Rossi and Co. Look to Mugello

Brent Avis
by Brent Avis
World Championship leader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RCV211V)returns to his native Italy this week aiming to end the run of atrociousluck that has dogged him at Mugello since he switched to the premier classtwo years ago. Although the young Italian has scored 125 and 250 Italian GPvictories (in 1997 and '99), his efforts to win the big race have bothended in disaster. In 2000 he led, only to fall and remount to finish 12th,and last year he crashed out of a rain-soaked race while lying second.

The omens for a turnaround of home-race fortune are good. Rossi and his RCVhave dominated the opening stages of the new-look MotoGP WorldChampionship, winning three of the first four rounds. He lost the other, byjust 0.932 seconds, to fellow RCV rider Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda TeamRCV211V)...

In other words, the RCV remains unbeaten in the new age of GrandPrix racing, and not only that, the amazing 990cc V5 four-stroke has alsoscored pole position and fastest lap at all four rounds. But Rossi refusesto give in to over-optimism.

"I have bad memories of Mugello from last year and the year before, so Ihope that this weekend will be different," he says. "Like Le Mans andWelkom we will start from zero on Friday because we've never run the RCV atthis track. We will have to work fast but I have a lot of faith in my team.On Sunday I really want to make my fans happy with a victory, that would bea dream for me because my last Mugello win, on the 250 in 1999, seems likea long time ago. I want to give my fans something to cheer about again."

Like most of his rivals, Rossi adores the majestic Mugello circuit, whichundulates along the sides of a green and pleasant valley to the north ofFlorence. "It's fast and technical, it's a lot of fun," he adds. "Butset-up isn't easy and you need a well-balanced bike for such a fast andtechnical track. The most technical part is the Casanova-Savelli esses andthe two Arrabbiata rights."

Rossi's crew chief Jerry Burgess, whose former rider Mick Doohan stillholds the premier-class lap record at the track, expects a busy weekend."We're taking it race by race at the moment because everything is stillpretty new," says the Australian. "The RCV is working well so far, it'sincredibly stable on the brakes and closes its line to the apex very well.What we need to do now is improve the bike's edge grip, so we're working onthe throttle/chassis/suspension/tyre combination."

One of the men who Rossi will fear most on Sunday is team-mate Ukawa, whohas scored podium finishes at the three latest GPs, after sliding out ofthe rain-drenched Suzuka season opener. "We've done a quarter of the seasonand I'm pretty satisfied with my position," says the Japanese star, who is34 points behind Rossi. "If I hadn't had the crash at my home GP the pointsgap between Valentino and me would be much closer. I think I'm riding aswell as ever and I'm happier on the bike with every race. I've won thisseason and I know I can win again. I led for more laps than anyone at LeMans and was disappointed to finish second. I've done so well at Mugello inthe past but the RCV will be well suited to the track and I'm lookingforward to a good weekend."

The RCV's awesome 220 horsepower engine will make Rossi and Ukawa hard mento beat at the high-speed Italian track but they could come under pressurefrom Honda's highest-placed two-stroke riders Loris Capirossi (West HondaPons NSR500) and Daijiro Kato (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500). Capirossi wonat Mugello two years ago, after Rossi and third Italian Max Biaggi (Yamaha)had fallen, and there's nothing more he would like to do than win again athome.

"But I think it will be very difficult," admits the former 125 and 250champ, currently third overall. "The RCV is incredibly fast, with amazingacceleration and top speed, and straight-line speed is very important atMugello. We do have the advantage of having last year's data to work on,but I'm not sure that will be enough. Anyway, I will be trying as hard asalways. My win two years ago was one of the greatest moments of my career,and I'd like to feel that again!"

Kato shares Capirossi's reservations for the weekend. "At some tracks the500s are very good," says the reigning 250 World Champion who finished aclose second behind Rossi at Jerez and was chasing the leaders when hecrashed out at Le Mans two weeks ago. "At Jerez and Le Mans I was able tocompete with the four-strokes, but we'll have to wait and see what happensat Mugello. This will be my first time there on a 500 so I'm not sure whatto expect."

Capirossi's team-mate Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500) scored poleposition at Mugello 2000, won last year's soaking Italian 500 GP and maytake more inspiration for the coming weekend from David Coulthard's MonacoF1 victory last Sunday. Both West Honda Pons riders were in Monaco,visiting the West McLaren F1 team that shares title sponsors with SitoPons' MotoGP squad. "Last year's race wasn't much fun but it was great towin, especially in such difficult conditions," smiles Barros who has movedup to sixth on points after a difficult start to the season. "This year'sItalian GP will be very different because of the four-strokes, but I feelbetter with every race on the 2002 NSR, and I like Mugello. Only afterFriday or Saturday will we know how we compare to the four-strokes."

Tetsuya Harada (Pramac Honda NSR500) also won at Mugello last year, winningthe 250 GP and inflicting a rare defeat on eventual champ Kato. The former250 champ has had a steady start to his first season aboard an NSR but gotto grips with the bike in France a fortnight back to qualify on the secondrow. Unfortunately an off-track excursion spoiled his hopes of a similarlyimpressive result. "That was a big disappointment but the main thing isthat I now feel comfortable on the bike and I'm over my preseason injury,"said Harada who started the 1999 Italian 500 GP from pole.

Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Kanemoto Racing Honda NSR500) continues his NSRadventure at Mugello, working hard with engineering guru Erv Kanemoto todevelop Bridgestone's new range of MotoGP tyres. "We are learning more withevery race," explains van den Goorbergh. "Le Mans was interesting and Iwould've got a better result if I hadn't chosen the wrong front tyre. It'sall part of the learning process, and we'll be looking to do better in Italy."

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