The Camel Yamaha Team get back to European territory this weekend as they look to bring their MotoGP World Championship points quest back on track in France, following a disappointing run of races on unfamiliar shores. The legendary Le Mans circuit, which has intermittently played home to the MotoGP World Championship since 1969, has been a fixture on the calendar for the last six seasons and this year plays host to the fifth round of an incredible campaign that has already seen four different winners.
Reigning World Champion Valentino Rossi is one of those - his sole victory so far coming in the second round at Qatar - but he is aiming to put an end to the parity this weekend as he aims to recover from a largely disappointing run of early season results. A first-corner crash at Jerez and technical problems in the last two rounds at Istanbul and Shanghai mean the Italian lies 32 points adrift of current leader Nicky Hayden (Honda), but the most pressing issue for Rossi is to finally overcome the problems that have restricted development of the 2006 version YZR-M1 machine so far.
The 4,180m track holds happy memories for the Camel Yamaha Team, with Rossi having taken pole position and the lap record on his way to victory last season, when he was joined on the podium by his team-mate Colin Edwards. A repeat result is the target for both riders this Sunday, with Edwards having recorded his first top-three finish of the season just days ago in China, when he also extended his run of points-scoring finishes to 25 - a number only previously achieved by Grand Prix legends Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson and Valentino Rossi.
Valentino Rossi: A critical time
MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi knows that the time is right to turn around his early misfortune and start picking up serious points in his bid to defend motorcycling's premier-class crown for the fifth successive season. The Italian currently lies sixth in the general standings but he is well aware that a change in fortune can spark a good run of results over the next few weeks and dramatically improve his situation.
"Sunday was the second time in the first four races that we've scored virtually zero points and on both occasions it hasn't been our fault," reflects Rossi. "Luck has definitely not been on our side but the most important thing now is to sort our problems out as soon as possible because we have a run of important races coming up - starting at Le Mans. The next four or five rounds in Europe are the 'main course' of the season and it is a critical time for us.
"We have got some new things to try at Le Mans so hopefully they can help us find a good base set-up but still have enough room for improvement to keep the pace with our rivals over the weekend. We are up against good riders on good machinery and we have to be at our maximum level to be able to beat them. I am already a few points behind the leader but the championship is very long, I have a lot of confidence in my team and we have time to put things right.
"Le Mans is not one of my favourite tracks but last year it was very good for us. I took pole position, the fastest lap of the race on the final lap and the victory and Colin was also on the podium, so it was a perfect weekend for us. We hope this weekend can be the same."
Colin Edwards: Repeat podium the target;
Colin Edwards has his sights firmly set on consecutive podium finishes following his first top-three result in nine months at China on Sunday. Edwards also scored his maiden rostrum of 2005 in round four, which took place at Le Mans one year ago, when he led the race for several laps before eventually conceding positions to Valentino Rossi and Sete Gibernau. The Texan is hoping that can be a good omen for a repeat success this time around.
"I seem to like round four of the season and I was really pleased it came good for me again in China," smiled Edwards. "Last year's podium at Le Mans was the kick-start to a decent run of results for me so I hope that can prove to be the case this time around. It's no secret that we've been having problems with the bike but we're working hard and if we're capable of winning races and taking podiums when we're in trouble then just think what we can do when everything is running smoothly!
"I don't mind Le Mans as a circuit too much - it's a real 'stop and go' track, as everybody says, with hard braking, tight corners and hard acceleration. We'll have some work to do with the set-up of the bike but this track was good for us last year so hopefully it can prove a little bit easier to adapt to and not as critical in terms of the problems we've had at the last few circuits."
Davide Brivio: Keeping our heads down;
Camel Yamaha Team Director Davide Brivio is looking forward to the relative normality of life on the road as the MotoGP World Championship returns for a seven-week spell on European shores. After a gruelling start to the season including flyaway trips to Qatar, Turkey and China, the team's trucks - home to their travelling workshops and offices - will roll into Le Mans this week to provide a focal point for the hard work to begin.
"After such a difficult start, which nonetheless has given us one win with Valentino and Colin's recent podium, I hope the next few weeks in Europe will be like a new beginning to the season for us." says Brivio. "The races coming up are crucial but all we can do is keep our heads down and continue to work hard on solving the problems we have found this year. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement but we know from the performances of Valentino and Colin already this season that the bike has real potential, so we are excited about finally seeing it performing to its maximum. Hopefully that can be at Le Mans.
"The engineers at Yamaha have been working very hard to make sure that is the case and Valentino will have a new chassis available from the first practice session on Friday. We will compare it with the current one and will decide later if we will use it or not. We will also remain there for a test on Monday to continue with our development. Last year we had a very good weekend at Le Mans, which finished with both of our riders on the podium, so it would be nice to repeat that result! If we can shake off the bad luck that has been following us around the world recently then we have plenty of reason to be confident."
Technically speaking: Le Mans according to Jeremy Burgess;
Le Mans is an archetypal stop-go track, with the added complication of one of the highest speed turns on the calendar, just after the short start-finish straight. There are several hairpins and chicanes, calling not just for balance and control under hard and repeated braking, but a neat and swift transfer from full braking to full acceleration on the exit of the corners.
With nine right-handers and only four lefts, the track is also particularly hard on one side of the tyres, but according to Valentino Rossi's Chief Mechanic Jeremy Burgess there are no hidden secrets to the track in terms of machine set-up. "Le Mans as a circuit is probably the least technical on the whole calendar - it doesn't really have any stand-out features or characteristics that set it out from the rest, certainly not in a positive way," says Burgess. "You need good acceleration out of the slow corners, which is why we struggled there on our first visit with the M1 in 2004 because we were trying out new engines before tackling the true horsepower tracks like Barcelona, Mugello and Assen.
"Last year we had a fully-developed bike so we were able to make the minor adjustments that this circuit requires and both Valentino and Colin were fast. Clearly with so much hard braking you need firmer fork settings and spring rates on the front, and then a slightly softer spring on the rear so that the rider can hold his line on the exit. That's it really - there are no secrets to Le Mans!"