The 2001 World Championship bursts into action this weekend at Suzuka, the first of 16 stops on GP racing's first world tour of the 21st century. This year's 500 series is indeed a momentous moment in Grand Prix history, for it is the last 500...
The 2001 World Championship bursts into action this weekend at Suzuka, the first of 16 stops on GP racing's first world tour of the 21st century.
This year's 500 series is indeed a momentous moment in Grand Prix history, for it is the last 500 World Championship before four-strokes join the fun in 2002. The 500 series has been motorcycling's premier prize since its inauguration in 1949 and there are plenty of riders who want to win this last 500 crown.
And there's a whole bunch of riders in with a serious chance of winning the title this season, which has the potential to be the closest ever. Two of these men are Marlboro Yamaha Team duo Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa, who have excelled throughout pre-season testing. The Marlboro men have been super consistent, running in the top three wherever they've ridden, from Jerez to Sepang and from Estoril to Suzuka. No other rider has matched their consistency from one track to the next.
The Italian and Spaniard are therefore in fighting mood for Sunday's season-opening Japanese GP. After covering thousands of kilometres in testing, they are desperate to get beyond the gruelling groundwork and go racing. Both men are in better shape than ever, having come through the winter injury free, and are entering their third season with the Marlboro Yamaha Team. Experience, familiarity and confidence are everything in motorcycle racing and both riders really know their YZR500s, which have been improved and personalised for the 2001 season.
Following Suzuka the GP circus heads south west for the South African GP at Welkom on April 22 and then to Europe for ten rounds, beginning with the Spanish GP at Jerez on May 6. The season concludes with four more out-of-Europe events, the finale happening at Rio de Janeiro on November 3.
BIAGGI THIRD TIME LUCKY
Max Biaggi begins his third 500 campaign with the Marlboro Yamaha Team this weekend and the Italian star hopes his 2001 season will get off to a better start than the past two. Biaggi had some dreadful luck during the early stages of 1999 and 2000, suffering technical problems, tumbles and injuries that prevented the four-time 250 World Champion from mounting successful attacks on the 500 World Championship.
This year everything is different. Biaggi arrives at Suzuka fully fit and raring to go, with his factory YZR500s working superbly throughout winter testing. Over the past two years Biaggi and his technical crew have fine-tuned his YZRs to suit his majestic riding style. Of course, no race machine is ever perfect, but the 2001 YZR is a motorcycle ready to win the title. Last year's YZR won the manufacturers' World Championship, stealing the crown from Honda's grasp, and this time the factory is adamant about its aims for the 2001 season: riders and manufacturers' crowns, and nothing less!
Biaggi is not the kind of rider to talk big before a season but he seems quietly confident about the task ahead, with good reason too, for he has been consistently the quickest rider during off-season tests. He set the fastest lap of the winter at Sepang, the second fastest laps at Jerez, Estoril and Catalunya, and the third fastest time at Suzuka two weeks ago, never more than a couple of tenths off the quickest man at each circuit.
"The main thing is that we feel ready to go racing," he says. "Testing has been good this winter but the racing is something altogether different, it's the real thing, it's the big fight and it's the reason we do this job. Testing is very important, of course, and we've worked very hard at improving the bike. My main feeling for Suzuka is to make sure I don't make any mistakes. We've prepared for the year in the best possible way, now we just have to race and keep our fingers crossed."
Biaggi is already in much better shape than he was this time last year, when he was carrying a nasty groin injury, sustained during pre-season tests. He is also delighted with Yamaha's off-season input which has focused on improved engine, chassis and aerodynamic performance.
"I also feel that Yamaha is putting in an even bigger effort than normal. This is the last year of two-stroke-only GPs, so they want to make sure they win both the constructors and riders' titles. We'll be doing everything we can to make sure they achieve that target."
The Marlboro Yamaha Team's new team director Hiroya Atsumi is also looking forward to the new season. "The new bike isn't a huge change from 2000 but it is more consistent from one track to another," he says. "All our Yamaha riders have been fast during tests and that proves the bike is very useable. We've improved midrange and low rpm power so the engine now accelerates more smoothly and the chassis base setting is also very good. During testing our riders have worked at doing full-tank tests and race-distance tests, so they are very well prepared."
CHECA READY TO RACE
Unlike Marlboro Yamaha Team-mate Max Biaggi, Carlos Checa made a brilliant start to last season but his results tailed off as the gruelling campaign wore on. The Spanish rider therefore has a straightforward aim for 2001 - to start fast and keep going at the same pace until November's season-ending Rio GP.
Checa came out fighting at the start of 2000, leading the season opener in South Africa and finishing the race second behind fellow YZR500 rider Garry McCoy. He took three further runner-up results over the next five races to lead the Word Championship and stayed in title contention until the final few races. Following an impressive series of off-season tests he has every reason to believe he can make a similarly successful start to his 2001 campaign.
"I feel completely different this year," says Checa. "For various reasons I had quite a stressful winter going into the 2000 season, so I already felt tired by the time the racing started and by halfway through the 16 races I was exhausted! This year we've got everything much better organised thanks to an improved team-structure. We've also done some really good work on the bike. We've improved front and rear suspension which means I now get much better feedback when I'm on the limit. Our aim is to keep the same base set-up all season, which will allow us to focus on specific details during practice and qualifying, like race-distance tyre tests and so on. This should help me to be much stronger on race day."
Like Biaggi, Checa has set some storming lap times during winter tests. He was just a fraction behind the Italian at Jerez and Estoril and faster at Suzuka, allowing him to go into this weekend's Japanese GP feeling relaxed and upbeat.
"Everything seems great at the moment," adds Checa who managed to pack plenty of fun into his busy winter, including cross-country skiing, snowboarding and some Supermotard races. "I feel very relaxed but I can hardly wait to get out there and start racing. It's going to be a very tough season, for sure. The 500 class is so close now and there are so many riders who have a chance of winning races and the championship. My own aim is to focus on my own racing, not to worry about the other guys, and to stay fast all year long."
The team's new director Hiroya Atsumi has been impressed with Checa's approach to his off-season workload. "Carlos has been great, working hard at helping us to adapt the bike for his style," says Atsumi, who was brought into the squad to strengthen lines of communication between Yamaha and its number-one 500 team. "We've worked at finding a good base set-up for him and he now seems very confident and relaxed. I think this will help him to perform at the highest level all the way through the season. Anyway, we have a lot of faith in our new machine, and a lot of faith in both Carlos and Max. We are confident they will both challenge for the World Championship."
The Japanese Grand Prix always enjoys a very special atmosphere because Japanese factory bosses want success at their home event. The extra pressure is almost palpable in the Suzuka pit lane and the circuit is ultra-demanding too.
Suzuka is GP racing's only figure-of-eight racetrack and the fourth fastest venue of the year (after Assen, Phillip Island and Mugello). It's also a circuit that doesn't suffer fools, with a huge variety of complex corners, from the left-right-left-right esses to the high-speed Dunlop Curve and from the dead-stop chicane to the crucial Spoon Curve.
The track has undergone minor changes for 2001, with recent safety improvements made to the esses, Dunlop, Degner and 130R. These works are the start of a whole series of improvements that will include enlarged circuit infrastructure and improved spectator facilities.
WHAT THE TEAM SAYS
Max Biaggi made his 500 debut at Suzuka three years ago, winning his first race in the premier category, so it's no surprise that he loves the track.
"It's a nice one, one of my favourites for sure," says the Marlboro Yamaha Team man. "You need a good-handling bike there because there's so many different kinds of corners but we did some nice work during the tests there, fine tuning the bike to help it hold its line. I feel we have a useful base set-up for the track."
With many members of Yamaha management spectating at the event, Yamaha Grand Prix manager Masahiko Nakajima is particularly keen for a good result. "Of course we want to do well there," he confirms. "Suzuka is a specialist track, with slightly different engine and chassis settings from most other circuits."
Like most of his rivals, Carlos Checa believes Suzuka is a very special racetrack. "It's very long, it's the kind of place where you have a lot of fun or get really lost," he says. "The track is different from most others, but we made good progress at the tests, sorting the suspension and concentrating on race-distance tyre testing. Suzuka is also the first race, so everyone will be pushing very hard to say 'I'm here!'."
Marlboro Yamaha team manager Geoff Crust has every confidence that Checa will go well at Suzuka. "Carlos has gone well wherever we've tested, he seems really happy," says Crust. "The important thing is that both him and Max have been the most consistent guys from one track to the next, and they've also been doing consistent lap times, not just doing one 'hottie' at the end of testing."
MARLBORO YAMAHA TEAM 2001
Lin Jarvis: Managing Director
Shuuji Sakurada: Yamaha 500 GP Project Leader
Masahiko Nakajima: Yamaha GP Manager
Hiroya Atsumi: Team Director
Geoff Crust: Team Manager
Rupert Williamson: PR/Marketing Manager
Alison Forth: PR/Marketing Officer
Dario Raimondi: Team Co-ordinator
Renato Pennacchio: Spare Parts
Sandra van Berkel: Team Secretary
Max Biaggi's crew
Fiorenzo Fanali : Crew Chief/Engineer
Norihisa Kobayashi: Yamaha Engineer
Piero Gagni: Mechanic
Christophe Leonce : Mechanic
Ivan Bonassi: Mechanic
Matteo Flamigni: Computer Technician
Luciano Bertagna : Transport/Mechanics Assistant
Carlos Checa's crew
Mike Webb: Crew Chief/Engineer
Kouji Sakura: Yamaha Engineer
Jim Hendey: Mechanic
Brent Stephens: Mechanic
Antonio Spada: Mechanic
Coen Baijens: Computer Technician
Keith Woodhouse: Transport/Mechanics Assistant
MAX BIAGGI DATA LOG
Age: 29. Lives: Monaco
Bike: Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500
GP victories: 34 (5x500, 29x250)
First GP victory: South Africa, 1992 (250)
First GP: France, 1991 (250)
GP starts: 134 (46x500, 88x250)
Pole positions: 41 (8x500, 33x250)
First pole: Europe, 1992 (250)
World Championships: 4 x 250 ('94, '95, '96, '97)
Suzuka 2000 results. Grid: 2nd 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: 105 (77x500, 27x250, 1x125)
Pole positions: 1 (500)
First pole: Spain, 1998 (500)
Suzuka 2000 results. Grid: 9th Race: 5th