Grand Prix racing comes back from its summer recess this weekend - with riders and teams rested and rejuvenated for the final push to the climax of this year's 16-round World Championships. GP riders last rode in anger four weekends ago in...
Grand Prix racing comes back from its summer recess this weekend - with riders and teams rested and rejuvenated for the final push to the climax of this year's 16-round World Championships. GP riders last rode in anger four weekends ago in Germany, where the 500 race was a classic, the first four riders crossing the finish line covered by just 1.263 seconds after a breathtaking race-long skirmish.
With six Grands Prix remaining, the heat is on and the racing can only get better. Son of a legend, Kenny Roberts (Suzuki) currently heads the series, chased hard by Marlboro Yamaha Team charger Carlos Checa, and Valentino Rossi and Loris Capirossi, the Honda duo coming on strong in recent engagements.
Checa needs a serious points score on Sunday to pull leader Roberts back into his sights, and he comes to Brno ready to race. Team-mate Max Biaggi also needs a result, and after finishing just 0.411 seconds off the podium in Germany, he is also ready for action.
After Brno teams head Southwest for the first Portuguese GP on Portuguese tarmac, another sign of Grand Prix racing's ever-expanding empire. Then it's back to Spain for Valencia, a dashing visit to Latin America for the Rio GP, then westward for the season-closing Pacific and Australian GPs.
Brno is a masterpiece of a motorcycle race circuit. Constructed in the mid eighties, it eschews the modern fashion of tight turns and hairpins for a mighty mix of fast sweepers and undulating corners that test rider talent and engineering to the limit. Most riders love the place because it's challenging and also because it's very fast.
But Brno's most significant characteristic is its constant changes of elevation - the circuit weaves its way across forested hillsides - which means that many of the turns are steeply cambered. Dealing with negative camber corners requires a perfectly set up machine, deft riding skills and especially crucial input from tyre engineers. Horsepower is also a major consideration at Brno because this is one racetrack where modern-day 500s, usually caged in by mostly slower venues, really get moving.
The circuit was built to replace Brno's lethal street circuit that had hosted GPs since the mid-sixties; you still pass the old pit complex on the way from the city centre to the current venue. Last year's 500 GP was won by Tadayuki Okada (Honda).
Lap record: Alex Criville (Honda), 2m 02.335s, 158.996kmh158.996mph (1998)
CHECA CZECHS IN
The Czech GP has always been nicknamed Czecho by the paddock, so no wonder Carlos Checa cheerfully calls it "My GP!". In fact, the Spanish star has no less than three home GPs in Spain during the season but he likes Brno and believes he can re-ignite his challenge for the 2000 500 World Championship on Sunday.
Like his rivals, Checa comes to Brno rested and ready to go after a few weeks 'off' during GP racing's mid-season recess. During the break he did take the opportunity to run a two-day test at Mugello with team-mate Max Biaggi.
The team chose Mugello because Brno was fully booked and the Italian track mimics many of Brno's characteristics, especially with its numerous off-camber turns. As well as vital engine improvements, the riders also evaluated new chassis settings and different tyre combinations. Since Michelin recently reintroduced its 16.5in front there is a bigger variety of tyres on offer than ever before. Riders can choose from 16.5 and 17in fronts, 16.5in and 17in rears, all available in several different constructions, which in turn are available in several different compounds, all of which can be fitted on a variety of rim widths.
"The two days were good and I'm feeling positive about Brno," says Checa who slid off in last year's Czech GP. "We needed a couple of days dry track time because the weather has been so bad this season. There were a few things I wanted to focus on and the bike feels better as a result. As well as finding a direction with tyre choice we also worked on chassis set-up and smoothing power delivery. Brno should be good for us. It's a great track - long, wide and with a lot of direction changes, which really test a bike's handling."
Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust is also looking forward to Czecho: "The whole team is coming back from a break and that's got to be good. Seasons are longer and tougher than ever before, so all the guys needed a rest. The tests enabled us to try some chassis changes, improving stability and turn-in, some engine management work and some work on tyres."
FEELIN' BOLD FOR BRNO
Max Biaggi is no stranger to success at Brno. The Roman Emperor has won five Grand Prix victories at the circuit, monopolising the Czech 250 GP from '94 to '97 and winning the '98 500 GP. Last year he rode to a hard-fought fourth place aboard his Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500, just two seconds behind winner Tadayuki Okada (Honda), after battling for the win throughout.
"Brno is one of my favourites," says Biaggi. "I really like the circuit and it suits my riding style, so I feel we can expect to fight for victory again. This has been quite a tough season so far, we've been very close to winning several times but I feel we've been unlucky on many occasions."
Biaggi currently lies 11th in the 500 World Championship, a position that has everything to do with bad luck and nothing to do with rider talent. The Italian tumbled out of two races earlier in the season, while looking good for victory, and has suffered two further DNFs through bike problems.
After the last GP in Germany, where he was just over a second off victory, he tested at Mugello and believes he learned some crucial lessons at the Italian track.
"We needed to spend some time working on engine, chassis and tyres, particularly since we've had so much rain over race weekends this year," he adds. "We did some useful work on power delivery, which has been one of my main priorities. We'll have to wait and see how the improvements work at Brno but I think we will be able to run up front once again."
During the tests, Biaggi also built up a strong relationship with Michelin's recently introduced 16.5in front slick and may race with the tyre this weekend.
"Max seemed to like the 16.5 front and it's important he had the time to get comfortable with the tyre," explains Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust. "He ended the tests with a smile on his face and that's always a very good sign. I feel sure we're going to see Max back on top very soon."
THE CHAMPIONSHIP SITUATION
ROSSI IS THE MAN ON THE MOVE
If anything is certain in the 2000 500 series it is that nothing is certain. The first World Championship of the new millennium is turning out to be one of the most unpredictable in racing history. So far we've had seven different winners from the first ten races and not one rider has managed to impose himself with back-to-back wins. In fact no one has scored successive victories in the past 20 GPs and that's an all-time record. Last man to win two in a row is reigning World Champion Alex Criville (Honda), who won four races in succession last May and June.
So with ten races done and ten to go, who rates as favourite to lift the crown? The safe money would have to be on son of a gun Kenny Roberts (Suzuki), who has led the points chase since he won May's Spanish GP. But despite a comfortable points lead, the American is by no means clear favourite. He hasn't won a race since Catalunya in June and there are several riders who have been racking up points in a real hurry at recent races.
Over the past three GPs Roberts has scored 36 points, against the 23 netted by currently second-placed Carlos Checa (Marlboro Yamaha Team). But there are three men really on the move as we go into the last third of the series. Most impressive is rookie Valentino Rossi (Honda), who has amassed more points than anyone from the last three GPs. The reigning 250 king took home 55 points from the Dutch, British and German GPs, including a maximum 25 from his debut 500 win at Donington. Alex Barros (Honda) took away 52 points, with wins in Holland and Germany and a miserable 14th in the rain in Britain. And the Brazilian's team-mate Loris Capirossi equalled Roberts' score of 39, despite carrying a hand injury sustained in Dutch GP practice.
Roberts' team is aware of the pressure. "I'm unhappy with our lack of overall consistency," says Suzuki GP manager Garry Taylor. "Kenny has three fine wins but we've also had some notable screw-ups, and championships should be won by consistency rather than erratic strength."
Rossi is the man that Taylor's squad fears the most. The Italian has shown some real genius at the last few GPs, after a crash-happy start to his 500 career in South Africa and Malaysia. He is also tipped by former World Champion Mick Doohan, now general manager for the Honda Racing Corporation, who takes a special interest in Rossi's outfit, run by Jerry Burgess, the man that guided Doohan to his five world crowns.
"The championship will really start to open up if Valentino has another good result this weekend," says Doohan. "If he does that he can start to put some more pressure on Kenny, and if Kenny has another bad result, anything could happen in the championship.
"I think Valentino's win in Britain was the start of something big. After that he knew he could beat these guys and he's more confident and more assertive on the bike as a result. He looked really good in Germany and came back from a big crash in practice and a bad start to run with the front guys. To come back from that is pretty special, he would've won it if he hadn't made a mistake on the last lap.
"I think Checa can win races, he just needs to get back to where he was at during the first few races of the season. If he can do that then he'll also be in the running for the championship. The strangest thing is Alex (Criville). This season has definitely been an uphill battle for him, there's no doubt about that, but the worst thing anyone can do is give up completely. As they say, it's never over until it's over. He needs to get back to what he was doing last year, work out how he did that and put it to good use again because no one's going any quicker than they did last year and the motorcycle has hardly changed. It's just a matter of him getting his head around it and getting some results."
Doohan dominated 500 racing for half a decade before he retired last year. He won 54 GPs, including an amazing run of ten back-to-back victories in 1997.