The Marlboro Yamaha Team comes to Le Mans this week determined to put a couple of difficult GPs behind them and get back on track in the 2001 World Championship. Riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa went into the new season as serious title...
The Marlboro Yamaha Team comes to Le Mans this week determined to put a couple of difficult GPs behind them and get back on track in the 2001 World Championship. Riders Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa went into the new season as serious title contenders after running super fast and consistent throughout their pre-season testing programme but when the racing started, luck seemed to mostly desert them.
After difficult races in South Africa and Spain, the team tested at Italian circuit Mugello last week, rebuilding confidence and fine-tuning settings for this weekend’s race at France’s legendary race venue. Biaggi and Checa have every reason to believe they can get back to where they rightly belong on Sunday, for they know they are fast at Le Mans, having qualified first and second for last year’s French GP at the track.
Even so, the Italian and Spaniard know they have plenty of work ahead of them, especially if they are to do anything about Valentino Rossi (Honda), who has won each of the opening three GPs. It remains to be seen if Rossi can maintain his pace as the season continues and other riders and teams chip away at his advantage. All three races this year have been dramatically fast – Suzuka was 25 seconds quicker than in 2000, Welkom a massive 35 seconds better and Jerez 23 seconds faster than the previous dry race in 1999.
Le Mans hosts its 13th Grand Prix event this weekend. Round four of the 2001 series, the French GP is followed by the Italian GP at Mugello in two weeks time. The championship reaches its halfway point in Britain on July 8 and concludes with four ‘flyaway’ events in Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Brazil. The last race of the season takes place outside Rio de Janeiro on November 3.
MAX IS ON THE PACE
Max Biaggi had a great start to his 2001 season, battling for the lead in a breathtaking Japanese GP and eventually finishing third. The result seemed to confirm the Marlboro Yamaha Team star’s status as one of the hot favourites for this year’s 500 World Championship. But the following two races were less kind to the former four-time 250 king.
Difficult qualifying sessions and poor starts ruined his races in South Africa and Spain, where he ended up with eighth and 11th-place finishes. But despite those results, Biaggi is still on good form. The Italian and his team attribute the dip in form to minor hiccups, insisting there is no malaise at its heart.
“Like Welkom, it was the start that ruined everything for Max at Jerez,” explains his crew chief Fiorenzo Fanali. “Nowadays 500 racing is so hard and close that it’s very difficult to come back from a bad getaway. If he had got a good start he would’ve stayed with the pack, no doubt about it. Maybe he wouldn’t have beaten Rossi but I’m sure he could’ve fought for second with Abe. He lost so much time trying to get by the other guys and then he ran off the track. After that his lap times were good, Rossi was the only rider who was faster.”
Biaggi agrees with Fanali and refuses to allow his last two results to affect his morale, preferring to keep focused on the future, rather than worrying about the past. “I’m not demoralised at all,” he says. “Things aren ’t as good as they should be but I know that all we need is a good run. We spent several days at Mugello last week, making some small adjustments and I know I’m fast at Le Mans, so I’m hoping we can do something there this weekend.”
If there is an issue, Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust believes it has been the team’s keenness to always try every possibility to improve their motorcycles. “We always want to improve,” he explains. “But sometimes the best plan is to race what you’ve got, rather than always be looking for the ultimate improvement in technology at every racetrack.”
Biaggi was favourite to win at Le Mans last year after qualifying on pole for the second GP in succession, just ahead of team-mate Carlos Checa. He was leading the race when he fell at Le Musee curve after losing the rear end. “After that crash we changed the type of rear-brake pad material we used and that solved the problem,” he adds.
Biaggi has tasted French GP success on just one occasion in his glittering career. He won the 1996 250 GP at Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of the country, on his way to winning that year’s 250 crown aboard his Chesterfield Aprilia. He won his fourth and final 250 title the following year, with Marlboro Team Kanemoto Honda, before switching to 500s in 1998.
CARLOS BACK IN THE ZONE
Carlos Checa aims to put some difficult times behind him at Le Mans this weekend and returns to his lightning-fast pre-season form. The Spanish Marlboro Yamaha Team star has had a torrid five weeks since he crashed his Supermotard bike at home in the run up to the South African Grand Prix.
Like most other riders, Checa keeps himself sharp between races by practising on non-GP bikes but the fall cost him dear, damaging a kidney, putting him in hospital for a week and forcing him to miss Welkom. He returned to action for his high-pressure home GP at Jerez, but suffered another punishing tumble in final qualifying.
Incredibly, Checa elected to race, surely proving that he is the hardest man in racing. Battered and bruised, he rode to a dogged 14th-place finish, taking two hard-won World Championship points. Checa knows he has no particular problems to surmount, he just has to get himself through this run of dismal luck and show what he can really do aboard his factory YZR500s.
“After Jerez we just need to reset and start again,” he says. “I think we can now recover the form we seem to have lost. Jerez was one of those weekends you have to forget. I was so stiff after the race that I could hardly move, but I’m glad I rode and got some points.
“Last year I was fast at Le Mans. I did some good times in qualifying and Max only just beat me for pole. In the race we had a tyre-choice problem, I had a lot of wheelspin and couldn’t get the result I wanted. It’s a good track and it’s difficult to say who’ll be quick there this year. At this level it’s all about adapting from one track to the other as well as you can. During winter testing my bikes seemed to work well wherever we went, so I’m hoping we’ll be in good shape again.”
Mike Webb, the man who looks after Checa’s YZRs, is hopeful that he can get his rider back up front this weekend. “If his health is there and we can help get his confidence back, Carlos will be back in the zone,” reveals Webb. “As far as I’m concerned he’s just having one of those nasty runs. When he came back at Jerez he was strong but he wasn’t 100 per cent fit and when you’re not fully fit your riding is affected, as well as the way you set up the bike. You end up making compromises and that can lead to other problems. I’ve no concerns about Le Mans, so long as he’s got his confidence back.”
Marlboro Yamaha Team director Hiroya Atsumi is also looking forward to seeing Checa return to the groove. “I feel very sorry for Carlos, he’s had such a difficult time,” says Atsumi. “But he’s a special guy – very strong psychologically, so I’m sure he can put everything behind him. He was quick before the season, now we want him to find that speed again.”
Le Mans returned to the Grand Prix calendar last season after an absence of four years, during which time the French GP was run at Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France.
The Sarthe circuit hosted its first GP in 1969 and has run GP events on and off ever since. Unusually, Marlboro Yamaha has never won a GP at the circuit, though the team has enjoyed considerable French GP success at other venues.
Le Mans underwent safety modifications before last year’s event, partly as a result of Alberto Puig’s injurious 1995 turn-one crash. The daunting right hander was tightened and the Musee left-hander was also modified to lower speeds.
The track’s character is very stop-and-go, with plenty of tight, slow turns where braking and acceleration performance are primordial. Riders and their engineers therefore concentrate on honing their machines’ stability during braking, as well as improving rear-end traction for the numerous hairpin exits.
WHAT THE TEAMS SAYS
Pole sitter and race leader last year, Max Biaggi knows his way around Le Mans, even if he doesn’t believe it to be the best racetrack for him and his Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500. “It’s not such a bad circuit but the biggest thing there is heavy braking and that’s one aspect of performance we’ve been working on for some while,” says the four-time 250 World Champion. “Of course I did get pole last year and if we work well again this time we’ll once again be able to get the best out of the bike. I think we can be fast there.”
Fiorenzo Fanali, who heads Biaggi’s pit crew, is even more confident. “Max and Carlos were first and second in qualifying, so we know the Yamaha works well there,” he says. “We didn’t have any problems with set-up last year, so I have a good feeling for this race.”
Despite last year’s disappointing seventh-place finish, Carlos Checa is a bit of a fan of Le Mans. “It’s a really nice track, though nothing very special, so long as the weather is okay,” he says. “It’s quite like Jerez – plenty of hard braking and a bit of stop-and-go. Le Mans is okay for the Yamaha, I think Max and I proved that last year when we were first and second in qualifying. Getting the bike to perform on the brakes is crucial, and you also need to work at opening the throttle as soon as possible because most of the corners are pretty short, just in and out.”
Crew chief Mike Webb says: “We had an excellent series of winter tests and if Carlos is fit at Le Mans I’m sure he can have a good race. We had a good set-up there last year and we know this year’s bike works well from track to track.”