HISTORY AWAITS AT DONINGTON PARK History is ready to be made at Donington Park this weekend, because no mainland British GP has ever been won by a four-stroke. This year's new-look MotoGP World Championship has been dominated by four-stroke ...
HISTORY AWAITS AT DONINGTON PARK
History is ready to be made at Donington Park this weekend, because no mainland British GP has ever been won by a four-stroke. This year's new-look MotoGP World Championship has been dominated by four-stroke machines and that domination is set to continue on Sunday, when Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1 riders Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi aim to defeat World Championship leader Valentino Rossi (Honda) and the rest of the pack.
During GP racing's first four-stroke era - from the inaugural World Championship season in 1949 to the mid-seventies - Britain's world round was staged on the notorious Isle of Man street circuit. By the time the Island was deemed too dangerous for GP competition - the British GP moved to a mainland purpose-built track in 1977 - two-strokes had gained the performance edge.
Now, thanks to a change in technical regulations, four-strokes are back with a vengeance, and the lure of the four-stroke roar is bringing fans back to Donington in their droves. By last week more than 25,000 advance tickets had been sold by the Leicestershire venue, a dramatic turnaround from 2000, when the British GP attracted a total of 18,000 race-day spectators.
Race fans won't be disappointed by the new breed of 200mph/322kmh four-strokes. These bikes sound as fast as they go - Yamaha's M1 emitting a spine-chilling 14,000rpm scream, adding a great aural contrast to Honda's growling RCV, Suzuki's rumbling GSV-R and Aprilia's booming Cube. But, of course, there's still a bunch of 500 two-strokes out there, and the lighter 500s could go particularly well at Donington, where light weight and ease of handling is crucial for good lap times.
There's no rest for the MotoGP circus after Donington, halfway point in this year's GP series. The paddock packs up on Sunday night and heads to the Sachsenring in the former East Germany for next weekend's German GP. After the 'Ring, the sport has its summer recess, reconvening for the Czech GP on August 25.
MORE NEW PARTS FOR IMPROVING M1
Last month at Catalunya, Marlboro Yamaha Team man Max Biaggi scored the YZR-M1's first pole position, proving that the inline four is getting faster and faster. And either Biaggi or team-mate Carlos Checa have been on the podium at each of the last four GPs, illustrating that the machine is also achieving consistent results.
"We've scored podium finishes at the last four races, which proves that our situation has really improved," says team director Davide Brivio. "In fact, we've been on the podium at all but two of this year's GPs, but I think our performance is much more consistent now than earlier in the season. We've had a good base set-up since we first used the new chassis at Mugello last month, now we're making smaller improvements every race, but we must keep working to make the final step towards winning races. We have more new engine parts for Donington, so we hope these will help our riders go even quicker."
During recent races the M1 has benefited from new camshafts, for extra performance, and new crankcases, for reduced oil-flow turbulence. This weekend Checa and Biaggi will have new crankshafts for increased acceleration.
"Over the last few races we've had many new internal parts which have all worked very well to increase engine performance," says M1 project leader Ichiro Yoda. "The new crankshafts should improve acceleration, which is one aspect of performance that needed improvement and is especially important at Donington, where you need good low-gear acceleration from the last three corners.
"If we keep proceeding in the correct way, we know we can battle for victory with Rossi. Already, Carlos' pace at the end of the Assen race wasn't so far off Rossi's, so we're very confident about the next few races.
"Compromise is very important at Donington because the track has two parts with big contrast. You need good braking stability for the slow corners and good high-speed turning for the fast corners. You also need a bike that works well downhill, for the important Craner section, and our bike seems very good in downhill sections."
HOME-BOY CHECA HAS BIG HOPES FOR DONINGTON
Donington is a memorable racetrack for Carlos Checa, some of those memories good, some bad. Back in 1996 the Spaniard made his premier-class GP debut at the track, subbing for injured Honda rider Alberto Puig (now mentor to 125 teen ace Danny Pedrosa). Checa ran well in his 500 GP debut until he was knocked down by a rival. Two years later, however, he had a big tumble through the 125mph/200kmh Craner Curves, suffering internal injuries that required the removal of his spleen. After a couple of steady years getting back on terms with the track, Checa scored a strong fifth-place finish last July.
This weekend the Marlboro Yamaha Team man hopes for much more from Donington, especially since this is yet another 'home' GP for him. Checa contests three GPs in Spain but Britain is now his official base. Away from the tracks Checa is a lover of the quiet life and the great outdoors, which is why he now lives in Yorkshire, where he can walk down the street without being mobbed by fans and enjoy trekking on the nearby North Yorkshire moors.
Third at the last two races, at Catalunya and Assen, Checa has shown that he is gaining pace and confidence on his YZR-M1, following a luckless run at the Spanish, French and Italian GPs. And he's having big fun on the user-friendly 200 horsepower four.
"I'm having more fun on the four-stroke because Yamaha are so involved with this project," he says. "The bike is great to ride too - the new chassis suits my style and the power is much more progressive than it used to be with my old 500. I can feel the limit with this bike, so I can push hard all the time, which is why I'm now running consistently fast.
"I think we can have a good weekend at Donington, but it won't be easy. The circuit is quite strange, with two very different parts. The first, from Redgate to the back straight, is fast and flowing, but the last part is stop and go, which isn't so much fun. It could be an interesting battle between the four-strokes and two-strokes, because the 500s are lighter, which gives them good high-speed turning for the fast part and makes them easier to stop for the hairpins. But the four-strokes have more grip at full lean, which is very important at Donington because the circuit isn't so grippy, especially if the weather's cold."
BIAGGI LOVES DONINGTON'S CONTRASTS
Second in last year's final 500 World Championship and second in the 2001 British GP, Max Biaggi comes to Donington this week aiming for his first victory of the new four-stroke MotoGP era. Last month at Catalunya the Marlboro Yamaha Team star scored his first pole position on the YZR-M1, but poor luck on race day, and again at Assen two weeks ago, has so far prevented him from turning his qualifying speed into race-day success.
Biaggi finished fourth at Catalunya and at Assen, poor rewards for his super-determined riding, and he's aiming to get back up front at Donington, where he won the 1995 and '96 British 250 GPs.
"I like the track a lot," says Biaggi, whose best result of 2002 is a close-run second-place finish at June's Italian GP. "There's a lot of contrast in the various corners, which makes it fun, interesting and challenging. First of all, you have some very fast corners, then you have very hard braking for the last three turns. Also, there's a lot of gradient changes, uphill through McLeans and Coppice, and downhill through Craner, which is a very critical corner. You need the best-possible chassis set-up and tyre choice for that section. Also, Donington isn't very grippy. Some people say that's because of planes dropping fuel as they fly over the track from East Midlands airport, but I'm not sure why."
Biaggi's focus for this weekend's race, round eight of the 16-race MotoGP season, will be to further improve his M1's high-speed manoeuvrability. According to minimum-weight regulations, four-cylinder four-strokes weigh 15 kilos more than 500s, which makes a big difference to handling at high speed, and since Biaggi and team-mate Carlos Checa have raced 500s for years, it's only natural that they want to hone the M1's high-speed steering to match that of a lighter 500.
"I want to improve the bike's agility, especially through high-speed direction changes," explains Biaggi, who is renowned for his inch-perfect and flowing riding style. "The bike isn't as manoeuvrable as I'd like it to be, and that makes it hard to ride precisely over race distance."
Marlboro Yamaha Team director Davide Brivio believes that Biaggi's demands for more agility will help the team make the next step in improving the M1's overall performance. "We need to help Max by giving him what he needs for his riding style," he says. "Carlos has a different riding technique, so he doesn't feel this problem quite so much, but anything we can do to help Max will benefit both riders."
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
Fiorenzo Fanali, Max Biaggi's chief engineer
"Max's main concern at Assen was improving agility but I don't think this should be quite such a problem at Donington, because although there's a lot of direction changes, most of them aren't as fast as at Assen. It's a difficult track, with hairpin braking and a lot of faster, flowing sections. We have some ideas to give Max what he wants, so we'll start practice with a slightly different geometry set-up. If we improve the bike's ease of handling, Max should have a good weekend, and the changes should also help his performance at other tracks."
Antonio Jimenez, Carlos Checa's chief engineer
"We now have a good base set-up, which means we can work on fine tuning the bike from the start of the very first practice session. Carlos really likes Donington, even though he had that accident there, so I think he can have a good weekend. And now, more than ever, he feels that winning isn't so far away. Donington is all about braking and grip level, because the track is quite slippery. Michelin will work closely with us, and if we get a good 'base' tyre from them, we can improve grip even more by getting the suspension perfect."
Donington Park is a real rider's track, dominated by fast, sweeping corners that crucially inter-link with each other. Through these sections a fluid riding style and high corner speed are much more important than brute horsepower. But just to complicate matters, the 'new' Melbourne loop section (added in 1986) features three dead-stop turns where last-gasp braking and vicious acceleration are all important. Getting a MotoGP machine to work through these two contrasting segments is a great challenge for both riders and engineers.
Donington has been hosting Britain's world round since 1987, taking over from Silverstone, which hosted its first GP in 1977. The venue's history as a racetrack goes back to 1931 when the owners of the nearby Donington mansion allowed the estate roads to be used for car and bike racing. The circuit was shut down during the war and only re-opened in 1977 after extensive redevelopment by local businessman Tom Wheatcroft.
Lap record: Simon Crafar (Yamaha) 1m 32.661s, 156.299kmh/97.120mph (1998)