MARLBORO YAMAHA MEN FACE CRUCIAL SEASON FINALE The first-ever four-stroke-based MotoGP World Championship draws to a close this weekend at Valencia, where Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa will be going flat out to finish the year with a third victory...
MARLBORO YAMAHA MEN FACE CRUCIAL SEASON FINALE
The first-ever four-stroke-based MotoGP World Championship draws to a close this weekend at Valencia, where Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa will be going flat out to finish the year with a third victory for the Marlboro Yamaha Team. The last GP of the season is always a big event, and the Marlboro Valencia GP is particularly significant for Biaggi, who is fighting for runner-up spot in the MotoGP series, and for Checa, who needs a great result in front of an expectant home crowd.
Season-ending races are always crucial because they take riders into the five-month off-season period, and no one wants to have a poor last-race result hanging over them all winter. On the other hand, a good result will send a rider into the winter with a smile on his face, ready for the challenges and demands of a busy testing schedule. And this off-season promises to be another busy one, with riders, teams and factories working hard to further develop their bikes for 2003, when the MotoGP grid should be all four-stroke.
The first MotoGP campaign has been a massive success - the booming 200-plus horsepower four-strokes created by Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Aprilia catching the imagination of fans around the globe, with TV viewing figures and spectator attendances up everywhere. And next year two more manufacturers join the four-stroke revolution - legendary Italian marque Ducati and nascent Malaysian constructor Proton.
TWO REASONS TO BE SUCCESSFUL - MAX AND CARLOS
The Marlboro Yamaha Team comes to Valencia determined to finish 2002 on a high note. The Italian-based squad has had a truly amazing season - kicking off with a podium finish in April's soaking season-opener in Japan. Over the next few races factory engineers and team personnel worked tirelessly to get the YZR-M1 fully up to speed, Max Biaggi claiming the bike's first success with pole position at June's Marlboro Catalan GP. Two months later he rode the M1 to another pole and to its first race victory in the Czech Republic, securing a third pole position at Rio and another brilliant victory in last month's Malaysian GP. Checa has also taken the M1 to pole position, at September's Marlboro Portuguese GP, and to four podium finishes.
Those have been the highlights of an enthralling season, but there have, of course, also been low points, including the most recent GP in Australia, where both Biaggi and Checa struggled to get their M1s working to full effect. Marlboro Yamaha Team director Davide Brivio is confident the team can bounce back from that difficult weekend.
"Valencia is a big race for us," says Brivio. "It's another home-country race for Carlos and it's Max's last race with us and we hope to achieve with him 2nd place in the Championship, so there are many reasons for us to do well here. Hopefully we will be back to our normal performance level after a difficult time in Australia. We didn't have the best preseason tests at Valencia but the bike has come a long way since then; we didn't have a great test at Estoril either, but we got pole there and took second in the race.
"This Sunday is also the last race of Yamaha's first season of four-stroke technology in GPs. During the year we've done a lot to improve the performance of the M1. We had some tough tests and early races, when we weren't competitive enough to fight to win, but since then our engineers and crew have put in so much effort, and the riders also, because they've had to test many new parts at almost every race. I think we've done a good job, we've won two races, scored four pole positions, and over the last few months we've pretty much always been fighting up front.
"I think the four-stroke regulations have changed the way the factories approach racing. Four-stroke technology has opened up a whole new world of possibility, while the two-strokes had run into a bit of wall as far as development goes. It seems like all the factories want to get into this new class, because it's good for developing new technology. We're at the start of a new era, with more factories and more technology coming in. What we've done this year is just the beginning."
It's possible that no one in the MotoGP paddock has worked harder this year than Ichiro Yoda, unassuming project leader for the YZR-M1. Yoda-san has jetted back to Japan between most of the year's 16 races, returning on each occasion with new parts or know-how for the M1. "We returned to the factory from Australia to analyse the problems we had there, and what we learned should help us for the future," says Yoda. "Valencia is a very different kind of racetrack from Phillip Island. It's very slow and very tight, so you need easy handling, quick turning and smooth power delivery. What we need to improve is front-end traction coming out of the turns, I think that was our problem in Australia. Other than that, we'll do the usual work on suspension to give us the best-possible spring balance."
BIAGGI READY FOR RUNNER-UP BATTLE
Max Biaggi could hardly have enjoyed more contrasting fortunes at the last two Grands Prix. Three weeks ago in Malaysia the Marlboro Yamaha Team star won a famous victory at Sepang, beating World Champion Valentino Rossi (Honda) into second place after a thrilling battle with his fellow Italian and Brazilian veteran Alex Barros (Honda). But two weeks ago in Australia Biaggi had an altogether tougher time, ending a difficult weekend with a sixth-place finish.
This Sunday it's imperative that the former 250 king does much better than that, because he's currently second overall, just one point ahead of Tohru Ukawa (Honda). Biaggi desperately wants to maintain his position in the championship and is ready for a fight on race day.
"I'm still second in the World Championship, so I've simply got to do better than Ukawa at Valencia, it's imperative for me to finish second overall, for Yamaha and for myself," says Biaggi, who was also second overall in last year's final 500 series. "We will have to wait and see how we go here. Our pre-season tests at the track didn't go so well, but the bike is working much better now, so I think we'll be competitive. Honda tested there a few months back and were very quick, so I think we'll be chasing them to start with, but we should have a good chance in the race. It's a very tight circuit, maybe not ideal for a 200-plus horsepower motorcycle, but it's our job to race at every kind of racetrack. It's a tough place on a big bike - very stop and go - it's not one of my favourites, but it's not so bad."
Last year Biaggi scored a famous pole position at Valencia, bravely outpacing his rivals as light drizzle fell across the circuit. But a pre-race rain shower and an incorrect tyre choice spoiled his hopes of race victory. He finished the event in tenth, one place ahead of arch-rival Rossi.
CHECA AIMS TO PLEASE LOCALS
Carlos Checa was the star of the show at last year's Marlboro Valencia Grand Prix. The Marlboro Yamaha Team man bounced back after a sighting-lap crash which forced him to start the race from the pit lane, as the rest of the pack was already streaming into turn one. The first vehicle Checa had to pass was the circuit safety car! Once safely past the BMW he set off in pursuit of the 20 or so riders ahead of him, carving through the pack at a phenomenal rate despite the tricky wet 'n' dry conditions. He finished a remarkable fourth.
This weekend Checa wants to do even better than that - nothing less than a top-three finish will satisfy him. "We all want to win, that's why we race, and that will be my aim as always on Sunday," says Checa, who has already proved his class-leading speed aboard Yamaha's mighty M1, qualifying on pole at Estoril in September. "But I'm aiming for anywhere on the podium. I hope and I wish to do my best, because I want to finish the year well, and also because Valencia is another home-country race, so there'll be a lot of Spanish fans wanting me to do well. I want to give them a good result.
"Valencia is quite an unusual track, there's a lot of corners in a very tight layout, so you are always working the bike hard, turning from side to side and trying to get through the short little corners as quickly as possible. It's hard work but it's quite fun too, especially if the bike is working well. You need very light handling and a user-friendly engine for this track. I'll spend Friday and Saturday working with Antonio (Jimenez, Checa's crew chief and a long-time friend), my Yamaha engineers and my Michelin technician Daniel (Croispine) to get the right engine/chassis set-up and the best tyre choice. The front is really important here, because you need good turn-in but we will be focusing on the bike's on-gas steering."
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
Fiorenzo Fanali, Max Biaggi's crew chief
"For sure, Valencia should be better than Phillip Island. And it's a big weekend for us because our target is second overall in the World Championship, so we have to make sure that Max beats Ukawa. As usual, we will start practice comparing two slightly different chassis. Valencia has a couple of fast corners but most of the turns are tight and most of them are lefts, so it's not easy to find grip through the rights. Light handling is a major priority, so we'll adjust the chassis with that in mind. We also need to work to give Max the smoothest-possible power delivery for all the low-gear corner exits. We have checked the data from Phillip Island and hopefully that will help us to improve things."
Antonio Jimenez, Carlos Checa's crew chief
"We'll start from zero. The settings we used at the pre-season Valencia tests don't really apply to the bike because it's improved so much since then. We may start the weekend with one machine running the new chassis, with the other using the older chassis. It's a very tight track with only one straight, and the character is all twists and turns, with riders constantly going from left to right, then right to left. Carlos will need as much grip as he can get at maximum lean angle, so he can open the throttle early in the corners, so that's what we'll focus on. Braking and turn-in isn't such a concern for us at the moment, it's mid-corner and corner exits that concern us."
Valencia is the second-slowest circuit in GP racing with an average lap speed of just 150kmh, marginally faster than Estoril, venue for September's Marlboro Portuguese GP. Most of the track's corners are slow, in-and-out turns, grouped closely together, this unusual layout affording spectators a mostly unobstructed view of the entire circuit - a real rarity in the world of motorsport. It's an immensely physical circuit with riders afforded little rest between bouts of heavy acceleration, braking and cornering. The relatively short straight requires machines to run low gearing, which makes a 220 horsepower MotoGP bike particularly difficult to control, with riders battling wheelies and wheelspin every time they get on the gas.
This weekend Valencia hosts its fourth Grand Prix after featuring on the World Championship calendar for the first time in 1999. The circuit is one of several recently created in Spain, where motorcycle racing is the nation's second most popular sport, after football. The venue is officially christened the Ricardo Tormo circuit, in honour of the late Spanish rider, a former 50cc World Champion.
Lap record: Alex Crivillé (Honda), 1m 36.085s 150.054kmh/93.239mph (2000)
Pole position 2001: Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team), 1m 34.496s