Max nearly wins Le Mans, again


After dominating the Le Mans World Championship round with a one/two finish last year the Marlboro Yamaha Team returned to the French MotoGP to fly in formation, once again. This time it was for the fourth round of the 2002 season, held on May 19, but only the No. 3 YZR-M1 four-stroke of Max Biaggi made it to the chequered – a race which ended seven laps prematurely due to rain. The Italian fought bravely through the tricky conditions to finish 0.604 seconds behind eventual race winner Valentino Rossi (Honda) and Tohru Ukawa (Honda) while his teammate Carlos Checa crashed out of contention on the ninth lap while entering the second Le Mans chicane. Taking his place in fourth was Norick Abe, the Antena 3 Yamaha d’Antin rider putting in a gutsy performance on the leading two-stroke machine – some seven seconds ahead of Kenny Roberts (Suzuki).

Both Biaggi and Checa timed the start to perfection and slotted in behind the V-five Hondas of Valentino Rossi and Tohru Ukawa. The quartet continued in that way until lap nine, when the front of Checa’s machine folded under him due to gravel on the track. Soon after a light drizzle made things a little more precarious. Abe – continuing on from a fantastic start which saw him jump from 12th to seventh and eventually fourth – attempted a passing move on Rossi with only a handful of laps remaining. It was a close call and it didn’t stick so Abe opted to go for a safe fourth – 1.1 seconds behind Biaggi.

John Hopkins came away from Le Mans a happy young man after finishing 11th on the Red Bull Yamaha WCM YZR500, while the Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 team ended their home MotoGP in a less than ideal fashion. Initially running as high as ninth, Shinya Nakano became entangled with a wayward Tetsuya Harada (Honda), who outbraked himself and ran wide through the second chicane. Both riders managed to remain upright but the impact bent Nakano’s right handlebar and put him back to 13th. His French teammate Olivier Jacque, who was following close behind, received a pelting from the flying debris, which chipped his front discs and cause a unmanageable vibration in the front end. Jacque had no option but to withdraw from his home race.

Marlboro Yamaha Team
Max Biaggi 3rd:
“Maybe a win was too much to ask for today because our last race was a real struggle. I’m very pleased with today’s result, though it was a very difficult race with the rain coming and going and making the track very slippery in places. It was also great to follow Rossi and Ukawa, though they seemed to have an advantage in the slower corners and that’s what we must work on next. I’m also pleased for Yamaha and I’d like to thank everyone within the factory and the team for their work.”

Carlos Checa DNF: “Rossi had slowed a little, which allowed me and Max to close the gap. As I went to flick the bike right in the chicane I saw Max move a little, like he was avoiding something, but it was too late for me to change the line, so I hit the gravel and lost it. I never saw any warning flags, so I didn’t know there was a problem at that corner. It was very bad luck, especially since everything had been going so well; the bike felt good and I felt comfortable. It’s a real shame, but we must keep looking forward to the next race.”

Davide Brivio, Marlboro Yamaha Team Director: “The bike looked okay here, we were more competitive. We didn’t get the win but we were close to the winner. I hope this weekend will prove to be a restart for our team, just like Le Mans was last year when Max won and Carlos got second. We showed that the bike is fast and we’ve started to close the gap on the Honda, which is a huge progress since the last race. The new parts for the engine-braking system made a big difference and we have a new chassis on the way for both riders for the next race at Mugello. The aim is to improve handling and turning, though Max and Carlos will start the Italian GP weekend with one new chassis and one existing chassis each, because we aren’t able to go testing before the event. Max’s result was a real boost for the team and the factory, so my thanks go to everyone – our crew, the Yamaha engineers and Michelin too.”

Antena 3 Yamaha d’Antin
Norick Abe 4th:
“I like this track, and I got the start that I needed to make up for yesterday. And then when they were battling with each other – Rossi, Ukawa and Biaggi – they only made it easier to pull them in, even though I was down on drive compared to their four-strokes. Besides this the bike was perfect in set-up, and especially the Michelin tyres. I think I was the only one running with this particular compound and it made a big difference.

“The pass I tried to make on Rossi wasn’t that scary, but when (Daijiro) Katoh highsided coming out of the first chicane I nearly hit him and that was. It’s the best result I’ve had this year, which is great, but it’s even better that this is the smallest gap I’ve been behind the leaders.”

José Luis Cardoso 16th: “I think I am quite happy with how I rode today. It’s been a long time since I’ve raced and the biggest issue for me was race fitness; even more so than the unpredictable conditions. I’ve been training during the winter period, and I’ve been keeping my fitness up since then, but there’s nothing that can help race fitness like spending time on the bike.”

Red Bull Yamaha WCM
John Hopkins 11th:
“I was making up a lot of time on Sete (Gibernau) under brakes, in fact I’m finding out that that is where I’m quite strong on this bike compared to the four-strokes. Sure enough I was able to make the pass and then pull a gap. I was then setting my sights on Jeremy (McWilliams) but with the race being stopped early I just ran out of time. The rain was a little problem, and it meant that you had to be cautious.”

Jean-Michel Bayle 14th: “It wasn’t so bad a result, but I did have some trouble in the early laps with the feedback from the tyres. But once they were up to race temp, and sliding a little, I began to feel quite comfortable. I guess it can be difficult at the best of times to find the perfect race set-up, so to try and do it with as little track time as I had this weekend 14th isn’t so bad at all.”

Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3
Shinya Nakano 13th:
“Harada went off the track into the gravel and then came back again; there was no way I could avoid him. I hit him quite hard, but fortunately I didn’t hurt myself. The impact, however, bent my right handlebar. I’m very disappointed to have been unable to finish in a respectable position.”

Olivier Jacque DNF: “I was just behind Shinya and also touched Harada, though the impact wasn’t big. I did however ride through all that flying gravel that Harada brought onto the track. After that the bike started vibrating badly, especially when braking, and fearing that the disc was about to break up I decided to pull into the pits.”