Suzuki Ready for Mugello

Brent Avis
by Brent Avis
TeamTelefonica Movistar Suzuki is looking for a change of fortunes in Italy. So far this year, neither defending champion Kenny Roberts Jr nor team rookie Sete Gibernau have achieved the results they feel they deserve. In Italy, they hope to take that small but vital step forward towards the rostrum.

Racing in 2001, the last year of the (only) 500cc (two-stroke) championship, has been intense and competitive. The last round - at Le Mans in France - proved it can also be volatile...

After the same rider - Italy's former 125 and 250 champion Valentino Rossi - won the first three races, some thought the season ahead was cut and dried. But Rossi was beaten back to third place in France, and conclusions that had been foregone are now forgotten instead.

Team Suzuki has never been in any doubts that last year's winning rider and machine combination is capable of winning races again in 2001.

So far, although Roberts has challenged for pole and led races, the finishing positions have been hard to attain. Delays in pre-season testing meant that when the racing began in April, the team was still putting the finishing touches to the 2001 bike, the latest version of the machine that swept Roberts to a convincing win last season. The team has always known that the bike needs just a little more development to get right back to winning once again.

"Developing a grand prix machine is a continuous process, with new part or ideas to test from one race to the next, sometimes one practice session to the next," explained team manager Garry Taylor.

"There are always different choices and combinations in both hardware and software. We will, as always, have some new combinations to try at Mugello that we hope will make a difference, and be another step towards winning races again."

Taylor continued: "The qualifying lap times show just how small the difference is between winning and losing.

"Don't forget that Kenny qualified on the front row in France - second after battling for pole; and that he led the race. As he did also in South Africa. We're clearly not far off.

"We're working hard to make those small refinements that will make the difference, and help our riders to challenge for the leading positions. We're fully confident that it is only a matter of time."

Success in Italy would be particularly sweet - for the fifth race of the 16-round World Championship will take place in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, with the excitable fans of the three Italian stars - Rossi, French GP winner Max Biaggi and last year's Mugello winner Loris Capirossi - driven to fever pitch at their home GP.

BALANCE AND CONTROL: THE TECHNICAL TASK IN ITALY

Mugello circuit is long and fast, looping up and down opposing sides of a steepening valley, overlooked by the famous old Mille Miglia Apennine passes and surrounded by picture-postcard Tuscan countryside. The hillsides make expansive natural grandstands, while the nature of the circuit almost guarantees close racing and thrilling finishes.

One feature is the long start-finish straight, approached from a fast downhill U-turn - achieving a good exit speed is crucial; so is slip-streaming past the pits and grandstands. The hard downhill braking at the end of the straight is one of very few overtaking opportunities, and it is technically very challenging. The rest of the circuit comprises mainly medium-speed ess bends - riders call them "fast chicanes" - which means only one fast line and few passing places.

There are two main requirements, technically speaking, according to Warren Willing, team technical adviser.

"The nature of the corners means you use the front end hard, and you're looking to make the bike steer accurately and confidently. It's also bumpy, so you need to have the suspension working well so the bike doesn't get put off line."

The team is working with Ohlins developing a new front fork, which Willing describes as "being more plush". Gibernau switched to the new fork at Le Mans and reported a better ride and improved braking; so far Roberts has preferred the more direct feel of the older fork he used last year. "We've just started working with the new fork, and I believe we will be able to get that feel as we try different setting adjustments," Willing said.

"The other question mark is the last corner onto the straight. It's crucial to come off that corner fast, but it's a place where the tyres are very prone to develop chatter. It will be very important to find the right tyre-suspension combination that will allow the riders to open the throttle early."

Again, Team Suzuki has been working closely with Michelin to develop a new generation of tyre construction, aimed at cutting the chatter that has caused problems for all users of the latest generation of 16.5-inch rear tyres. However, these new tyres are not expected until after the Italian GP, and will be available to all Michelin users.

KENNY ROBERTS JUNIOR: READY TO RIDE

"Suzuki has promised us some stuff to test for Mugello. The aim is to get a better response from the engine. At this point, we need some help to get the bike more consistent, and to smooth the power delivery. At a place like Mugello, you need that for those long, deep corners. Whether that means I can get to the podium, or whether it will just help make it easier to ride around - we'll have to see. I'm hoping it will help improve our lap time, and we can go forward from there."

SETE GIBERNAU: "MY TURN FOR GOOD LUCK"

"What is amazing is that so many things have happened this season that are just bad luck. During qualifying in France I never got a chance to set a good lap time, and we still had settings we wanted to test. That's not how you want to go into a race, and it showed. What we need in Mugello is for everything to go smoothly through qualifying and in the race. Then I will give 100 per cent, as I always do."

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