The first World Championship of the 21st century moves into its final third this weekend, with the battle for the premier 500 crown intensifying into a three-way fight. Just four races remain after Sunday's Marlboro Portuguese GP, so the event...
The first World Championship of the 21st century moves into its final third this weekend, with the battle for the premier 500 crown intensifying into a three-way fight. Just four races remain after Sunday's Marlboro Portuguese GP, so the event will be a crucial outing for title-chasing trio Kenny Roberts (Suzuki), Valentino Rossi (Honda) and Carlos Checa (Marlboro Yamaha Team).
Checa and team-mate Max Biaggi, who won his first GP of the year in fine style at Brno two weeks ago, will be aiming to continue Marlboro Yamaha's unbeaten record in the Portuguese GP, held twice before in neighbouring Spain. American star Eddie Lawson won those 1987 and 1988 events on his factory YZR500, at Jerez and Jarama, after Estoril failed homologation requirements.
This weekend Estoril expects to welcome a huge crowd, many of whom will have travelled from Spain to see Spanish 500 stars Checa, Alex Criville and Sete Gibernau in action. Spanish GP fans are the luckiest in the world, for this is the third of four Iberian world rounds they've enjoyed this summer.
In two weeks the action moves once more to Spain for the Valencia GP, before the season concludes with a gruelling run of flyaway events at Rio (Brazil), Motegi (Japan) and Phillip Island (Australia).
This weekend's Marlboro Portuguese Grand Prix is the first GP to be held on Portuguese tarmac, coming more than a decade after circuit officials first attempted to bring two-wheel GP racing to the track. Back in 1987 and '88 the track wasn't deemed safe enough for a GP, but recent improvements have brought the circuit up to spec.
Riders got their first taste of the revised venue back in February, when GP teams' body IRTA organised a three-day test session, allowing riders to learn their way around and helping them and their engineers get a base-line set-up for the GP.
Estoril, situated close to the Atlantic coast and 28km/17 miles from capital city Lisbon, is a tight and demanding track, especially for 500 riders. Apart from a long, downhill start-finish straight, the circuit is dominated by awkward slow-speed corners, including a run of six back-and-forth turns that lead onto the start-finish. The surface is also bumpy, and with hot, dry conditions expected for the weekend, a dusty surface could also be a problem for riders.
Lap record: To be established
Carlos Checa comes to Estoril more focused than ever after a difficult Czech Grand Prix two weeks ago. The Spanish Marlboro Yamaha Team star knows he needs to get back up front on Sunday if he's to stay in contention for the 2000 500 World Championship.
Checa's Brno weekend ended with him losing the second place he's held in the points standings since the season-opening South African GP way back in March. Two crashes during practice and qualifying indicated his discomfort with the track and he ended the race 11th. He now lies third overall, four points down on Valentino Rossi (Honda) and 46 off series leader Kenny Roberts.
"We've got a lot of work ahead of us and we've just got to get our heads down and do it," says Checa. "We went pretty well when we went testing at Estoril in February and I don't mind the track, but it's irrelevant whether I like it or not. All that matters is that I've got to do well."
Checa was fourth fastest in February's IRTA-organised Estoril tests (at 1m 41.78s), a fraction behind Loris Capirossi (Honda), Marlboro Yamaha Team-mate Max Biaggi and Roberts. But although that performance bodes well for this weekend, Checa isn't expecting an easy time. "It will be much hotter this time, and that will probably mean a change in tyre choice and chassis set-up," he says.
What Checa will be looking for is a return to his early season form, when he finished second at four of the first six GPs. His results have suffered since June's Catalan GP, when he crashed out in the rain. Since then he has yet to do better than fifth.
Crew chief Mike Webb is also predicting a weekend of intense work. "Estoril is a tight, bumpy circuit, the kind of place that makes life difficult for 500 riders," he says. "That section around the back is especially tricky - the chicane and the next few turns that finish the lap; you're carrying a lot of lean angle and you've got to deal with all that power because you're in first or second gear. The place can also be pretty dusty, so we expect that to be a problem if it's hot and dry."
Max Biaggi's masterful Czech GP win two weeks ago was a dramatic turnaround for the Italian. His fourth 500 win and 33rd GP success was also his first victory of 2000, a year that he started dogged by bad luck, with just one score from the first five races. Now the Marlboro Yamaha Team star is aiming to maintain momentum and complete the season with a flourish, just like last year, when he scored twice as many points as his rivals over the last four races.
Although he's out of contention for the 2000 500 crown, a good run of results would move Biaggi closer to the top of the World Championship score sheet, where he belongs. Eleventh before the Czech GP, he now lies eighth overall, just eight points behind reigning World Champion Alex Criville (Honda).
"Both me and the team wanted and needed that win more than anything in the world," says Biaggi, who also scored his third pole position of the year at Brno. "The bike felt good all weekend, so I've got to thank the team for that, and now we're just hoping we can do the same again in Portugal. I made some mistakes at the start of the year, I'll admit that, but I made them because I wanted to win, and you have to take risks if you're trying to win."
Biaggi has good reason to be hopeful about Estoril. He was second fastest there during a general teams' test in February (at 1m 41.19s), just four hundredths of a second slower than World Championship leader Kenny Roberts (Suzuki). The three-day session, run in windy conditions with a narrow grippy line, saw a number of crashes, including Biaggi.
"It was a shame to crash, but I was pretty happy with the way things went at the tests," he adds. "It's a new track for us, so it was useful to learn the layout and I think we came up with a good base-line set-up for this weekend. I felt really confident on the bike during the session, though the track conditions may be very different this time around."
Crew chief Fiorenzo Fanali is determined his man will continue from where he left off at Brno. "We go to Estoril totally motivated and in really good shape," he says. "We found a good base-line set-up during our pre-season tests but that was a long time ago and I expect things to be very different this weekend. It's a tight, bumpy and dirty track and I'm concerned about grip levels."
THE CHAMPIONSHIP SITUATION
Everyone involved in Grand Prix racing agrees on one thing - that this is the greatest motorsport on earth. But why? All forms of motorsport are about man and machine, about getting the human mind and body to combine with science and technology, and nowhere is this fusion more intense than in bike racing.
Each rider has his own style that has a huge affect on his motorcycle's performance. What works for one rider, won't work for another, and this is of much greater significance than in car racing. In four-wheel motorsport, the driver sits in his seat, working the controls. In bike racing, the rider dances all over his machine, using his body to make constant adjustments to front/rear loading, affecting suspension, grip, steering characteristics and so on.
That's why a bike racer is a more crucial part of the winning equation than a car racer. And if you've any reason to doubt that, just check out the fortunes of the three major factories contesting the 500 World Championship. Throughout the last decade or so, the ebb and flow of GP success and failure can be easily traced through the careers of the fastest riders of the time. Yamaha was dominant until Wayne Rainey retired after his tragic accident in '93, Suzuki was a title challenger until Kevin Schwantz quit in '95, and Honda reigned supreme until Mick Doohan retired last year. Yamaha took some while to regain its winning ways after Rainey's exit, while Suzuki entered a long period of frustration after Schwantz's departure, and though Honda won the '99 crown with Alex Criville, the factory is no longer the lone dominator of 500 racing.
The traumas suffered by all factories after losing their main men isn't just about straightforward rider talent, it is also strongly related to their lead riders' technical input. For years, Yamaha built its YZR500 around Rainey, while Suzuki developed its RGV around Schwantz and Honda created its NSR around Doohan. What worked for those riders, didn't always work for team-mates, though Honda's continuing strength in 500 racing is probably due to the fact that its NSR seems to work well with a variety of riding styles.
But it is Suzuki that now leads the World Championship, thanks to Kenny Roberts, the factory's latest main man, who turned around the factory's fortunes last year. Suzuki had gone more than 50 GPs without a win before Roberts' arrival in '99 and now he's one of only two riders to have won more than a single GP this year.
And Honda also has a new main man on board. Criville may be reigning World Champion but Honda's fastest rider of 2000 is class rookie Valentino Rossi and it seems that the factory is now bending its development process in the Italian's direction. Technicians working with Rossi agree he has incredibly good throttle control and an uncanny ability to analyse problems and communicate with his crew, two of the most important rider qualities after sheer speed.
Yamaha meanwhile has a number of riders capable of winning - Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team), Garry McCoy (Red Bull Yamaha WCM) and Norick Abe (Antena 3 Yamaha D'Antin) have all won races on their YZRs this year. And that must prove that Yamaha, like Honda, has succeeded in creating a motorcycle that can work with a variety of different riding styles.
The battle for the 2000 500 crown is now down to Roberts, Rossi and third-placed Marlboro Yamaha Team rider Carlos Checa and the 2000 season is set for a grandstand finish.