AROUND THE WORLD IN 22 DAYS The Marlboro Yamaha Team flies south to Brazil this week, confident of a high-powered outing at the Rio Grand Prix, the first of three globetrotting GPs outside Europe. After storming rides from Max Biaggi and Carlos...
AROUND THE WORLD IN 22 DAYS
The Marlboro Yamaha Team flies south to Brazil this week, confident of a high-powered outing at the Rio Grand Prix, the first of three globetrotting GPs outside Europe. After storming rides from Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa at Valencia three weeks ago, the pair aim to finish the 2000 season with a flourish. Checa is chasing second overall in the series, while Biaggi has come on strong at recent races after an injury-hit start to his campaign. Last year Biaggi missed out on Rio victory by just one tenth of a second.
Rio is the first event of the final phase of this year's 500 World Championship, which continues with next weekend's Pacific Grand Prix in Japan and ends with the Australian GP on October 29. The Rio event has been moved forward a day, with qualifying on Thursday and Friday, and racing on Saturday, to give riders and teams more time to make the pan-Pacific trip to Motegi in Japan.
With three races remaining, the 2000 campaign has been one of the best ever in GP history. Super-fast, ultra-close and highly unpredictable racing has been the hallmark of the season and the breathtaking action is expected to continue at Rio, Motegi and Phillip Island.
Last year's Rio 500 GP proved that the Brazilian track is the kind of venue that can serve up seriously thrilling action. Mostly fast, bumpy and slippery, the circuit may not allow gravity-defying cornering like some grippier tracks but Jacarepagua's long back straight promotes slipstreaming, which helps keep riders bunched together all race long.
Slipstreaming is a crucial game of cat and mouse played out on any straight worthy of the name. Riders can gain advantage by chasing another machine, using the vacuum created by the lead bike to improve their speed and slingshot ahead. At 1.1km, Jacarepagua's back straight is one of the longest in GP racing and was a major element in last year's superb battle between Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team), Norick Abe (Yamaha) and Kenny Roberts (Suzuki).
Horsepower is obviously a major consideration at Jacarepagua -- which has hosted GPs in 1995, '96, '97 and '99 - but chassis set-up is also crucial. Without too much grip, riders are always sliding the front and rear tyres, so they need a user-friendly chassis to help them stay in control.
Circuit length: 4.933km/3.065 miles
Lap record: Tadayuki Okada (Honda), 1m 51.928s, 158.662kmh/98.588mph (1997)
CHECA CHASING SECOND OVERALL
Carlos Checa has had an up-and-down 2000 season. The Marlboro Yamaha Team man started the year in stunning style, finishing second in four of the first six GPs, but a mid-season run of difficult races blunted his bid for the 500 World Championship. However, the recent Marlboro Grand Prix of Valencia proved that he's back to his best.
The Spanish star was the fastest man on the track at one stage of the race, storming through to challenge for second until an off-track excursion demoted him to seventh. The result was a poor reflection of Checa's renewed aggression and he aims to get the result he really deserves at Rio.
"I was fighting hard at Valencia and that makes me very confident for Rio," says Checa, who qualified fourth at Rio '99 but fell in the early stages of the race. "The track is good for Yamaha, that's obvious because Abe and Max were first and second last year.
"I think I'll feel comfortable there. I was fast last time, until the crash, and we've once again improved the feeling I'm getting from the bike. We have a clear idea of which way to go on settings, I can't wait to get out there and attack again."
Although this year's 500 World Championship is effectively out of Checa's reach, he still has a good chance of scoring his best-ever 500 series result. Currently third overall, he is only seven points behind Valentino Rossi (Honda), after the Italian crashed out at Valencia.
"That's my main focus, to get as many points at the last three races and see if I can get back ahead of Rossi," he adds. "It won't be easy, but that's what I want to do."
At Rio, Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust expects Checa to build on results from the team's latest test session at Valencia, two days after the GP at the Spanish track.
"During the tests Carlos worked with Ohlins on the front suspension and we made some more improvements," says Crust. "He left the tests with a big smile on his face, he's back on it and very confident for Rio."
BIAGGI AIMING ONE BETTER
Max Biaggi had one of his best-ever 500 races at Rio last year, finishing second, just 0.161 seconds behind the winner. This year the Marlboro Yamaha star aims to go one better and score his second victory of the 2000 World Championship season.
Rio '99 was indeed one of the best 500 battles of recent years, with Biaggi going head to head with eventual victor Norick Abe (Yamaha) and Suzuki's Kenny Roberts. The lead changed no less than four times on the last lap alone, Biaggi and Abe bumping and barging as they fought to cross the line first.
"I had a lot of fun in that race and I know the fans loved it, so I think we're all hoping it'll be another good one this weekend," says Biaggi. "We lacked a little speed against Abe's Yamaha in that race because he ran a different engine spec with more top end but I'm confident we can fight for the win again."
Last time out at Valencia three weeks ago, Biaggi continued a strong run of form with a rousing ride to third, less than a second behind World Champion-elect Roberts.
"That was a really hard race and I expect Rio will be close too," he adds. "It's a bumpy track with strange grip, it's very inconsistent, so you've got grip, no grip, grip as you go through some of the corners. But the Yamaha works well there and that will be important."
Biaggi's crew chief Fiorenzo Fanali makes his first trip to Jacarepagua this weekend. The Italian engineer has been working in GPs on and off since the late sixties, but missed all previous Rio GPs because he was working with Yamaha's World Superbike squad.
"The track will be completely new for me but I've already talked it over with Max and he felt good there last year," says Fanali. "He's confident for the race because he's had an improved chassis set-up since the middle of the season."
Biaggi tested a new chassis, offering improved feel, at Valencia and may use it during the Rio weekend.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP SITUATION
THE CRATE ESCAPE TO RIO & BEYOND
This week the Grand Prix circus leaves behind its bustling Continental paddocks for the season's flyaway climax at Rio, Motegi and Phillip Island. Gone are the dozens of hospitality units, dining areas, motorhomes and juggernaut-based workshops that create the unique paddock environment at European rounds of the World Championships, and in their place are crates, containers, prefabs and a certain atmosphere of camping out and making do.
The difference between the paddock at Continental GPs and the so-called flyaway events is enormous. In Europe the paddock area is huge, with 95 juggernauts and almost 100 motorhomes housing riders, teams and numerous back-up services. For the globetrotting events, those vehicles are left behind and 170 tonnes of freight is squeezed into two Jumbo jets for the round-the-world trip to Brazil, Japan and Australia. So does the absence of paddock comforts actually affect what happens out on the racetrack? Apparently not, according to the men who run the big teams.
While the lack of infrastructure shrinks the paddock to a fraction of its European acreage, riders and teams bring with them everything they need. All that's left behind are the creature comforts of motorhomes, offices and hospitality units.
"We have everything we need at these races," says Marlboro Yamaha Team manager Geoff Crust. "Of course, they're different events for us, because we pack everything into 45 crates instead of a couple of artics. It does change things at the track. In Europe you know where everything belongs in the trucks, so you have to get used to accessing everything from a big pile of crates. As ever, it's all about organisation."
Jerry Burgess, who looks after 500 class rookie Valentino Rossi (Honda), puts it another way. "Wherever we go, we create our own little world," he says. "We set up the garage in the same way at every race, so the working environment is the same. We don't go without anything."
Paddock atmosphere probably changes more than anything at the globetrotting events. "We're all thrown together at the flyaways," adds Crust. "In Europe we've all got offices to go to and hospitality units to get away from it all, but we get crammed together out of Europe. It can make it more fun, but at the end of the season, when there's World Championships to be won, everyone's pushing harder, so you do feel the pressure."
Crust's major concerns on flyways are security, jet lag and deadlines. "We're not allowed to lock crates because of customs, so that's always a worry. We've lost leathers, helmets, and even a whole computer crate in the past. And then there's the danger of damage; if you get a bad forklift driver, the crates and their contents can take a real hammering. The long flights and time differences are really tough for everyone, especially with the ultra-tight deadlines involved."
There's over 70 hours of flying involved over these three races, with riders, teams and equipment dashing to Japan just hours after racing ends at the Rio GP, which has race day on Saturday to give vital extra time for the journey to the Pacific GP. In theory, the freight will arrive at Motegi on Tuesday night, customs will check equipment Wednesday morning and then technicians will commence preparing machines for the season's penultimate GP.
"It's going to be a bit of a logistics nightmare," says Warren Willing, chief engineer for World Championship leader Kenny Roberts (Suzuki), who foresees frantic efforts to get bikes ready for Motegi. "Things could get very tight if anything goes wrong with customs, because there's not much time to get everything prepared, even if the freight is cleared from customs at the correct time. We'll be anticipating that and I expect that once the Rio race is underway, we'll be changing the gearboxes in our spare bikes to a Motegi set-up. That means they'll be crated up ready to run when we get to Motegi. Little things like that will save crucial time, especially if there are delays."
As for jet lag, Willing believes the paddock just keeps working through it. "Most of us have been jet lagged for so many years that we don't know what normal is, anymore!" he adds. "It can have an effect but you tend not to notice it if you're focused."