|Japanese Grand Prix Motegi, Japan
17 – 19 September 2004Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team riders Valentino Rossi and Carlos Checa, leading forces in the ever-growing MotoGP circus, now leave the European arena behind in their quest for their next haul of championship points, starting at Motegi in Japan.
The Japanese Grand Prix, the lone event in Yamaha’s home country this season due to safety modifications being carried out at Suzuka, kicks off an Asian and Middle Eastern run of MotoGP events over the next few weeks. Formerly known as the Pacific GP, Motegi has taken over Suzuka’s formal title as the Japanese Grand Prix.
After Rossi’s sixth win of the year at the recent Estoril round and a positive post-race test in readiness for the end of season intercontinental races, the whole Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team approaches the Motegi event with high expectations. Rossi, winner of the last three World Championships in the MotoGP class, has adapted to the Yamaha YZR-M1 in a spectacularly successful manner, winning the season opener at Welkom, and following it up with additional victories at Mugello, Barcelona, Assen, Donington and now Estoril. His most recent triumph gave him an impressive and significant 29 point lead, as his main championship rival Sete Gibernau could only finish fourth overall in Portugal.
After a positive Estoril result for Rossi’s team-mate Carlos Checa, in both race and post-event test sessions, the 31-year-old London resident approaches the final flyaway races with genuine prospects for improving his championship position of sixth, before the season concludes in his native Spain in Valencia on 31 October.
Rossi’s win at Estoril was his 39th in the premier class and his 65th Grand Prix victory overall, a remarkable achievement for a 25-year-old rider who took both the 125cc and 250cc World Championship crowns before his move to the premier class in the 2000 season.
ROSSI STRONGER THAN EVER
Having improved his win average for the season to over 50% of all races, Rossi has every reason to feel confident in his and his team’s abilities as Motegi approaches. London-resident Rossi, born in the Marche region of Italy, fully realises the importance of this race, held in front of all the Japanese factory personnel. He is nonetheless encouraged by the results of the recent Estoril test, where small changes to his YZR-M1 gave him slightly more fulsome and smoother bottom range power.
“Each remaining race is really important now we’re heading towards the end of the season,” said Rossi. “Motegi will be really important and may be the hardest race for us. It’s a Honda track and they will have an extra wildcard rider there. It will be quite difficult to beat everyone but I will try. Acceleration is the big requirement at Motegi; there are three 5th gear straights and one 6th gear. Hopefully we will find the horsepower we need.”
Motegi, although impressive in scale and build quality, is not a classic circuit in Rossi’s eyes. “It’s not one of my favourite tracks but I will give it my best go,” stated Valentino. “The flyaways are more difficult anyway because Europe feels more like you’re at home, you have your motorhome there, also I have the Yamaha truck where I get changed, and you have all your own equipment. The flyaways are less homely; you feel a bit more alone.”
Rossi’s ultimate aim is still to be isolated at the very top of the championship table come late October, but knows it may take that long for the title to be decided. “I still think it’s possible that the championship could be decided at the last race, but for sure it would be better if not!”
Rossi’s pre-race thoughts once more turn to how to overcome his competitors in Motegi and especially extend his lead over his main championship competitor. “The Estoril victory was really important because Gibernau seemed to be so strong at the Czech Grand Prix,” affirmed Rossi. “There were five Honda bikes in the first five places at the Motegi race last year, so it will be quite hard for us there. But everyone in the team wants that victory so we’ll go for it!”
CHECA ANTICIPATES A NEW DAWN
Motegi appears to suit the riding style of Carlos Checa, a fact that he himself brings to the fore. “I like Motegi a lot, especially when I’m in front!” stated Carlos. “It’s a good track and I prefer it to many of the other flyaway races. Many people don’t like it, but I think it’s well organised, very safe and with good accommodation and facilities. I enjoy the flyaway races because they are calmer than European ones. I will be able to catch up with some reading on the plane and try to prepare myself for the time difference so I won’t suffer too badly from jet lag.”
Of the track layout itself, Checa explained the nuances. “There are some good braking sections on the circuit and I think that this is where we will have the advantage with the M1,” he said. “The bike has been good there in the past. We may need more acceleration but we might have something extra by then. The track has good grip, so this will help me and give me confidence. Front traction is important at this circuit.”
“Our mid-level range is quite good,” said Checa of his YZR-M1. “Tyre consistency should not be a problem there. We’re quite good on braking, and all in all I find it a reasonable track. Because there’s only one Japanese race this year, I think there is going to be a bit of extra pressure on everyone to perform well. I’m quite confident however that we can stay up front and fight for a podium there.”
DAVIDE BRIVIO – GAULOISES FORTUNA YAMAHA TEAM DIRECTOR
With his riders both improving their points scores, and seeing Checa jump a place in the championship ranking at Estoril, Davide Brivio has many reasons to be satisfied with the Factory team’s push on all fronts. After a positive test at Estoril after the race, Brivio had time to reflect on the championship positions on the eve of an expansive overseas trek.
“I don’t think we ever imagined we would be ahead in the championship as we are now, we have just tried to approach it step by step,” he stated. “Now we’re at a crucial moment. We’re 29 points ahead but there could be some tracks coming up that we have difficulties at, it’s easy to make mistakes and lose points.”
The first hurdle, Motegi, is just one of a number of challenges to be overcome during the countdown to the end of the season. “We know Motegi can be very hard, Qatar is an unknown, we’ve had some good experience in Sepang and Phillip Island earlier this year, Valencia could be a tough one. It’s too early to know how we’ll do.”
Of the two-day test after the Estoril round Brivio commented, “The test was again a good use of time as Yamaha brought some new parts for both riders which made a small positive difference, and both Valentino and Carlos move on to the flyaways with confidence. Valentino tested a new prototype exhaust which everyone agreed worked well, improving the engine characteristic at bottom range. He will not use it in Motegi but Yamaha will try to reintroduce it before the end of the season. We definitely made progress at that test which might help us where acceleration is especially important, for example at Motegi.”
Now in its fifth year of inclusion in the MotoGP calendar, Motegi has matured into a challenging fixture. It has outstanding quality of build and facilities, although the tremendous paddock is not quite matched by the intricacies and character of a somewhat geometric circuit layout.
A bump-free surface offers good levels of grip without being particularly abrasive, but the proliferation of second gear turns, linked for the most part by mini-drag strips, means braking and acceleration are the main prerequisite to a fast lap time, and consistency the key to a good race.
With many opportunities to accelerate from relatively slow speed at Motegi, the recent Estoril tests concentrated the Yamaha engineers’ efforts on improvements in throttle response from low revs and boosting mid-range power, a combination to allow the best possible corner exits.
A similar set-up to the hard-braking and hard accelerating required at Le Mans will be needed at Motegi, tailored to the particular nature of the Japanese track, which does enjoy some changes of elevation. The fast approach to the 90° Corner, followed by hard downhill braking and then a mini complex of corners, is often the final arbiter on who wins any Motegi race.