The first-ever four-stroke-based MotoGP World Championship draws to a close this weekend at Valencia, and Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa will be going flat out to finish the year with a third victory for the Marlboro Yamaha Team.

The last GP of the season is always a big event, and the Marlboro Valencia GP is particularly significant for Biaggi, who is fighting for runner-up spot in the MotoGP series, and for Checa, who needs a great result in front of an expectant home crowd.

Season-ending races are always crucial because they take riders into the five-month off-season period, and no-one wants to have a poor last-race result hanging over them all winter. On the other hand, a good result will send a rider into the winter with a smile on his face, ready for the challenges and demands of a busy testing schedule. And this off-season promises to be another busy one, with riders, teams and factories working hard to further develop their bikes for 2003, when the MotoGP grid should be all four-stroke.

The first MotoGP campaign has been a massive success - the booming 200-plus horsepower four-strokes created by Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Aprilia catching the imagination of fans around the globe, with TV viewing figures and spectator attendances up everywhere. And, next year, two more manufacturers join the four-stroke revolution - legendary Italian marque Ducati and nascent Malaysian constructor Proton.

Despite the apparent domination by Honda this season, the Marlboro Yamaha Team is determined to finish 2002 on a high note. The Italian-based squad has had a solid season - kicking off with a podium finish in April's soaking season-opener in Japan, and working tirelessly over the next few races to get the YZR-M1 up to sufficient speed for Biaggi to claiming the bike's first success with pole position at June's Marlboro Catalan GP.

Two months later, the Italian rode the M1 to another pole and to its first race victory in the Czech Republic, securing a third pole position at Rio and another brilliant victory in last month's Malaysian GP. Checa has also taken the M1 to pole position, at September's Marlboro Portuguese GP, and to four podium finishes.

Those have been the highlights of an enthralling season, but there have, of course, also been low points, including the most recent GP in Australia, where both Biaggi and Checa struggled to get their M1s working to full effect. However, MYT director Davide Brivio is confident the team can bounce back from that difficult weekend.

"Valencia is a big race for us," he said, "It's another home-country race for Carlos, and is Max's last race with us, so we hope to achieve second place in the championship for him. There are so many reasons for us to do well here and, hopefully, we will be back to our normal performance level after a difficult time in Australia.

"We didn't have the best preseason tests at Valencia, but the bike has come a long way since then. We didn't have a great test at Estoril either, but we got pole there and took second in the race.

"This Sunday is also the last race of Yamaha's first season of four-stroke technology in GPs. During the year, we've done a lot to improve the performance of the M1. We had some tough tests and early races, when we weren't competitive enough to fight to win, but since then our engineers and crew have put in so much effort, and the riders also, because they've had to test many new parts at almost every race. I think we've done a good job, we've won two races, scored four pole positions, and over the last few months we've pretty much always been fighting up front.

"I think the four-stroke regulations have changed the way the factories approach racing. Four-stroke technology has opened up a whole new world of possibility, while the two-strokes had run into a bit of wall as far as development goes. It seems like all the factories want to get into this new class, because it's good for developing new technology. We're at the start of a new era, with more factories and more technology coming in. What we've done this year is just the beginning."

It is possible that no-one in the MotoGP paddock has worked harder this year than Ichiro Yoda, the unassuming project leader for the YZR-M1, who has jetted back to Japan between most of the year's 16 races, returning on each occasion with new parts or know-how for the M1.

"We returned to the factory from Australia to analyse the problems we had there, and what we learned should help us for the future," Yoda-san said, "Valencia is a very different kind of racetrack from Phillip Island. It's very slow and very tight, so you need easy handling, quick turning and smooth power delivery. What we need to improve is front-end traction coming out of the turns, as I think that was our problem in Australia. Other than that, we'll do the usual work on suspension to give us the best-possible spring balance."



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