South Africa's Grand Prix Welkom April 19/20/21 2002 MARLBORO YAMAHA MEN EMBRACE NEW AGE OF GP RACING The new-look MotoGP World Championship takes South Africa by storm this weekend, a fortnight after a stunning start to its new four-stroke...
South Africa's Grand Prix
April 19/20/21 2002
MARLBORO YAMAHA MEN EMBRACE NEW AGE OF GP RACING
The new-look MotoGP World Championship takes South Africa by storm this weekend, a fortnight after a stunning start to its new four-stroke era at a rain-lashed Japanese Grand Prix. Four-strokes dominated at Suzuka, with qualifying and racing closer than anyone had expected. It had only been natural to assume that the early stages of this new age of technology would be marked by a wider-than-usual spread of different performing machinery but the Suzuka grid was the closest in history, covered by just 2.9 seconds. This bodes well for a thrilling 2002 season, as well as a brilliant future for the series.
Marlboro Yamaha Team riders Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi were in the thick of the action, of course. Both men qualified within two tenths of a second of pole on their YZR-M1s, Checa going on to finish the race a magnificent third, while Biaggi was less lucky, sliding off mid-race. The Italian wasn't alone, almost half the grid fell victim to the treacherous conditions!
Their speed was all the more impressive considering that both men were effectively limited to one machine each during the weekend. Only days before the event they had been equipped with one third-generation YZR-M1 chassis apiece, which they liked so much that they mostly left their other bikes parked in the pits. At Welkom, thanks to prodigious work from Yamaha's Motorsport Division, all the team's bikes will run the new chassis. And more improvements are expected as the racing moves on to Europe with the Spanish GP on May 5.
NEW-LOOK SERIES, NEW-LOOK CHECA!
Four-stroke fan Carlos Checa had a superb start to the new MotoGP series at Suzuka, running close to the leaders and finishing a superb third. And the Marlboro Yamaha Team man is convinced he could've done better if the weather hadn't conspired against him.
Although he had used his new, faster-steering YZR-M1 chassis to battle for pole position on Saturday, Checa actually raced his 'old' chassis. Faced with unpredictable weather conditions on the morning of the race, his crew prepared his latest-spec bike for the dry and the other for the rain.
"Third was a good start for us but I know we can do better," says Checa. "The best thing for me at Suzuka was qualifying because I was very close to pole position, which proves that our bike is already at a very high level and ready to win. I'm looking forward to Welkom because it should be dry, it's a special track, very tough on tyres and very exciting. I got a good result there in 2000, though I missed last year's race because I got injured in a training accident. The surface at Welkom is quite slippery but I don't mind that because I like to slide the bike. Also, the track has one of the best corners in GPs - the fast right at the end of the back straight is unbelievable!
"We are working hard with the bike and we need to work on the front end some more. I get less front push than I used to get from the 500 but I still have a few problems in slow corners. We made some good improvements in Japan and we should be able to make quicker progress at Welkom now we have two of the new chassis."
Marlboro Yamaha Team director Davide Brivio was delighted with Checa's Suzuka performance and expects another strong showing in South Africa. "Carlos rode an excellent race in difficult conditions and I think we are beginning to see his real potential," says Brivio. "He likes Welkom and will have two bikes to work with this weekend, so I think we can expect him to fight for the podium again, and, who knows, maybe even for the win. The team is working very hard at the moment, we're totally committed to the M1 project and I think Suzuka was a very deserved reward for all of us. Things can only get better from here."
BIAGGI AIMS FOR M1 RESULT
The result may not have been what he was looking for but Max Biaggi's speed at Suzuka proved that he will be a force to reckon with in four-stroke MotoGP racing. The former 250 World Champion had never even ridden a four-stroke racer until he tested his Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1 for the first time last year but he has quickly adapted to the machine's different demands.
At Suzuka he qualified just 0.230 seconds off pole and just 0.006 seconds off the front row, and was looking forward to a great four-stroke debut. Unfortunately the rain spoiled his hopes, Biaggi sliding off after kissing a slippery trackside white line with his front tyre.
"The bike was pretty good, we were unlucky to have rain because we'd done some good work on set-up during practice," says the Roman. "The crash was a silly mistake but now we're looking forward to Welkom, where I hope to get a good result.
"Like most tracks, what you really need at Welkom is good handling and stability, so you can use the bike's maximum performance. It's quite a bumpy track and it'll be interesting to see how the M1 handles that, as most of the tracks we've been to so far have been pretty smooth. It's also not got so much grip, so we'll see how the four-stroke works against the two-strokes in this situation. I quite like the track, and maybe the most crucial section is the series of high-speed flicks after turn one, because you can make some time there. The three rights that lead on to the back straight are also important, and you need a good set-up to get through those turns as quick as possible."
The new breed of four-strokes ruled at Suzuka, with Norick Abe's Yamaha YZR500 the top-finishing two-stroke in fifth place. Biaggi, who finished second in last year's final 500 World Championship riding YZR500s, is now wholly focused on getting the best out of his M1s.
"I've not even been thinking about the 500 for some while," he adds. "This new project is so interesting, we have so much to discover. It's very interesting work, and although it is totally normal to make some mistakes when you are developing a new project, I think we have made some good progress in recent weeks. As always, we're working very hard and aiming to improve race by race." As Biaggi is fully aware, Rome wasn't built in a day!
WHAT THE CREW SAYS
Antonio Jimenez, Carlos Checa's chief engineer "Suzuka went well for us, Carlos pushed so hard on Saturday and Sunday, so we think Welkom will also be good for us," says Jimenez. "He has worked very well over the past few months. Even when we had some problems in preseason tests he stayed positive. His pace is very good now and we'll be looking to improve even more at the next few races.
"With the new four-strokes you can't do so much work on the engine at the races, so you focus on suspension and chassis set-up. Carlos' problem was in slow turns, he couldn't go in with the brake on, so we worked to find a solution through geometry and suspension. The work we did at Suzuka with Yamaha and Ohlins really helped his lap times, because when we improve his corner entry speed, his corner exit speed is also better."
Fiorenzo Fanali, Max Biaggi's chief engineer "We learned a lot at Suzuka, now we have a good base set-up so I'm feeling confident about Welkom," says Fanali. "We made big improvements at the Suzuka IRTA tests, and finally got the new chassis right for qualifying. Max now feels much more comfortable on the bike, so he can ride the way he wants to ride. He had spent all his career riding two-strokes so obviously it took us a while to understand what he needed to ride the four-stroke."
The Marlboro Yamaha Team has also made giant strides forward with the M1's radical electronically controlled engine-braking system, fine tuning the various factors that help operate the hi-tech unit. "We worked very hard on that at Suzuka," Fanali adds. "We improved it a lot, so Max is no longer losing time into the corners."
The Phakisa Freeway circuit joined the GP calendar for the first time in October 1999. Constructed outside the gold-mining town of Welkom in South Africa's Free State, the track is a real challenge, especially for tyres, which run at a higher temperature than at any other GP track.
But the defining characteristic of this circuit is its lack of grip. Welkom isn't used as much as most international racing venues, so dust tends to settle deep into the tarmac and is then drawn out when the GP bikes arrive, dramatically reducing grip. The traction tends to improve day by day over the Grand Prix weekend but these day-on-day changes bring their own problems because the differing grip levels require different tyres and different chassis set-ups.
Situated on a plateau 1350 metres above sea level, the venue's high altitude has a huge effect on engine performance, robbing engines of up to 20 per cent of their horsepower.
Valentino Rossi (Honda), 1m 35.508s, 159.894kmh/99.354mph