Grand Prix racing completes its European tour of duty at Valencia this weekend before moving into its final phase of three globetrotting 'flyaway' races during October. The Marlboro Grand Prix of Valencia is therefore a crucial moment in this...
Grand Prix racing completes its European tour of duty at Valencia this weekend before moving into its final phase of three globetrotting 'flyaway' races during October. The Marlboro Grand Prix of Valencia is therefore a crucial moment in this year's 16-event World Championship, with just three GPs remaining after Sunday's racing.
Valencia is also the season's third Grand Prix in bike-mad Spain, following May's Spanish GP and June's Catalan GP. The track was first used for World Championship racing a year ago, when just 0.893 seconds covered the first 15 riders in 500 qualifying, the closest-ever grid in GP history.
More close and hectic action is expected this week as local Marlboro Yamaha Team star Carlos Checa bids to keep his World Championship hopes alive. Checa was the quickest man around Valencia during pre-season testing and is thus optimistic of a great result on Sunday. Team-mate Max Biaggi, who qualified second here last year, is also on fine form and aiming to continue a strong late-season surge.
Next month Grand Prix riders race outside Europe for the first time since April when they contest the Rio GP, before moving onto Motegi in Japan and then Phillip Island in Australia, where the season concludes on October 29.
This weekend Valencia hosts its second Grand Prix after featuring on the World Championship calendar for the first time last year. The circuit is one of several recently created in Spain, where motorcycling racing is the nation's second most popular sport, after football.
The track is the slowest in current GP use, with last year's 500 pole position set at 149.981kmh/93.196mph (the race was run in the damp). Most of the corners are slow and grouped closely together, a feature that affords spectators a mostly unobstructed view of the entire layout - a real rarity in the world of motorsport. It's an immensely physical circuit with riders afforded little rest between bouts of heavy acceleration, braking and cornering. The relatively short straight requires machines to run low gearing, which makes a 190bhp 500 particularly difficult to control, with riders battling wheelies and wheelspin every time they get on the gas.
The venue is officially christened the Ricardo Tormo circuit, in honour of the late Spanish rider who won the 50cc World Championship in 1978.
Circuit length: 4.005km/2.489 miles Lap record: Kenny Roberts (Suzuki), 1m 42.473s, 140.700kmh/87.427mph
CHECA'S LAST-CHANCE SALOON
Carlos Checa may now rate as an outsider for this year's 500 World Championship but a good result on Sunday could revive his title hopes. The Spaniard has had a tough time at recent races, after a superb start to 2000 had put him well in contention for biking's biggest prize. Runner-up at four of the opening six GPs, the Marlboro Yamaha Team rider has struggled to maintain momentum and now lies third overall, 62 points behind series leader Kenny Roberts (Suzuki).
With 100 points up for grabs over the last four races, Checa can still win the title but he's realistic enough to know that it's a long shot.
"You never give up until it's all over but I know it's an uphill struggle from here," says Checa, who finished 12th in treacherous windy conditions at Estoril two weeks ago. "That was a strange race. I felt good after practice and was ready to attack, but the rear end felt loose, maybe it was the wind blowing dust and sand onto the track."
Inclement weather is something that Checa and his fellow 500 riders have had to get used to this year, and unusual track conditions always introduce an element of luck to proceedings. So far this season, five of 12 races have been affected by rain, with the wind playing its part in Portugal.
"Whatever my problems, I have to put that behind me, look forward and keep my focus over the last four races," Checa adds. "Valencia could be good for us. We had a very good pre-season test session there. I like the track, it's slow but enjoyable, and of course there'll be a lot of Spanish fans there. The track layout means it's a bit like racing in a stadium, it's a special feeling."
Checa did indeed have a good pre-season outing here - he topped the group IRTA Valencia tests in late February, lapping at 1m 35.4s, 0.7s inside last year's pole time. "We're hoping Carlos will go well this weekend," says his crew chief Mike Webb. "We got the front end dialled-in during testing and that's really important at this track."
This is Checa's third outing of 2000 on Spanish tarmac. He had contrasting fortunes at the first two, taking second at Jerez in April and crashing out of June's wet Catalunya GP.
MAX IS MIGHTY AGAIN
Max Biaggi aims to continue his run of improved results at Valencia this weekend to move further up the World Championship order. Unlike Marlboro Yamaha Team-mate Carlos Checa, the Italian star had a tough start to the season, finishing just one of the first five races, but he's come on strong in recent outings, winning at Brno a month ago and finishing in the top four at the last three events.
With his confidence restored after that difficult start, Biaggi is in upbeat mood for the final quarter of the championship. Last year he was by far the most successful rider of the final four races, scoring almost twice as many points as any of his rivals.
"There's no chance of me winning the title this year, but I want to win more races," says Biaggi, currently ninth in the 500 series. "The bike is working well now, it's doing what I want it to do, and that's what you need to win. All I want to do is win again, score as many points as possible and see how much closer I can get to the top of the championship."
Two weeks ago in Portugal, Biaggi battled blustery conditions to cross the line fourth, just a fraction of a second off another podium finish. He also set the third fastest lap of the race as he chased runner-up Valentino Rossi (Honda).
Last year Biaggi qualified second at Valencia, just 0.161 seconds off pole, but his hopes of winning the race were spoiled by a damp track and he finished seventh. His pre-season tests at the venue were curtailed by a tumble, in which he suffered groin and tendon injuries. Despite intensive physio, those injuries still hampered him at the first few races of the year.
"I don't think the lack of testing should be a problem," says his crew chief Fiorenzo Fanali. "Max seems to like the track and he's very happy with the set-up of his bike, I see no reason why it shouldn't work well for him at Valencia. We've worked hard at recent races and test sessions to give him exactly what he wants and we're hoping he can win again this year."
THE CHAMPIONSHIP SITUATION
TOWARDS A NEW ERA
The battle for this year's 500 World Championship may be developing into a tense duel between Kenny Roberts (Suzuki) and Valentino Rossi (Honda) but the attention of many paddock insiders is already turning to the future. And not just to next season, but to the year after that, when 1000cc four-strokes will be allowed to race alongside 500cc two-strokes in the premier class.
This technological transformation - designed to bring GP racing more into line with the four-stroke-dominated streetbike market - will totally change the face of the sport (and its ears too, since the roar of four-strokes will drown out the shriek of two-strokes).
Grand Prix racing been dominated by two-strokes since the mid-seventies but ever-tightening emissions regulations and a market mood swing towards four-strokes has consigned the simple but effective two-cycle engine to just two corners of the motorcycle world - scooters and GP racing. Not everyone in the paddock believes that four-strokes are the best way to go, citing a potential increase in costs, but the shift now seems inevitable and it's difficult not to get excited about this new era.
Final, definitive technical regulations have yet to be unveiled for the new formula, though basic rules have been published, which allow for machines from two to six cylinders.
The big three Japanese manufacturers currently contesting 500s - Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha - have all confirmed that they are now working on four-stroke 1000s. And at a press conference at the recent Marlboro Portuguese GP, Honda Racing Corporation president Yasuo Ikenoya was at pains to convince the media that costs will not escalate out of control.
"We want to keep running costs similar to our current NSR500 two-stroke," he said. "An NSR crankshaft lasts 3000km and that's the kind of longevity we're aiming for from our four-stroke. We want to lease machines to satellite teams, so they cannot be too expensive."
Honda has yet to decide on engine configurations but claims it will unveil its new racer next January, start track tests next spring and run a four-stroke factory team in 2002, with satellite outfits using NSR500s. In a bid to keep costs under control, Ikenoya promised that Honda would not use hyper-exotic technology, like F1-style pneumatic valves, or ultra-costly materials, like beryllium.
Yamaha 500 GP project manager Shuji Sakurada believes four-strokes will be more costly but refutes suggestions that Honda will have the upper hand due to its longer four-stroke racing heritage. "They may have a lot of four-stroke car experience but this is bikes, not F1," he said. "We have to race them and it's our job to be better. There will be an increase in costs but it won't be super-expensive. We're now discussing how to restrict costs by banning some materials."
Suzuki meanwhile is hedging its bets, according to GP team manager Garry Taylor. "Suzuki has started work on this project but won't race a four-stroke until it's got better performance than our 500," he said.
Fourth Japanese manufacturer Kawasaki, currently competing only in World Superbike, is awaiting final rules before deciding whether to go GP racing. "There are too many unknowns, so it's too early to say," said Harald Eckl, manager of Kawasaki's WSB team.
Italian marque Aprilia is already working towards going four-stroke GP racing, with fellow V-twin brand Ducati also considering, though Ducati Corse's Corrado Cecchinelli said: "We are not so enthusiastic about free-for-all technical rules. If that happened, GPs would be too expensive. They have to be careful with the rules or it will turn into F1 cars."
Legendary marque MV Agusta, recently revived by the Castiglione brothers, would be certain competitors, according to Claudio Castiglione. "With the advent of four-stroke GP racing it's clear where MV Agusta's destiny lies," he said. "We must be there on the grid when this takes off and we intend to be fully competitive from the very beginning."
Two other born-again Italian factories are in the frame. Mondiale has already announced its intention to build a bike, while Benelli, who recently agreed collaboration with Renault, is also said to be considering involvement.
Whatever happens, the future of GP racing sounds like it's going to be very fast, and very noisy!