Marlboro Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril September 7/8/9 2001 The Roller Coaster Continues Max Biaggi comes to Estoril this week with a job to do - to close down the 29-point World Championship lead now enjoyed by arch-rival Valentino ...
Marlboro Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril
September 7/8/9 2001
The Roller Coaster Continues
Max Biaggi comes to Estoril this week with a job to do - to close down the 29-point World Championship lead now enjoyed by arch-rival Valentino Rossi (Honda). The two Italians are currently engaged in one of the most thrilling, seesawing 500 title contests in history, and until his fall at last month's Czech GP, Biaggi had been piling on the pressure, whittling away at Rossi's points advantage. Now he has to do it all over again.
The duo have towered over this 500 season, the last before big-bore four-strokes join the fun in 2002, winning nine of the ten races so far. Rossi has the upper hand at the moment, with six wins to Biaggi's three, but the Marlboro Yamaha Team star is known for getting stronger as the season goes on, and he'll be determined to win his fourth race of the year on Sunday.
Biaggi has high hopes of a good weekend in Portugal, and so does team-mate Carlos Checa. The Spaniard, racing on the Iberian peninsular for the third time this year, has shown impressive speed at the last few races and will be out to score his third podium finish of the year at Estoril.
Sunday's race, the fourth Portuguese Grand Prix in World Championship history, comes near the end of the season's five-month, ten-race European sector. After this event the paddock packs up and heads east to Spain for the Marlboro Valencia GP on September 23, the final event on the Continent. After that it's a gruelling run of three flyaway GPs on consecutive Sundays, in Japan (for the Pacific GP), Australia and Malaysia. The 2001 campaign reaches its climax in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Saturday November 3.
BIAGGI FIGHTS BACK
Max Biaggi suffered his first race crash of the 2001 World Championship season when he tumbled out of the lead of the Czech GP a fortnight ago. The Italian star had been riding a dazzling race ahead of rival Valentino Rossi (Honda) when he slid to earth, then remounted to finish tenth, allowing Rossi to extend his series advantage to 29 points. With just six of 16 races remaining, Biaggi knows he has a Herculean task ahead of him but he's used to fighting all the way down to the wire. And he intends to commence that fight back at Estoril on Sunday.
"My results usually get better when I'm under pressure," he says. "I won three of my four 250 titles by winning the last race of the year. There was so much pressure at those races, but I've a good character for that, I respond well to pressure. I can switch off and maintain my focus when others may be badly affected."
There's probably never been more pressure in a 500 title battle. Biaggi and Rossi are the fastest men in the fastest-ever 500 series, with race times dramatically quicker than last year's. Several GPs this season have been around 30 seconds faster than during 2000 - indeed Biaggi's Brno race was still faster than his winning ride at last year's Czech GP! As Marlboro Yamaha Team director Hiroya Atsumi says: "The pace is so fast this year, but that is the pace we must run, minimum!"
Biaggi has worked on his riding style to achieve such speed. Since developing his technique on 250s, winning four back-to-back 250 titles from 1994, he has adapted his style to suit his doubly powerful YZR500s. "I'm trying to go in deeper, then stand the bike up, so I can get on the throttle sooner," he explains. "Riding the 500 like a 250 doesn't make sense, you can only be fast until the rear tyre starts sliding, then you struggle."
The only man who has been able to match or better Biaggi's pace this year is Rossi and the pair's battle for the 500 crown has swayed this way and that. Rossi got the better start, winning the first three GPs while Biaggi took third at Suzuka but struggled with set-up problems at Welkom and Jerez, where he was eighth and 11th. Three rounds down and Rossi was way ahead, Biaggi 46 points adrift. But after improving his YZR in private tests, Biaggi came back in style to win in France, Rossi only third. Biaggi finished third in the soaking Italian GP, where Rossi crashed out, shrinking the gap to 21 points. Then Rossi won again at Catalunya, Biaggi second. Two weeks later at Assen the positions were reversed, and another fortnight after that at Donington they were reversed once again. In Germany last month Biaggi blitzed the German GP, leaving Rossi trailing in seventh and reducing the difference to just ten points but Brno was next...
"The main thing is that Max wasn't hurt at Brno and we're dead keen to get racing at Estoril, the only pain is the waiting," says Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust. "The title wasn't won or lost at Brno, Max is used to racing for championships all the way down to the wire and he's not afraid to do it again."
CHECA BACK IN IBERIA
Carlos Checa has already scored two podium finishes this year, following Marlboro Yamaha Team-mate Max Biaggi home at the French and German GPs. Those second-place finishes delighted the Spaniard, but he is determined to win a Grand Prix before the 2001 season is finished.
Two weeks ago at the Czech GP Checa qualified on the second row and was confident of a great result until his YZR500 suffered a minor technical glitch, consigning him to a seventh-place finish. He has had an up-and-down season so far, claiming tenth at the season-opening Suzuka GP but missing the subsequent Welkom race after hurting himself in a training accident. He returned for his home GP at Jerez, only to tumble heavily during practice. Badly battered and bruised, he nevertheless rode bravely to score more points. His great Le Mans result followed but clutch slip denied him another points haul at Mugello. Checa scored more points at Catalunya and was going well at Assen until he slid off. A strong fifth at Donington, he was only beaten by his team-mate at the next race at the Sachsenring. This weekend at Estoril he's out to get back on the podium.
"I'm feeling confident about the next two races," he says. "Estoril and Valencia are good tracks for me and the Yamaha, and I expect a much better result than at Brno. The bike is working well, we just had an annoying little problem during the race at Brno. Since Germany we've had a great set-up, the balance of the bike is much better than before, I get good feedback when I go from braking to flicking into a turn. We're now running more 'free' damping settings, and I think that's giving me better feeling as I ride into a corner, so I can feel when I'm approaching the limit and that's what I need to be fast."
Checa's chief engineer Mike Webb is also confident that his man will perform well this weekend. The pair worked on track set-up during pre-season tests at Estoril during February, when Checa dominated much of the all-team session, eventually ending up third quickest (at 1m 40.166s), just a fraction of a second behind Biaggi and Loris Capirossi (Honda).
"Carlos went real good at Estoril pre-season, he was real fast, well on it," says New Zealander Webb. "He was quickest most of the time, so I don't expect the track to pose any dramas for us. We've evolved the bike quite a bit since then, so we'll be working to apply what we've learned to Estoril. Carlos has been getting better all year and we made a big step forward with set-up at the German Grand Prix, and he would've done much better at Brno if the engine hadn't been a little too sharp at low revs during the race."
Team manager Geoff Crust is sure Checa will show well at Estoril. "Carlos was going through a bit of a tough period when we raced at Estoril last year," he says. "But he likes the track and we know it suits the Yamaha because Garry McCoy won there last year. He feels good on the bike and if you watch him from trackside he looks real good too, he's ready for another great ride and he definitely deserves another top result."
Estoril hosts its second Grand Prix this weekend, though this is the fourth Portuguese GP. The nation's first two GPs were held at Spanish tracks in 1987 and 1988 because Estoril failed stringent track safety standards. The circuit has since been modified to make it motorcycle friendly.
Slowest circuit of the year, with a lap record of just 147kmh/91mph, Estoril nevertheless presents a real challenge to riders and engineers. The contrast between very slow and very fast corners demands some tricky compromises in chassis set-up, with riders requiring manoeuvrability in the tight corners and stability in the sweepers. These two characteristics aren't mutually exclusive but it's not easy to create a motorcycle that excels in both situations, so compromise is the only answer. It's the same with the engine - the contrast between the fast start-finish straight and the many slow-speed corners requires maximum peak horsepower as well as gentle low-rev performance.
But perhaps the greatest concern is the track's proximity to the Atlantic, with high-speed winds whipping off the ocean, blowing dust on to the track and blowing bikes and riders off course.
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
Max Biaggi, whose recent German win put him in GP racing's all-time top-ten winners, likes Estoril, slowest track on the GP calendar. "It's a tricky circuit but quite fun, so long as the wind doesn't blow too hard," says the Italian who was a close second fastest (at 1m 40.149s) during open pre-season tests at the track. "The problem is that the Atlantic is so close to the track that the conditions are usually fairly windy, which can make things difficult, especially if it blows dirt on to the track."
Biaggi's chief engineer Fiorenzo Fanali adds: "Max is very strong at the moment but we can still improve the bike for him, we need to make it steer a little better with the Michelin 16.5 rear. This tyre gives more grip and more life but it makes the handling a bit heavier, and we're still trying to compromise our settings to make the handling and steering lighter. We have some ideas about how to achieve this, and we'll try them at Estoril."
Carlos Checa believes his riding style works well at Estoril, an unusual circuit with a larger than usual contrast in the nature of its turns. Most of the track's corners are tight and slow but there are also two fast corners that place very different demands on rider and machine.
"Estoril has got a big, fast straight but it's got a very slow average speed because most of the rest is small corners," says Checa's chief engineer Mike Webb. "It's a tricky track, it really is, but our experience so far is that Estoril is Carlos friendly and Yamaha friendly. There's a couple of high-speed corners and then there's that nasty little chicane with an elevation change. From the chicane on there's a series of fast bends through which you need to be accelerating with the bike leaned well over. They're unusual because there aren't so many corners in GP racing where you're accelerating with the bike right on its side. Then there's the surface, which can be dusty if the wind's blowing."
MAX BIAGGI DATA LOG
Age: 30. Lives: Monaco
Bike: Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500
GP victories: 37 (8 x 500, 29 x 250)
First GP victory: South Africa, 1992 (250)
First GP: France, 1991 (250)
GP starts: 144 (56x500, 88x250)
Pole positions: 45 (12x500, 33x250)
First pole: Europe, 1992 (250)
World Championships: 4 x 250 ('94, '95, '96, '97)
Estoril 2000 results. Grid: 5th. Race: 4th
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: 114 (86x500, 27x250, 1x125)
Pole positions: 1 (500)
First pole: Spain, 1998 (500)
Estoril 2000 results. Grid: 8th. Race: 12th