It felt good when we tested at Mugello in mid-May and we hope it'll be the same at the GP. It's a very big race for me, I really want to win. I've won three 250 GPs there and twice got second in 500 race, now I want to go one better."
TYRES AND MUGELLO
Mugello is an ultra-challenging circuit that undulates along the sides of a picturesque Tuscan valley, rising and falling with each and every turn. No surprises then that many of the corners feature positive camber or negative camber.
The Italian venue is well liked by riders because it's a fast, flowing circuit with lap speeds in excess of 160kmh/100mph and a 310kmh/190mph main straight. But it's also a highly technical circuit where machine set- up is complicated by bumps and frequent camber changes.
"I think Mugello is the hardest circuit for front tyres and we have to work hard to find a compromise between compound and construction," explains Michelin Grand Prix manager Jacques Morelli. "The off-camber downhill corners place particularly serious pressure on the tyre. Braking and turning into the downhill corners require a harder than usual front construction but riders also need maximum grip, so they also want their fronts to be soft as possible. If a rider chooses the wrong front at Mugello he can't carry enough speed through the downhill turns and that will hurt his laps times. So we work very closely with riders to make sure they have the best compromise."
But high lap speeds also guarantee plenty of heat build-up in the rear tyre and that's why many riders choose dual-compound rears for Mugello. "Last year Capirossi won at Mugello with a 17in rear and Rossi raced a 17 rear too, Biaggi was the only one of the leading guys running a 16.5," says Michelin Grand Prix manager Jacques Morelli. "But this year is different, of course. We expect everyone to run 16.5s because this tyre allows riders to go faster for longer. The 17 offers easier handling, especially at the start of a race when riders are running full tanks. But later on the 16.5 has a definite advantage and riders who want to win races always look for maximum race-long performance."
<pre> MUGELLO DATA Lap record Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin) 1m 53.342s (1998)
Pole position 2000 Alex Barros (West Honda Pons-Michelin), 1m 52.811s
Recent winners of the Italian GP 2000 Loris Capirossi (Emerson Honda Pons-Michelin), 44m 04.200s 1999 Alex Criville (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 44m 05.522s 1998 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 43m 55.307s 1997 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 44m 06.442s 1996 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 44m 04.252s