Marlboro Spanish Grand Prix Jerez May 4/5/6 2001 The 2001 World Championship shifts into top gear this weekend as the GP circus comes to Spain for the first of ten Continental races. It's a super-important event for everyone, especially Marlboro...
Marlboro Spanish Grand Prix
May 4/5/6 2001
The 2001 World Championship shifts into top gear this weekend as the GP circus comes to Spain for the first of ten Continental races. It's a super-important event for everyone, especially Marlboro Yamaha Team riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa.
Biaggi currently lies third in the 500 title chase and aims to score his first win of the season at Jerez as he bids to chase down series leader Valentino Rossi (Honda). The Italian star has good hopes of success, since he was lightning-fast at Jerez during pre-season tests and took pole position at last year's Spanish GP.
Checa's situation is somewhat different. The Spanish favourite, who finished second at Jerez last year, missed the recent South African GP because of injury and needs to get back on track in front of his home crowd.
One thing Checa can be sure of this weekend is massive support from the Spanish fans who flock to the Andalucian circuit in vast numbers to make this the best-attended GP of the year. And it's not only the size of the crowd that makes Sunday at Jerez an awe-inspiring day; the Jerez fans like to make a lot of noise, creating an atmosphere more akin to a football cup final than a motorcycle race. Firecrackers and Mexican waves are all part of the fun.
When the noise dies down and the crowd heads home on Sunday evening the GP circus keeps rolling, heading north to Le Mans for the French GP on May 20. Three quick-fire GPs follow in June at Mugello, Catalunya and Assen before the season's halfway point at Donington on July 8. The year ends with four 'flyaway' events in Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Brazil, concluding with the Rio GP on November 3.
Max Biaggi comes to Jerez following his strongest start to a GP campaign in three years. The Marlboro Yamaha Team man lies third in the 500 World Championship after scoring third- and eighth-place finishes at the season-opening Japanese and South African GPs.
The Italian suffered dreadful starts to his 1999 and 2000 campaigns but came back strongly to finish fourth and third overall and is therefore confident of challenging for this year's 500 crown following good points-scoring results at Suzuka and Welkom.
Biaggi battled for the lead at round one but was hampered by a slow start at the second race of the year and has every hope of challenging for his first win of the year in Spain this Sunday. A Jerez victory would help his title challenge no end and also go some way to making up for last year's Spanish GP when he claimed pole position but slid off on the warm-up lap, forcing him to switch to his number-two machine which didn't go race distance. There's no doubt that Biaggi is super-fast at Jerez - in 1999 he ran eventual winner Alex Criville (Honda) a close second, and was a close-fought third in '98 behind Criville and Mick Doohan (Honda). Good omens all, and completed by Biaggi's lightning-fast speed during pre-season testing at the track.
"The lap times we did during testing in February were good, so at least I know we can be competitive this weekend," says Biaggi, who was obviously disappointed by his Welkom result. "I got boxed in at the start and lost five seconds on the first two laps. I finished the race only five seconds behind Nakano, who was only one second behind Ukawa in third. Without the bad first laps I could've finished third or fourth.
"We have a lot of work to do but we won't give up. The Hondas are very good this year and we've some catching up to do. But that is racing, you are always working to go faster, even if you are in front, because the 500 class is so competitive that no one stands still for a moment."
Biaggi is not wrong. This 500 season is turning out to be the fastest ever, by a long way. The Suzuka GP was 25 seconds faster than last year's and South Africa was a massive 35 seconds quicker than the 2000 event. Biaggi's 2001 Welkom race time would've won him last year's race by almost 20 seconds!
Marlboro Yamaha Team director Hiroya Atsumi agrees with Biaggi that his dedicated crew has plenty of work to do. "We must try harder to catch up but we have some ideas for Jerez that we've been working on already," he explains. "Welkom wasn't so great for us but I think we had some bad luck, we'll be hoping for better at Jerez. We found a good set-up there during the IRTA tests in February, so we'll have a good base from which to start."
Biaggi has tasted success at Jerez before, he won the 1996 250 Spanish GP aboard a Chesterfield Aprilia en route to one of his four 250 World Championships.
This is a big weekend for Carlos Checa, one of the year's three GPs on home ground for 'El Torro', Spain's raging bull. Not only that, the Marlboro Yamaha Team man is coming back from injury and will be out to make a big impression after missing the South African GP two weeks ago. He was forced out of the event after crashing his Supermotard bike during a training run at a track near his family home outside Barcelona. Checa suffered a bruised kidney in the unfortunate tumble and spent a week in hospital while his fellow 500 riders travelled to Welkom for round two of the 2001 World Championship.
Now he wants to come back and remind his rivals that he is a serious contender for the World Championship, even if he currently holds 13th place.
"What happened at Can Padro was a real shame but things like that can happen if you're a racer," says Checa. "We all train on bikes away from the races to keep physically and mentally sharp and there's always an element of risk in that, I was just unlucky. You can't wrap yourself up in cotton wool when you're not racing, we're racers and we live racing all year round, not just on Sundays at the racetracks."
After his week of recuperation, Checa was discharged from hospital and headed for the hills outside Barcelona for a week of gentle physical training to get race-fit for Jerez. He's a big fan of the great outdoors, enjoying trekking as well as snowboarding and mountain biking. "I love mountains and the wilderness," he adds. "It's a great way to get away from the pressures of racing, I have time to think and it makes me feel good. I'm certain that I will be fully fit for Jerez and I'm going to be very motivated to get a good result. I've never started a season in better shape, I was fast wherever we tested and now I want to get out there and remind everyone that I'm still a contender."
Checa will be one of the favourites at Jerez on Sunday. He finished second in last year's two-part GP (run on aggregate after a mid-race stoppage due to rain) and was fastest during much of the group teams' tests at the track during February, eventually ending the session a close third behind team-mate Max Biaggi and Valentino Rossi (Honda).
His Marlboro Yamaha Team crew will be right behind him as he works to get himself back up to speed during Friday and Saturday qualifying. "I've no doubt that Carlos will be right on the pace," says his crew chief Mike Webb, a New Zealander who has worked alongside Checa since he started with the team in 1999. "It's a real shame that he got hurt and had to miss Welkom but that's racing. Carlos has got the mindset and the determination to put his head down at Jerez and look forward rather than back. He knows he's fast there, and his pre-season testing times showed that he's fast everywhere, so he has every reason to be confident, rather than concerned. We'll be giving him everything he needs to get the best-possible result."
Jerez is one of the best-established venues on the World Championship calendar, having hosted a Grand Prix every year since 1987. The circuit is also considered to be one of the most challenging, rewarding a determined riding style, with plenty of long corners where riders must fight to keep their machines on the fast line.
The track surface is also very temperature-sensitive, offering huge levels of grip in cool conditions, but much less as temperatures rise. Several riders were well inside the lap record during pre-season tests but those times are unlikely to be reproduced this weekend when temperatures will be substantially higher.
Jerez was modified in 1994 when a chicane was cut out of the loop and replaced with the fast right-hander that leads on to the back straight. This modification went against the general trend of slowing circuits and made Jerez an even better racetrack.
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
Max Biaggi is a big fan of Jerez. "It's one of the best venues for all kinds of reasons," he says. "We all know it so well and the fans are great. It's not the best track for Yamaha because you're leaned over for a long time through the long corners and the Yamaha's advantage is quick steering, rather than mid-turn stability."
However, Biaggi's Marlboro Yamaha Team crew chief Fiorenzo Fanali believes Biaggi will be strong this weekend. "Last year he was on pole and he almost won in '99, so Max and the Yamaha are obviously good there," says Fanali. "Plus we have some engine parts to test, which we first tried pre-season, which should make the bike even better. We will also try some different chassis settings, though we will stick with the 16.5in Michelin rear we ran during pre-season tests."
Like many GP insiders, Carlos Checa believes that Jerez is where we get the first real idea of who will be the strongest title challengers after the sometimes misleading season-opening 'flyaway' races. "It is at Jerez that you start to see who will fight for the championship all season long," he explains. "It's a difficult race because the track condition changes a lot according to temperature and that can make it difficult to find the right set-up for the race. It's a special track with some fast turns, where you're on the side of the tyre for a long time."
Crew chief Mike Webb adds: "We did a lot of work during our Jerez tests on front suspension, rear shock and tyres, curing chatter problems and so on. The basic set-up of this year's bike is similar to last year's, and Carlos went well there last year so we're confident." <pre> MAX BIAGGI DATA LOG Age: 29. Lives: Monaco Bike: Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500 GP victories: 34 (5 x 500, 29 x 250) First GP victory: South Africa, 1992 (250) First GP: France, 1991 (250) GP starts: 136 (48x500, 88x250) Pole positions: 41 (8x500, 33x250) First pole: Europe, 1992 (250) World Championships: 4 x 250 ('94, '95, '96, '97) Jerez 2000 results. Grid: pole. Race: DNF
CARLOS CHECA DATA LOG Age: 28. Lives: London, England Bike: Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500 GP victories: 2 (500) First GP victory: Catalunya, 1996 (500) First GP: Europe, 1993 (125) GP starts: 106 (78x500, 27x250, 1x125) Pole positions: 1 (500) First pole: Spain, 1998 (500) Jerez 2000 results. Grid: 3rd. Race: 2nd