French Grand Prix Le Mans, France May 14, 15, 16, 2004 Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Riders Look Forward To Classic Contest With two rounds of the MotoGP Championship completed, the Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team enters the French GP at Le Mans...
French Grand Prix
Le Mans, France
May 14, 15, 16, 2004
Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Riders Look Forward To Classic Contest
With two rounds of the MotoGP Championship completed, the Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team enters the French GP at Le Mans having experienced some scintillating highs already, the pinnacle being the round one race win for 2004 signing Valentino Rossi. Having secured not only that win but two pole positions in as many races, Rossi's induction into the Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha fold has been nothing short of a sensation, despite a weather-affected result at the most recent Grand Prix in Jerez. The front row start for Rossi's team-mate Carlos Checa at the Spanish Grand Prix has also offered a tangible reward for his and his crew's off-season efforts in testing.
Rossi's spectacular round one win in South Africa, allied to his battling fourth in atrocious conditions at Jerez, leaves him in overall third place in the championship standings, a scant three points behind championship leader Sete Gibernau (Honda) and two behind Max Biaggi (Honda). The ever burgeoning MotoGP circus now rolls on towards the latest venue -- the classic circuit of Le Mans.
The motorcycle version of the Le Mans track, substantially different from the longer track used for the 24-hour car race, is the backdrop for what promises to be yet another epic weekend for Rossi and Checa. With the team co-sponsored by Gauloises, the French crowd will have another reason to follow the progress of Rossi, Yamaha's very own bolt from the blue.
Having secured an outstanding race win during his first ride on the continually improving Yamaha YZR-M1, Rossi looked to be on course for win number two after taking the absolute circuit record at Jerez during the first qualifying session. The advent of more wet weather on race day made set-up for the race an inexact science, with Rossi fighting hard but finishing just off the podium in fourth for the first time in 23 races.
The Le Mans circuit, where Rossi is a previous winner in the MotoGP class thanks to his 2002 success, promises much for the talented 25-year-old from Tavullia in Italy. Now resident in London, the short hop across the Channel to Northern France holds no fears for the five-time World Champion, who can count 125, 250 and 500cc Championships in his trophy cabinet, alongside his pair of MotoGP titles.
After a front row qualifying performance that had his team and the Spanish crowd in raptures at Jerez, Carlos Checa will be hoping for consistently dry conditions for both qualifying and race, alongside the rest of the Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha squad. The 31-year-old Catalan, also now resident in London, has a best Le Mans Premier Class finish of second place in 2001, before the swap to four-stroke machines and recent track improvements to the 4,180m circuit. Currently lying in seventh place overall in the Championship, Checa will be keen to improve on this in France.
ROSSI EYES THE GLITTERING PRIZE
Looking to bounce back for his second podium finish of the season, Rossi has 60 Grand Prix victories to his credit, 21 of which have been taken in the new MotoGP class since the championship went back to four-stroke technology in 2002. Having won the past two MotoGP crowns on Honda machinery, Rossi's ambition brought him to Yamaha in the off-season and he made history by duly becoming the first ever rider to win his first premier class race after signing to ride for a different manufacturer.
At Le Mans, Rossi feels he could have a good chance to bag full points. "Le Mans is definitely a Yamaha track, and I think we have a good chance there," he stated in the run-up to the Le Mans event. "It can be quite tricky there if the weather is bad, so I really hope we have a bit of luck and it's dry.
The effect of his first Yamaha win in South Africa just over three weeks ago has still not subsided, "People from Italy are still congratulating me," explained Valentino. "Everyone I know who watched the race on television from Italy said they loved it. It was actually quite hard to be in Italy in the two days after the race because so many people wanted to congratulate me. It was not a normal race! Anyway, we now need to concentrate on getting back onto the podium; we have a lot of work to do."
CHECA EAGER TO ATTACK ON A FAVOURED TRACK
Having shown his undoubted pace already this year, Checa approaches the Le Mans race full of anticipation of ever-improving results.
"Le Mans is the kind of track we were always successful at with the two-strokes, but not so far with the four-strokes, and we hope to change that this year," affirmed Carlos.
Of the track itself, Checa explained, "Actually the Le Mans track improved a lot last year, they changed it at the end of turns two and three, and the asphalt and grip level changed. I basically like the last part of the track, it reminds me of the Calafat circuit in Catalunya. Last year I had a problem in the Le Mans race but I'm focusing on the future now." Checa's cause will be further helped by a complete track resurfacing since last year's race.
Carlos will no doubt find strong pockets of support within the traditionally enthusiastic Le Mans crowd. "There are always some Spanish fans at Le Mans to make me feel at home, and I like the French crowd atmosphere around the track, especially after midnight!"
DAVIDE BRIVIO APPRAISES THE CHALLENGE OF LE MANS
"We had a two day test in Jerez last week after the race and the results were quite positive," said Team Director Davide Brivio, looking ahead to the Le Mans race. "During this time both Valentino and Carlos tested some new tyres that Michelin had given us, and worked on some different balance settings on their bikes. Valentino had a fairly good test, and Carlos also had a good test, especially on the second day. So we should be in good shape for Le Mans."
Brivio states that the new track surface will be possibly the biggest unknown factor before race weekend begins. "The Le Mans track has a new surface this year so there should be quite a difference from the past for the riders. For sure the asphalt will have more grip, and we will confirm that during Friday's sessions. We also especially need to check how the bike reacts on the new surface in rain conditions. In the past Le Mans had about three different types of surface, now there should be just one type of surface throughout, which should give us more consistency.
"There is a question mark over the weather for the weekend, we expect that rain will be on the way again," he affirmed. "We really needed both rain and dry practice in Jerez after the wet Grand Prix on Sunday but unfortunately we only tested in the dry. If it's going to be a wet race in Le Mans hopefully we will have had the chance to get some fully wet practice beforehand.
Although our results in the Jerez race were not exactly what we had hoped for, we were still happy and relieved for both riders to finish the race, and still in a point-scoring situation. Many riders fell off there."
The 4.180 km Le Mans circuit has hosted the French GP for the past four years and has always provided a challenge to those wishing to take the ultimate prize. In the past, changes of tarmac in certain areas delivered changeable grip levels, especially in the rain, but with resurfacing having been carried out recently, it should provide a more predictable level of grip and consistency, after its characteristics are discovered in the early sessions.
Le Mans is an archetypal stop-go track, with the added complication of one of the highest speed curves of any circuit on the calendar, just after the short start-finish straight. Hairpins and chicanes abound, calling for not just balance and control under hard and repeated braking, but a neat and swift transfer from full braking to full acceleration on the exit of the corners. With nine right-handers, and only four lefts, the track is also particularly hard on one side of the tyres.
Existing Le Mans data, used to help speed up the set-up process in qualifying, may need to be modified if the resurfacing work has ironed out some of the existing bumps, but nonetheless firmer front fork setting and spring rates will be needed to handle the frequent braking demands. A slightly softer rear spring, with a higher than normal pre-load, will be adopted to allow the machine to hold a line exiting corners, due to the reduced ride height which will be necessary to help the M1 remain stable under hard braking.
As the recent Jerez race showed, the race set-up and prowess of the M1 in full rain conditions is still an untapped resource, and the new surface of Le Mans is another variable the team will have to deal with should it be wet.