FIM GP Round 2, Welkom

Calvin Kim
by Calvin Kim
World champion Kenny Roberts Jr and team-mate Sete Gibernau hope that the very different conditions at the second GP of the 2001 season will also bring them a change of fortune, turning the downbeat start at the Japanese GP into something positive as the GP circus prepares for business in Europe, and the start of the season.

The second round is in South Africa, at the high and dry Phakisa Raceway at Welkom - and there could hardly be a greater contrast to Suzuka, venue for the opening round...

"The track is very different - actually unique," explained Roberts, who will ride an updated version of the Telefónica MoviStar Suzuki that took him to the four GP wins and his first World Championship last year.

"The layout and the unpredictable surface are one thing; another is the altitude - which really affects the performance of the engine," continued Roberts, who is known as one of the most analytical of riders.

"In fact, the last two times there have been bad for us - but for specific reasons of being on the wrong tires at the wrong time. This time, with the right tires, we can see if we can turn the track's quirkiness to our advantage."

For new Telefónica MoviStar Suzuki rider Sete Gibernau, the South African track is really special, yielding his best-ever results in GP racing. He still holds the lap record, set in 1999 when he finished second, and last year qualified on pole position.

The Phakisa Raceway is an almost unique combination of tri-oval and road-race circuit, with a combination of mainly slow corners that keeps the bikes on their sides for long periods at a time. Extra technical difficulty is imposed by the surface - the area is prone to dust-storms and long dry periods, while the road-racing circuit is used relatively seldom. As a result, it is prone to accumulation of dust, which is only fully dispersed and replaced with rubberover the course of a racing weekend. This makes tire choice a moving target as conditions change over the two days of practice before race day.

The altitude, at some 1,500 meters (4,921 feet), is another major factor, the thinner air robbing engines of 10 to 15 percent of their horsepower. The first challenge is to establish carburation settings in conditions encountered nowhere else on the 16-round racing calendar. Another difficulty is to predict the effect on throttle response, a crucial aspect of performance.

It is tires that concern team technical chief Warren Willing the most. "Our history at Welkom is not good, and both times it was down to tire choice problems. We now seem to be more in tune with what it takes to make these tires work, so we should be okay - assuming that the stock of tires at the track will cover exactly what we need."

This is the second of two "flyaway" GPs, with all teams and suppliers operating remote-control operations, far from their home bases and fully equipped workshop trucks. Results at these races are often unpredictable, and seldom typical of what happens when the season gets down to its relentless week-on/week-off pace in Europe.

The points are just as important, however, and team manager Garry Taylor is hoping to come away with a good collection.

"The strongest thing we have in our favor at this and every race track is the quality of our riders," said Taylor.

"There is no-one better than Kenny Roberts at making the most of theopportunities. And it has been a really good track for Sete, as the lap record holder.

"This is a real rider's circuit, and Kenny and Sete are both real riders."

Footnote: World Champion Kenny Roberts Jr and the other 2000 champions were to be presented to South Africa's foremost elder statesman and former President Nelson Mandela on the eve of the South African GP. "It's a real big honor for myself and the other champions in our sport to meet a world leader of the stature of Nelson Mandela," said Roberts.

KENNY ROBERTS:"I've said often enough that I approach every race the same way - but that's just the truth. I don't have emotions about different tracks or types of track. Each weekend I go to the track as it is at that time, and work 100 percent to get the bike, the tires and the suspension at their best for that track. Then I go and race 100 percent to get the best out of myself at that track. This circuit is different, with the tight turns, and the way it starts off slippery then gets grippier - so fast it almost seems lap by lap. It's the same for everyone. Technically, you have to be very accurate here. It's high concentration racing."

SETE GIBERNAU:"I really like this circuit - in 1999 I finished second, by best ever 500 finish, and set the lap record; and last year I claimed my first pole position. It seems the slippery surface suits my style somehow. I've never ridden the Suzuki there, but obviously I'm hoping it will be the same again. I had a bad start to the season, crashing out at Suzuka - but I am always very positive, and I'll be thinking of this weekend, knowing I can be exceptional at this circuit, and hoping for a turn-around for the whole team."

GARRY TAYLOR - TEAM MANAGER:"We all predicted that this year's racing was going to be epically close in the 500 class, and that's exactly how it turned out at Suzuka. We expect more of the same and plenty of drama at Welkom. That's great for the fans, and great for the sport. For our own part, we know how strong our riders can be, and also how well our team can respond to changing conditions. We've no reason not to expect a good weekend."

ABOUT THIS TRACK:The Phakisa Freeway, just outside the mining town of Welkom in the Free State, is an ambitious and comprehensive motor sport facility, built in just over a year at a cost of R80-million, with the backing of the provincial Free State government. Aimed at boosting the economy of a gold-mining area where falling gold prices led to rising unemployment, the track combines a 4.24 km (2.64 mile) GP circuit with a 2.5 km (1.55 mile) NASCAR banked tri-oval circuit - one of only four outside the USA.

The 1999 motorcycle GP was the inaugural event at the brand-new track, which won praise for a design that packs the circuit into a compact area, offering good spectator views, but at the same time has fifth and sixth-gear bends as well as slow corners. Situated on South Africa's central plateau, the Highveld, an altitude of some 1,500 meters makes it the highest circuit of the year.

ABOUT THIS RACE:This is the fifth running of the South African GP, held in 1984 and 1985 at the original Kyalami circuit outside Johannesburg, and in 1992 at the rebuilt Kyalami. Then followed another hiatus until the new Welkom venue as inaugurated with the revived race at the end of 1999. Soon afterwards the GP circus returned for the first race of the 2000 season, and this year the GP is again at the start of the season.

GP DATA

Circuit Length: 2.64 miles / 4.242 km.
Lap Record: 1:36.554 - 98.28 mph / 158.162 km/h. S Gibernau (Honda), 1999
2000 Race Winner: G McCoy (Yamaha)
2000 Race Average: 45:38.775 - 97.01 mph / 156.125 km/h.
2000 Fastest Race Lap: 1:36.933 - V Rossi (Honda)
2000 Pole Position: S Gibernau (Honda), 1:36.273.
2000 Kenny Roberts: 6th, qualified 3rd (Telefónica MoviStar Suzuki).
2000S Gibernau: DNF (retired), qualified 1st

ISSUED BY: Team Suzuki Press Office, 45 High Street, Newhaven. UK.

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