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Chaz Checks In... Mugello and Catalunya

I arrived in Italy with my mum and dad at Pisa airport on Wednesday morning, giving me plenty of time to get to the circuit and do my pre-weekend routines like looking at last years data to study gears etc and discussing the settings with my mechanics.

Also things like sorting out my gear and making sure its all organised, taking my helmets to be serviced and fitted with tear-off's at Nolan, running the circuit and doing a few laps on the scooter. The weather was fine, around 28-30 degrees but as always at Mugello there is a very stormy atmosphere in the evenings where the sky goes from blue to black in no time and brings some quite heavy rain for a couple of hours as it passes over.

Come Friday morning the rain that had fallen, the night before, had dried well before the end of the 125 free practice. As usual, at the start of my session I had to run in new pistons and spent most of the session getting back into the circuit.

Mugello is a very flowing circuit and it has a lot of different types of corners in it. A few of the 250 teams (not ours) had a pre-season test at Mugello which is always an advantage for when you come to the GP but especially at Mugello because of how difficult it can be to set the bike up in the limited time.

For the afternoons first qualifying session we made a couple of changes to make the bike hold the line better in the 2 most important corners on the circuit, Arabiata 1 and Arabiata 2. These are the two fast, uphill sweeping corners on the far right of the circuit. I was having trouble with the bike running in and then running wide off line and towards the outside of the circuit so I wasn't able to open the throttle. We improved this slightly and so far my time was 2 tenths faster than what I qualified on last year but still were quite a way off where we wanted to be, finishing the session in 18th position.

Rain came on Friday evening, but again it was fully dry for the 125's in the morning. We again ran in new pistons for the early laps of the morning session. The bike still wasn't holding the line as good as I wanted it to and it was proving difficult to get it any better. For final qualifying in the afternoon we had the same problems with running wide which we could more or less cure with a harder construction front tyre because the soft tyres tend to squash across the road, but this meant the harder tyre brought chattering with it, so it was difficult to compromise between the two tyres. I finished the session in 20th 1 second faster than I had done last year but still a second off where I needed to be.

For Sunday morning, as always, we ran with a full tank of fuel and ran in new pistons. The pistons in a 250 are good for about 40 laps at a long circuit like Mugello and then there is a drop in power so by the time we have finished each day on the weekend the pistons are due to be replaced. The bike felt OK in warm up, not good enough, but at this late stage in the weekend I was just going to have to go with it for the race and see how it goes. I got a really good start and my original plan was to head straight for the inside and make sure I made it through the first corner safely, as Mugello is prone to a first corner pile up, but I ended up on the outside for the first corner with the exact man I didn't want on the inside of me, Eric Bataille, the rider who wiped me out in South Africa! Fortunately for me, it worked better than I thought and I gained about 5 places in the first 1/2 lap only to be pushed out wide towards the end of lap which cost me a few places and put me in 19th position after lap 1.

For the first 8 laps I was bit by bit losing touch on the group of about 6 riders in front. 3 riders in this group broke away and then I could see myself catching Debon, Faubel and Matsudo. I was about 6 seconds from this group and I just kept doing consistent fast lap times and with about 4 laps to go I got myself on to the back of them. I followed them for two laps which I found relatively easy as their pace was not so quick, but I was losing in 1 or 2 places slightly because I was struggling with the grip on the rear. I held back for a bit while I worked out a plan of how to pass them on the last lap which was to first slipstream Matsudo on his Yamaha at the start of the last lap, and then outbrake Faubel at the end of the start/finish straight as I knew this was my strong point and then try to pass Debon as early as possible on that lap and put the hammer down to get a big enough gap so they wouldn't be able to slipstream me before the start/finish line as it is a long way from the last corner to the flag.

Of course, it didn't go to plan! As soon as I got into their slipstream I started having problems trying to change gear and I had to do it manually with the throttle. As I started the last lap I got an average run onto the start/finish straight and as I was drawing close to pass Matsudo I went to change gear and the lever didn't move and the engine spluttered briefly so I changed gear the manual way which was enough to lose about 10 metres on Matsudo. I bridged the gap again and went to have a stab at him down the inside into the 6th corner, but his experience of about 8 years riding Yamaha's showed, as he just let his brakes off and pulled the bike across the front of me and still kept a tight line. So I had another go at him into the long right 3 corners from the end. I thought I was well and truly up the inside of him and was thinking about how to quickly pass Faubel, when Matsudo let the brakes off and cut across the front of me again and still managed to hold a perfect line which I couldn't believe but he's been riding Yamaha's so long he knows them inside out and can do pretty much anything he wants to with the chassis. I knew there was no way past him before the finish line as I couldn't slipstream him with the gear change problem so 17th was the final position and I was not at all pleased with it. If I could of won the group battle this wouldn't have been great but at least it would have been 2 points. After the race we studied the data and we found that being in the other riders slipstream raised the engine temperature by 2 degrees which in-turn raised the exhaust gas temperature and this was enough to make it difficult to change gear!

As the Italian GP was back to back with the Spanish GP it made no sense to come home for 1 day and then fly straight back out. So the plan was to travel with Casey Stoner and his family in their motor home to Barcelona. This was going to happen until the wheel bearing broke on the way to Mugello and then the rear axle snapped! So I had to find a lift elsewhere and my parents and Stoners parents would wait around in Italy for a day or two while the motor home was being repaired. Casey got a lift with Colin Edwards as they were taking a ferry from Genova overnight straight to Barcelona and I found my lift with Shakey Byrne and his mate Proff in Shane's motor home. We left the circuit at about mid-day on Monday and had a very, very entertaining trip straight to Shane's villa in Girona about 45 minutes from the Barcelona circuit. We arrived there at about 11pm, went for a quick trip to the local town to a bar and then went back to the motor home for some sleep!

On Tuesday, me and Shane went for a run early in the morning, did a bit of food shopping and then spent a few hours at a water park. After a few laps on all the rides we went for a lie down on the deck chairs where I inherited the nickname Dulux (as in the paint), because of my white body which doesn't get to see much sun living on the England/Wales border!

After the water park we went to the airport to drop Proff off as he was going back to England and me and Shakey went from there to the circuit. As soon as we parked up we went for a walk around the circuit. When we got to the back straight there was somebody in a BMW M3 CSL (exactly the same car as Shane's) going around the hairpin left and then sliding and smoking up the rear on the exit. We ran down to have a look at what was going on and as we got closer realised that it was Juan Pablo-Montoya driving the car doing a photo shoot for BMW. When we stopped to have a watch, Montoya had another go and this time took it a bit far and got the car beyond the point of control and spun out which was quite funny and unexpected from an F1 driver.

On Wednesday we had an easy day. The Stoners and my mum and dad turned up in the fixed motor home in the afternoon and that evening I helped Shakey give his motor home a good wash and then watched Kill Bill in his motor home with all the surround sound he has, which was impressive!

On Thursday I went through my chassis settings with my chassis mechanic. He had made the chassis shorter since Mugello to make it more nimble. In the pre-season test at Catalunya I had a lot of problems with braking stability and holding a tight line. So the first thing to feel for Friday morning was whether this had improved or not. That afternoon I went to Shane's motor home who had just been for a run with John Hopkins around the circuit which took them exactly 20 minutes pushing hard. So I decided to take on the challenge of beating their time in the heat of the day at 1.15pm. I did a hard pushing lap and did it in 19m 15s so I was pretty chuffed.

On Friday morning the bike felt as if it was holding the line reasonably well in the tight corners but when it came to the fast corners it was running wide. I finished the session in 19th, 4 tenths faster than what I qualified on last year and also 4 tenths faster than what I did in the pre-season test this year. For the afternoon the main focus was to try and get the front to hold the line in the faster corners. We improved the front very slightly but still we were far from what we wanted. Also after 5 laps the grip from the rear tyre would drop dramatically. I went 1/2 a second faster than I did in the morning but the times were fast and close and I was down in 22nd. The problem we had for Saturday was that to help the bike keep its line in the faster corners, we wanted to drop the front, but this means that there is less weight on the rear, therefore less grip and we couldn't afford to lose any more grip on the rear. We noticed on the computer data that in some corners I was running 5/6 kph more corner speed than my temporary (last year) team mate Klaus Nohles was, but his suspension was more compressed than mine. Normally the more speed you have the more the suspension is compressed down into the ground so it should have showed that I was using more travel than him on the rear. To make my rear end sit down more we put a softer spring in, lengthened the bike back to Mugello length, and dropped the front to help it hold the line better. This was a compromise to try and improve the grip on the rear and also make the front hold its line. Also the engine did not feel very strong all day, but when first qualifying had finished I was told that we were still using Mugello 'race day' pistons which had, by then, done 380kms but we would have new ones for Saturday, which hopefully will improve things.

In Saturdays free practice session I immediately felt the change on the bike and, for holding the line, the change had done a fair bit of good but had developed a small chattering problem. At first I thought that the chattering was going to be really difficult to get rid of but all it took surprisingly, was one stop in the pit box, and a few clicks on the front forks and it was gone. After following some riders closely towards the end of the session I knew exactly what I needed to go faster, which was to stop the bike running wide on the exit's and I needed more grip on the rear. I finished the session not entirely happy in 17th but another 3 tenths faster than I did the day before so we were making some progress. For the afternoons qualifying, when I first went out the engine was faultless, as fast as I'd felt it for a long time and it was really accelerating hard and felt clean and got me quite excited. For the last GP in Mugello the engine had just been average and nothing special all weekend and so far at Barcelona the engine was just average until now. I came in the pits after 5 laps and told my engine man that the engine was faultless but on a couple of occasions it didn't go into gear straightaway but it wasn't creating a big problem. He said that he would change the carburation on 1 cylinder as he could see a small amount of detonation on the telemetry. He assured me that I wouldn't feel the change and it would make no difference to the running of the engine. When I went back out the engine was not as it was before, it felt not so crisp and a bit slow to accelerate though the gears.

So I came in the box again and told him that this had transformed the engine and it was no where near as sharp as it was at first, but he tried telling me that was because I knew he had changed something, and in my head the bike was now slower! So I was not too happy about this but time was pushing on so I just had to go with it for the rest of the session. As for the chassis, the running wide on the exit didn't take too long to improve but the grip problem on the rear wasn't improving. I was getting 4 good laps from a tyre and then the grip wouldn't just tail off a bit like normal, it would drop quite a lot. I was in 17th up until the last lap where I got pushed down to 21st by riders who had taken there brain out for a lap and got behind somebody on a factory bike and gone about 1 second faster than they ever have before in 1 lap. After the session when the time sheets came out it was obvious the difference the carburation settings made to the bike by looking at the speed trap readings from each lap. On my second lap of the session my speed was 269.3kph (with a slight slipstream), then 267.8 and the next 3 laps all in 267's. Then when I came in the pit box and went back out with the different settings the speeds were, 263.4, 262.6, 264.2, and after this consistently low 263's and no better. On average about 4/5 kph down on how the engine first was. A difference like this could make quite easily 1/2 a second if not more over a 3 mile lap. And with proof like that I don't like being told its in my head, especially when I am trying my best to do a good lap time. So, I was annoyed with the whole outcome of the session. I had gone another 4 tenths faster in that session than in the morning and overall qualified 1.7s faster than I did last year and in testing. In 2003 this time would of been good enough for 11th on the grid but I was way back in 21st which just shows how strong the field is this year and how important it is to really get the engine going as good as possible in all sessions. Some engine technicians really squeeze their engines for the last 5-10 minutes of qualifying because it gets their riders well up the grid and it won't really hurt the engine too much as they are only on the edge for a few laps and they will have a new set of pistons put in them the next day anyway.

For Warm Up I had a full tank and the front felt OK with this and some small adjustments had been made overnight to try and get some more grip on the rear. Generally the bike felt quite a bit better than Friday but I knew the rear was still going to cause some problems after the mid way point in the race.

My start was fairly good and I went for the inside on the first corner. After 1 lap I had gained 1 or 2 places and was just off the back of Matsudo after 4 laps. There was a big group in front right up to 10th which was slowly spreading out. West, Debon and Aoyama had broken off slightly, then there was a small gap with Bataille and Baldolini and then Faubel, Matsudo and me. We just started to catch the groups in front and then they started to creep away so I passed Matsudo on lap 7 and like Mugello he did exactly the same thing and let off his brakes, so the next lap I passed him on the brakes and then went across to the white line on the outside to make sure I had him covered and he couldn't get back past me. This worked perfectly! The first group with West, Aoyama and Debon were still creeping away but I was closing the gap to Bataille and Baldolini and thought I could get up to them. Then after 12 laps the grip on the rear dropped and the gap started to grow. For the last 9 laps I managed to hold off Matsudo, Faubel and Smrz and grabbed a few points in 13th. Although I was not really happy with this weekend at least we got a few more points. The next GP is at Assen which I have to admit doesn't suit my style so well as I am a heavy braker and Assen has a lot of flow but hopefully I can turn that around and make some improvements.




© 2006

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