Australian GP: Yamaha Team preview

MARLBORO YAMAHA MEN GO WILD ON THE ISLAND Marlboro Yamaha Team riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa go into Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, penultimate round of the 2002 season, aiming to complete a globetrotting run of three back-to-back...


Marlboro Yamaha Team riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa go into Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, penultimate round of the 2002 season, aiming to complete a globetrotting run of three back-to-back 'flyaway' races with a flourish. Less than a week after his storming victory in Malaysia, Biaggi comes to Phillip Island aiming to score a third win on his YZR-M1 and help cement his second place in the 2002 MotoGP World Championship. Checa meanwhile is battling for fifth overall and has every hope of performing well at this wildest of GP venues.

Situated just a few hundred metres from the roaring surf of Bass Strait, the Phillip Island circuit is pretty much the last stop before Tasmania and the Antarctic. Elsewhere the island is characterised by rugged natural beauty, bird sanctuaries, koala conservation centres and Australia's most-visited wildlife attraction, the fairy penguin parade.

But this weekend the island's interest will be focused on the track that hosted Australia's first motorcycle Grand Prix back in 1989. Since then Phillip Island has become one of the most popular venues in GP racing, partly because of the track's breathtaking high-speed layout, but also because of the area's picturesque beauty and the warm welcome extended to the MotoGP circus by local fans.

After this GP, which follows hot on the heels of races in Japan and Malaysia, Biaggi, Checa and their rivals head home to Europe where they will compete in the 2002 season finale at Valencia in Spain on November 3.


The Marlboro Yamaha Team comes to Phillip Island this weekend confident of once again being in the race for victory at this hugely entertaining racetrack. The YZR-M1 squad has already scored some great successes this year, with two victories, 11 podium finishes and four pole positions from the 14 races so far. Now riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa have just two more chances to add to Biaggi's brilliant Czech and Malaysian GP successes, and they aim to make the most of those two chances.

"This is our last 'overseas' race of the year and it's an event everyone in the team looks forward to," says Marlboro Yamaha Team director Davide Brivio. "Phillip Island is a nice place for us, because the track is great and because the Australians really love their bike racing. They're also very knowledgeable about the sport, so it's nice for us to be able to offer them our great show once again.

"Max always goes well here and last Sunday's Sepang race proves that he's on great form at the moment. He has finished first or second on his last three visits to Australia and knows he needs good results at these final two races. I'm sure he should be in the fight for victory. Carlos had a more difficult weekend here last year, but I believe the M1 will make all the difference for him this time. Our aim is the same as always - to win more races before the end of the season.

"Phillip Island will be particularly interesting for us because it was at this track that we had our first full team test with the M1 almost a year ago. It will be good to compare just how far we've come with the bike since then, just as we were able to do at Sepang last weekend, where our top speed was more than 15kmh greater than during winter tests."

YZR-M1 project leader Ichiro Yoda and his crew of Yamaha engineers also look forward to this weekend's Grand Prix. "It's our favourite circuit, because it's a great bike track and because it's a real riders' circuit," smiles the man who has overseen the M1's incredible progress this year. "I believe the key aspect to good performance here is high-speed turning, because a rider can gain a lot of time if he can turn into the fast corners quicker than his rivals. Braking is also important at Honda and MG corners, because both of these are potential overtaking points. It's also important to set up the bike to be gentle on the rear tyre because the track's many fast left-handers generate a lot of heat in one side of the tyre. As usual we will work very closely with Michelin to make sure we have the best tyres for the race.

"This will be a very, very busy weekend for us because we have five M1 riders from now on. Last weekend we gave an M1 each to Olivier Jacque and Shinya Nakano, and now Norick Abe will also get an M1, though the Marlboro Yamaha Team remains our first priority."


Malaysian GP winner Max Biaggi has an amazing Island record to maintain this weekend. The Italian has finished inside the top two at this event ever since he joined the Marlboro Yamaha Team in 1999. He was winner of a thrilling 2000 Australian GP, when he beat Honda-riding compatriots Loris Capirossi and Valentino Rossi by a fraction, and last year he finished just 0.013 seconds behind winner Rossi in the closest-ever premier-class GP. Just 2.832 seconds separated the first nine men home in that extraordinary race which further cemented the track's reputation for encouraging hugely entertaining elbow-to-elbow racing. Biaggi also secured his fourth 250 World Championship here, when he finished second in the '98 250 Australian GP.

"I really like this track, I always seem to go well here," says Biaggi, who also started last year's race from pole position. "It's a very special circuit with very fast corners, a lot of gradient changes and sometimes very strong winds. 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 for a moment all you can see is the sea, it's like you're riding straight at the water, at 300kmh!"

Biaggi has already won two MotoGP races this year - scoring a dominant first victory at August's Czech GP - and is determined to achieve more success before he switches teams for 2003. Currently second in the points chase, seven points ahead of Tohru Ukawa (Honda), he needs another good result on Sunday, and not just for immediate gratification.

"These last two races are very important to me, I'm very focused to get the best-possible results," he adds. "It's very important for me to finish as high up as possible here and at Valencia, because I'm still challenging for second overall and I really want to make that happen. Everyone knows what I' m doing in the future, but all I'm thinking about at the moment is this year. I'm ready to fight for second overall, and you know me, I never give up. I know my main goal for these final races will be to attack the Hondas and I think we could have a good chance for Phillip Island, though after Sepang I don't want to fly too high and talk of victory. The M1 is very good now and I think this track should suit our motorcycle."


Carlos Checa hasn't had the best of times at Phillip Island in recent years, but he's ready and willing to battle for his fifth podium finish of the year on Sunday. Like team-mate Biaggi, the Marlboro Yamaha Team star needs every point he can get as he bids to improve his overall World Championship position. Currently fifth overall, he lies 23 points behind Alex Barros (Honda). A top-three finish here could seriously boost his chances of catching the Brazilian when the season concludes in his home country of Spain next month.

Checa has left the Island point-less on his last two visits, after he crashed out of the 2000 race and was frustrated by a mystery problem in last year's Australian GP. Now he wants to put those memories behind him because, like most racers, he loves the circuit. Checa also loves the area around the track - he's into wilderness, going mountain trekking whenever he can get a break from his demanding race schedule.

"I'm hoping to borrow a streetbike from Yamaha, the XT600, so I can ride around with my girlfriend Gina and take a look at the area," says Checa, 30 years old on October 15. "But, of course, my main focus will be the track and the race. Phillip Island should be a big contrast from Sepang in Malaysia, where we were last weekend, but I hope the weather isn't too cold. It's a really nice place and a really nice track. The main character of the circuit is very fast turns, and the high-speed run back to Lukey Heights is especially tricky because there are many fast changes of direction, and it's bumpy too. The rest of the track isn't so tough, though it's always hard work for the rear tyre, mainly because of the last two lefts. You always have close racing at this track, which is good for us and for the spectacle. It was always exciting with the 500s and I think it will also be a good race with four-strokes."

Checa has worked harder than ever this year, racing and developing Yamaha's all-new YZR-M1 MotoGP bike, the Spaniard relishing the challenge of improving the engine, chassis and electronics. "For sure the bike is much better than it was at the start of the year," adds Checa, pole sitter at last month's Portuguese GP. "We now have a different chassis with a different geometry, and it's been exciting developing the bike. The first day of each race is always difficult because we have no previous set-up data to go on. True, we did test at Phillip Island last December, but the bike has changed so much since then."


Fiorenzo Fanali, Max Biaggi's crew chief
"For sure we will be up front this weekend and Max will have a good chance of trying to win again. Phillip Island is a great track for bikes, but for me, every track seems like the same, because the riders always ask for the same things - more speed, quicker turning, more grip, that kind of thing. But this track is unusual - it's very, very hard on tyres because the riders use high lean angles for long periods of time, mostly through the fast lefts. If we get the set-up right and choose the right tyre combination with Michelin, then Max can be fast all race."

Antonio Jimenez, Carlos Checa's crew chief
"First, I hope the weather will be okay. It will be windy for sure, probably cold as well, but I hope it won't rain! We always get a nice fight at Phillip Island and I think this year will be no different. We expect Carlos to be in that battle, so I hope we make a better start to the weekend than we did at Sepang, where we had a difficult first day which put us behind. This is a difficult track for tyres, because there are so many fast lefts. You also need very good front-end confidence here for all the fast corner entries, especially the very high-speed turn one."

The Phillip Island circuit, 50 years old this year, 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.

There are three essentials for a good result at the Victorian state venue: 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.

Situated 130 kilometres south east of Melbourne, the island hosted its first motorcycle races way back in the twenties, when riders competed over a dusty 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.


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Series MotoGP
Drivers Max Biaggi , Carlos Checa , Valentino Rossi , Norifumi Abe , Alex Barros , Tohru Ukawa , Shinya Nakano , Olivier Jacque , Phillip Island