David Checa: Teamwork, Loyalty and Family
After the GMT94 Yamaha Official EWC Team kicked off their 2017/2018 FIM Endurance World Championship defence at the Bol d'Or in September with a sublime victory, yamaha-racing.com caught up with the endurance legend that is David Checa. Get an exclusive insight into the world of endurance racing and find out what it was like for Checa to lift his third EWC title at Suzuka, why he has stayed with the GMT94 team and Yamaha for 16 consecutive seasons, and why he feels teamwork is the most important factor when it comes to winning in endurance.
Checa recently re-signed with Yamaha and the GMT94 team for the 2017/2018 season, extending his relationship with the team to 16 consecutive seasons, quite possibly the longest rider-team relationship in the history of motorsport. Incredibly, after making his debut with the team in 2003 at Oschersleben, the Spanish rider has not missed a single EWC race since. David (younger brother of former 500cc race winner & 2011 WorldSBK Champion Carlos Checa) lifted his third EWC title with the team at the Suzuka 8 Hours in July, just six weeks later he and the GMT94 team went on to win the 2017/2018 season opener at the Bol d'Or by 9 laps and collected the full sixty points on offer. Yamaha-racing.com caught up with the 35-year-old to discuss his incredible career, his relationship with Yamaha and the GMT94 team, and their start to the 2017/2018 season at the Bol d'Or:
David, after an incredible 2016/2017 season, how special was it to have won your third EWC title at Suzuka?
"For sure, a lot of our success last season was down to the work we did during the 2016 season. That year we won in Portimao & Oschersleben, improved the package a lot and only missed out on taking the title by one point. That proved to us how good the team and bike were, plus gave us the confidence to approach the 2016/2017 season in the right way. To go out and win three races in a row last season was just incredible. Especially as we actually didn't have a good opening race at the Bol d'Or and only managed to secure 13 points. That meant we were playing catch up for the rest of the season. The Bol d'Or may not have gone to plan result-wise but we learnt a lot from it and we bounced back by winning the next three races in a row, which was simply incredible! To then go to Suzuka trailing SERT by one point and become champions, it was just sensational. It is such a huge event for all the manufacturers and teams, you can't really explain how important it is. The atmosphere is incredible and finishing the race at night, with all the flashes going off while the fans take photos, I have never seen anything like it. The respect the fans in Japan have for the riders and teams is amazing. Obviously, it is great to win anywhere but, honestly, it was so special to win the title at Suzuka and get to stand on the top step of the podium there in front of all those fans...just wow! Suzuka is the only endurance race I have never won, I have finished third before but victory there is one of the few things I have never achieved. It is one of my dreams to one day stand on the top step of the podium after the winning the Suzuka 8 Hours and I hope to achieve this dream with Yamaha in the future."
Was that the highlight of your career so far?
"Winning the title at Suzuka was pretty special, but the best moment in my career was actually my first race with the GMT94 team in 2003 at Oschersleben. You either love or hate endurance racing as a rider and I fell in love with it that day and I have been very lucky to have taken part in every race since. The year before I was Casey Stoner's LCR teammate in the 250cc World Championship but I had literally been sitting at home when I got the call. I had never ridden in endurance and didn't know much about it, I didn't know the bike and yet I went to Oschersleben with GMT94, broke the lap record and we won the race. The rest, as they say, is history. I have learnt so much riding in the EWC and one of the best things about the championship is how you work as a team. I have been lucky to have some amazing teammates over the years who have shared their passion, knowledge, and experience with me. Gregorio Lavilla, for example, had spent ten years racing in factory teams when he joined GMT94 in 2010 and he taught me so much. Honestly, to me, this is the best part of endurance racing, the fact that you work with your teammates and share everything. In the beginning, I simply absorbed as much information as I could, now it is my turn to pass on this knowledge as this is the only way you can win in endurance. That is why we have such a strong team now. The relationship between myself, Niccolò Canepa and Mike Di Meglio is brilliant because all three of us get on really well and we share everything; our knowledge, experience, settings, and data. We all want to improve together, it is a very special relationship. As a racer, you are always taught the first person to beat is your teammate but you have to change your mindset when it comes to endurance, you want the team to be as fast as possible. We push each other to be faster, but we share everything and work hard to improve together. It is so unique in racing, you honestly don't care who is the quickest rider, as long as we are all riding as fast as we can for the good of the team. Imagine I didn't pass on something to my teammate that could have made him one-tenth a lap quicker, then we go and lose the race by five seconds. That would be my fault for not having passed on the information, as I could have helped him and therefore the team. That, to me, is the beauty of endurance racing. There can be no egos as we all win and lose together as a team."
With the unique way in which the EWC calendar works you only had six weeks from Suzuka before the pressure was back on for the opening round of the new season at the Bol d'Or, what effect did this have on the team?
"It was a good thing and a bad thing! The good thing was that you are still buzzing from last season, you can continue your momentum without feeling like you are starting again, plus our title victory at Suzuka was fresh in everyone's minds so it was easier to persuade the people that matter to invest in development. The hardest part about it is that there is normally so much to do during the off-season on the logistics side of things and we had to try and fit it all into a six-week break, so there wasn't really any chance to take some time off. In some ways, this is not a bad thing as you don't get rusty and your fitness levels don't drop, plus you do get more of a chance to relax after the Bol d'Or. The timings of the rounds can be a bit strange to some but, with the series developing year on year and getting bigger and bigger, this will only improve in the future."
Have you had any major upgrades to the GMT94 Yamaha R1 for the new season?
"You always have to be constantly improving in endurance racing, if you don't keep moving forward it is like you are going backwards. Last year we developed the radiator, engine, and we also made some changes to the bike to make it easier to repair. The great thing is the team we have now is amazing, so keeping the same team for this season, with the consistency that brings, can make a huge a difference. This season we will continue to develop the bike but it is all about making lots of small changes that, in the end, can have a huge difference. You have to be so careful in endurance about the upgrades you make, because, you can very easily affect something else on the bike. At the Bol d'Or this season, we had some issues with our R1 as we had increased the power and you need to adjust other things to take this into account because there is nothing as punishing for a bike as an endurance race. Take SERT, for instance, they had a more powerful engine at the Bol d'Or, but they had so much power that it snapped a chain. This is why in endurance racing you can never stop adapting, developing and fine-tuning the bike."
You were the not the favourites to the win the Bol d'Or, despite being reigning champions, but it was business as usual when the lights went out...
"Honestly, the Bol d'Or this season was very difficult. We may have won by nine laps and, on paper, I am sure people thought it was an easy victory but endurance racing is never that simple. Some of the new parts for the bike didn't arrive until the last minute, so we couldn't try them out properly and that's why we struggled at the Bol d'Or test. Then, come race week we decided to change the front forks, rear suspension, plus a few other things but we were not happy with the bike. So, we got together as a team and simply decided to stop trying to change the bike and just ride it as fast we can. We knew the bike was not the fastest in outright pace, but our consistency and fuel economy was brilliant. To win by nine laps, when we actually lost five laps with the various issues with the bike, was pretty good. One of the biggest unknowns of this season was how the other teams would perform. Lots of people were talking about other teams being stronger this year but for us, our main rivals were always going to be YART, F.C.C. and SERT. The pace all three teams have shown this year was very good and it looked like we would struggle against them at the Bol d'Or but YART and F.C.C. both run Bridgestone tyres and, unfortunately for them, they were taking 3-5 laps to get up to the right temperature, which gave us back the advantage on the track. As you can see, so many factors come into play during an endurance race! At the Bol d'Or, we may not have had the quickest bike but we had the best overall package. YART, SERT, and Bridgestone will learn from this and will improve in time for Le Mans, that is why we are working hard as a team and with Dunlop to increase our performance, as always."
Last year you only managed to secure 13 points at the Bol d'Or and spent the rest of the season having to play catch up. This year you took all 60 points on offer and lead the championship by 17 points, how different will that make your approach to the rest of the season?
"We will approach it the same way, by going out and wanting to win! We try to do our very best all the time, that is what we are paid for. The more you win, though, the harder it becomes to win, as everyone is trying to beat you. Plus, in endurance there are so many factors to take into account, it is impossible to plan for everything, so our aim is just to always go out and do our best. It would be amazing to win the title again this year, for Mike's sake. He missed the first race of last season after he joined the team as a replacement for Lucas Mahias at Le Mans and this meant he missed out on being an Endurance World Champion. He sacrificed so much for me, Niccolò and the team last year, we want to go out and win it for him this year after all he did for us. This season they have changed the regulations so that it is not down to a rider's individual points anymore and if you help to score at least 75% of a team's points, you are included. Therefore, while we always want to win, this year in my head and my heart I have an extra reason to win, to help Mike become an Endurance World Champion. As I have mentioned, endurance racing is all about sharing the good and the bad. For us, winning the title at Suzuka and being crowned as Endurance World Champions was an amazing moment and Mike did not really get to share that in the same way. In our eyes, he is an Endurance World Champion, so this year we want to make it official."
You have signed with the GMT94 Official Yamaha EWC Team for your 16th consecutive season in what has to be the longest relationship ever between a rider, team and manufacturer at the top level of racing. What is the reason behind your loyalty?
"It is incredible when I think about it, 16 seasons with the GMT94 team and Yamaha, plus I haven't missed an EWC race since my first one in Oschersleben. We have won three world titles too, so we must be doing something right! Honestly, for me, Yamaha is a family. They have supported me and given me a lot of help throughout my entire racing career. Jean-Claude Olivier at Yamaha Motor France played a huge role in my career, Hervé Poncharal is another to have helped me out a lot, plus Yamaha gave me my chance to ride in MotoGP with the Fortuna team in 2005 as Toni Elias' injury replacement and Lin Jarvis worked with my brother Carlos in 500cc and then MotoGP. It really is one big family! I know a lot of people in Yamaha and, as a manufacturer, they really try and help you. Honestly, I love the GMT94 team, I love Yamaha, and my aim is to spend the rest of my career with them, whether it be 20 seasons, 25, or more...who knows!"
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