The MotoGP circus makes a flying visit to Malaysia this weekend for the 14th race of this year's 16-round world championship - and Sepang will be a particularly challenging event for the Marlboro Yamaha Team and its rivals.

The pressure is on, and not only because of the stifling tropical weather. The Malaysian Grand Prix is the middle event of a gruelling run of three back-to-back GPs,
following last Sunday's Pacific GP in Japan and preceding next weekend's Australian GP. Riders and bikes only arrived at the nearby Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Monday night or Tuesday morning, and will be heading back to KLIA on Sunday evening for the southward dash to Phillip Island.

Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa will get barely a moment's rest during their stay in Malaysia, but are both highly motivated for the race at Sepang, where they both got to ride the YZR-M1 for the very first time in December 2000. Sunday's race will be crucial for both riders, as Biaggi is currently chasing second overall in the standings and Checa is aiming to improve on his current fifth place.

Biaggi needs a good points haul at Sepang this weekend to re-ignite his bid for runner-up spot in the first-ever four-stroke MotoGP World Championship. The Marlboro Yamaha Team man moved into second place following last month's rain-lashed Rio Grand Prix, but slipped five points behind Honda rival Tohru Ukawa at Motegi last Sunday, after a risky front-tyre choice went wrong and forced him into the pits.

The DNF was a major blow for the Italian, who had scored top-two finishes at four of the previous five GPs, including a first win for the M1 at August's Czech GP. Nevertheless, the hard-riding Italian is confident of getting back up front this weekend, using the ever-improving M1's performance to maximum effect at the challenging high-speed Sepang track.

"The bike is very competitive now," he says, "At the beginning of the season, we weren't competitive but, after a few races, we were competitive and since then the bike has grown up with us race by race."

This weekend, Biaggi is likely to concentrate on the latest-spec M1 chassis, one of a whole package of performance-enhancing parts introduced race by race since the start of the season. This particular chassis arrived in August, but Biaggi only raced it for the first time at Motegi. He hopes he'll be able to use it to better effect in Malaysia.

"Sepang is a great track, but the weather conditions can make life hard for everyone - not just the riders," Biaggi says, "It's so hot and humid that the mechanics and technicians have a tough time too, especially since they're working on red-hot bikes. The conditions make the whole experience more intense, but personally I don't mind the heat - in fact, I generally race well in these conditions.

"The track is very wide, wider than anywhere else we race, so you don't need all of the track, you don't go white line to white line, so it's difficult to find the right line all the time. But the width does make it easier for overtaking."

Although Biaggi enjoys the challenging layout of Sepang, he hasn't enjoyed the best of records at the track. His best result here was fourth two years ago, though he did score a podium finish in the 1998 Malaysian 500 GP, hosted by the Johor circuit, next door to Singapore. Biaggi qualified third at Sepang last year, but crashed out during the hectic early stages of the race, after colliding with Kenny Roberts.

Checa, meanwhile, aims to be back up front this weekend after a difficult race at Motegi last Sunday. The Spaniard struggled to a fifth-place finish at the Japanese venue and knows he's capable of much better if all goes well at Sepang. Checa has already proved his pace aboard the mighty M1 this year, qualifying on pole for last month's Portuguese GP and scoring an excellent second-place result in that race. Now he wants to go one better, and a win here would be the perfect 30th birthday present for the Spaniard, who hits the big three-zero next Tuesday.

"I was in at the start of the M1 project and I feel ready to win with this bike," says Checa, who is looking forward to having two more M1s on the grid, "The racing is more open now and with extra M1s from Sepang onward, I think it will be even more exciting.

"I like Sepang and I like the heat. The track layout is interesting, but the most important factor is probably the heat. There are some tight turns and some very long turns, where the bike is at maximum angle for a long time, with brake on into the corner and gas on coming out. It's a great track for sliding, the surface is so hot that it's easier to slide, so you can have a lot of fun, though this isn't so good for going fast. It's important to work closely with Michelin to choose the correct tyre, though Michelin have done great work this year - I can always keep a good pace all the way to the end of the race.

"As well as focusing on tyres, we'll also need to work on power delivery, to help control wheelspin, and on braking, because there's several parts of the track where you're braking very hard from very high speeds."

Checa has enjoyed good times in Malaysia ever since he came to the premier class in 1996. He scored his first podium finish with a third-place result at the 1996 Malaysian GP at Shah Alam, and took second in the 1998 event at Johor. He was again second at Sepang in 1999, his first ride for the Marlboro Yamaha Team, and followed that with third at the track two years ago. Last year, technical problems consigned him to a tenth-placed finish.

The 2002 MotoGP season concludes a fortnight after the Australian GP, at Valencia in Spain on 3 November.



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