Pacific Grand Prix, Twin Ring Motegi October 5/6/7 2001 BIAGGI & CHECA FACE TOUGHEST TEST Grand Prix racing begins its toughest-ever three weeks at Motegi this weekend. Sunday's Pacific GP commences a run of three back-to-back 'flyaway' races,...
Pacific Grand Prix, Twin Ring Motegi
October 5/6/7 2001
BIAGGI & CHECA FACE TOUGHEST TEST
Grand Prix racing begins its toughest-ever three weeks at Motegi this weekend. Sunday's Pacific GP commences a run of three back-to-back 'flyaway' races, something the sport has never before undertaken.
After Motegi, riders and teams barely have time to draw breath before heading south for next Sunday's Australian GP and then back to Asia for the Malaysian GP on the following Sunday. These three events demand a massive logistical operation and will stretch riders and their back-up crews to the limit. But the Marlboro Yamaha Team is ready for the challenge, freighting no less than eight tonnes of equipment from its Amsterdam base to ensure that the squad operates as smoothly as during the ten-race European season.
Riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa are also ready for the challenge of this gruelling run of high-pressure events. Biaggi currently lies second in the hunt for the 2001 500 World Championship and though he lags some way behind leader Valentino Rossi (Honda), the title is far from lost. Good results at these three races, and at the season finale in Brazil on November 3, could still see him crowned the last-ever 500 World Champion.
Checa holds seventh in the series after an inspired ride to fourth place at the year's final European GP in Spain two weeks ago. Like his team-mate, the Spaniard is determined to conclude his 2001 campaign in winning style, before shifting focus towards the challenge of next year's new-look World Championship, which will pit big-bore four-strokes against the current 500cc two-strokes.
BIAGGI: IT'S NOT OVER YET
Max Biaggi comes to race in Japan this weekend for the second time in 2001. The Marlboro Yamaha Team rider scored a brilliant third-place finish at April's season-opening Japanese GP at Suzuka and is aiming to do even better at Motegi on Sunday.
The Italian needs the best-possible result to keep alive his challenge for the 500 World Championship. With just four races remaining he is second overall, 42 points down on Valentino Rossi (Honda), and though it's a long shot, he's still focusing on winning the title. Two weeks ago in Spain Biaggi closed the gap, albeit by a single point, and he's aiming to take a bigger chunk out of Rossi's advantage this weekend.
"Even that one point can make the difference at the end of the season, so I'm going to keep trying," says Biaggi, who finished tenth in perilous damp conditions at Valencia, one place ahead of Rossi.
Like his rivals, the 30-year old faces what promises to be the toughest three weeks of his career starting this weekend. After Motegi he travels directly to Phillip Island for next Sunday's Australian GP and then on to Sepang for the following Sunday's Malaysian GP. As well as sustaining the pressure of battling for biking's premier prize, Biaggi must also contend with long-haul flights, jet lag and major climate changes. And even then his globetrotting isn't done. After Malaysia he travels home to Europe for a week and then south again for the 2001 finale at Rio de Janeiro.
"We start a long journey when we travel to Japan," adds Biaggi who has won three GPs and scored six pole positions so far this season. "And I expect the last four races to be quite complicated and difficult for us all. Motegi will be interesting, for sure, because racing in Japan under the eyes of the Japanese factory bosses always adds an extra dimension to the competition."
Racing outside Europe, where the team enjoys the comforts of full-time catering operations and hospitality back-up, is an added challenge, but Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust insists it makes no difference to how the team operates. "All the teams work out of packing cases at the 'flyaways' but we carry everything we need with us, we don't cut back at all for these races," he explains. "The biggest change will be the conditions - we go from autumn in Japan to early spring in Australia, and then to the tropical heat of Malaysia, so we'll be facing a lot of different situations."
But the real test for Biaggi and his crew will be three weeks of non-stop travel and work. Immediately after racing finishes at Motegi the team packs its eight tonnes of freight then jets to Australia on Monday, arriving at Phillip Island on Tuesday. Bikes and pit facilities are prepared on Wednesday and Thursday, with practice and qualifying following on Friday and Saturday, and the race on Sunday. Then the same cycle is repeated again: pack up Sunday night, fly to Malaysia on Monday and so on...
"We've never done three 'flyaways' back to back," adds Crust. "It's work, fly, work, fly, work, fly, and it's going to be very mentally and physically draining for everyone. But we're still fighting for the World Championship so we won't be giving up."
CHECA AIMS TO MAKE AMENDS
Carlos Checa comes to Motegi determined to make up for the disappointment of last month's Marlboro Valencia GP. The Spanish favourite was the fastest man in the Valencia race but only finished fourth because he'd started dead last after a tumble on the warm-up lap. Unlike one of his rivals who also fell on the warm-up lap, Checa was unlucky enough to damage his bike, so he had to start from pit lane with his spare machine.
"The first thing I overtook was the safety car!" grins Checa, who made light of treacherous damp conditions to rocket through the pack, catching the leaders throughout most of the 30 laps. "I lost the race on the warm-up lap, which makes me more determined than ever to win one of these last four GPs."
Fourth at the last two races, the often unlucky Marlboro Yamaha Team man is convinced he can run up front the moment things go right for him. He has already scored two hard-ridden runner-up finishes this season - at Le Mans and Sachsenring - and he knows he has the speed to make that final jump to the top step of the podium. And, of course, he's particularly keen to get a good result at Motegi, where there will be plenty of Yamaha personnel watching his every move.
"Obviously it's always important to get a good result in Japan because so many of the factory people are there and you want to do your best for them," he says. "Every race of the year has its own motivation, you always find something to help you along, but my main focus will be the same as always - working with my team to make the bike as good as possible. The Yamaha can be good everywhere, it's just a matter of adjusting it to suit each track."
Like team-mate Max Biaggi, Checa knows that this run of three back-to-back races at Motegi, Phillip Island and Sepang will be arduous to say the least. "This will be the hardest three weeks of the entire season," he agrees. "Everyone is already tired from six months of racing, plus there's the added effect of jet lag and so on. It's going to be tough for everyone, especially the mechanics."
Checa's crew chief Mike Webb believes that the season's final four out-of-Europe races are tougher than events in Europe. "A garage is a garage, whatever country it's in, but overall I'd say things are a little less convenient because we don't quite have all the comforts we have in the European paddocks," he explains. "The biggest deal is having three GPs in a row. There's going to be no rest between the races, plus we've got to deal with different time zones. By the time we're finished we won't know which way is up, and the riders will really feel it too."
Marlboro Yamaha Team director Hiroya Atsumi knows the three-race run will be gruelling but his factory personnel will be doing everything in their power to help Checa and Biaggi to the best possible result on Japanese tarmac. "We always work so hard with Carlos and Max, trying to give them maximum performance from their machines," he says. "Motegi is no different, except that winning at home is a very, very special feeling. We want to get that feeling at Motegi on Sunday!"
Twin Ring Motegi, so called because it features both a Grand Prix track and an Indy oval, is one of the newer circuits on the GP calendar. Constructed by Honda in 1998 to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary, the venue is located in the hills to the north west of Tokyo, between the cities of Mito and Utsonomiya. Motegi's construction entailed a massive civil engineering project that included the razing of seven hills and the filling of two valleys.
The layout is stop-and-go in character with few high-speed corners, unlike fast and flowing Suzuka. Motegi features plenty of slow turns linked by medium-length straights which put the emphasis on braking and acceleration performance. Unlike Suzuka, most riders don't feel the track tests their riding skills to the limit.
Motegi's topography and this event's autumn date make for unpredictable weather conditions. Last year's race, the first-ever Pacific GP, was run in the dry but under foreboding skies. The venue's inaugural World Championship round, the 1999 Japanese GP, was run in pouring rain.
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
MAX "Maybe I don't love Motegi like I love Brno, Assen and Suzuka but I don't dislike it at all," says Max Biaggi who started last year's Pacific GP from pole and finished a close-fought third. "It's a nice track with all the typical characteristics of Japanese circuits - perfectly flat tarmac and a perfect surface. There's a lot of hard braking for the slow turns but there are also a few faster corners, which require a tricky change of rhythm. You need a good-steering bike there."
Biaggi's crew chief Fiorenzo Fanali believes his man will be on the pace from the get-go this weekend. "Max should be up front from the first day," says Fanali. "He is still focusing on winning the World Championship, he's trying very hard. We'll start with a base set-up for a hard-braking track after comparing our set-up from last year with what we've used at other hard-braking tracks this season. The biggest difference will be the rear tyre - last year we ran Michelin's 17in rear, while this time we'll run the 16.5."
"Motegi is quite a simple track, it's basically just stop and go," says Carlos Checa. "But I do like the section that takes you down the hill and under the bridge near the end of the lap. I think the biggest consideration this weekend will be the weather - I just hope it stays dry."
Checa finished fourth at Motegi last year after starting from the second row of the grid and his crew chief Mike Webb will be working to push him closer to the front this time around. "Carlos can definitely go well at Motegi, if we give him the bike for the job," says the New Zealander. "There aren't any cambered corners at Motegi and the surface is perfect. Stability on the brakes into the dead-stop turns is the biggest deal but you also need the bike to turn nice and quick into the no-camber corners which flow into each other. Making a bike that turns and flows without help from camber, but still stays stable on the brakes, is a difficult compromise."