Motorcycling: Toseland takes on the kids in pursuit of place in MotoGP

Britain's best rider needs to impress in tomorrow's races at Brands Hatch. As he tells Gary James, his target is not just the title in World Superbikes
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The Independent Online

The fashion this year in MotoGP is for elfin 20-year-olds. Chuck 'em in the saddle of a 990cc motorcycle, and the skinny little kids will wind it up to 200 miles an hour faster than older, bigger riders with more body muscle and broader shoulders.

Dani Pedrosa, the eight-stone Spaniard, and Casey Stoner, the nine-stone Australian, have adapted fast to their five-cylinder Honda four-strokes after switching from nervous 250cc two-strokes. Pedrosa is an incredible second in the MotoGP championship in his debut season after scoring two wins and two poles, and Stoner holds sixth , with a pole and a podium position already on his CV.

So why is there talk of Britain's top superbike rider James Toseland, an unhip 25 years of age and a muscle-packed 11 stone, switching to MotoGP next year?

"This country and Dorna [the MotoGP organisers] want a successful British rider in there," Toseland claims. "There hasn't been one since Barry Sheene 25 years ago. But if I do get the chance to move, it will only be with a competitive bike and a really good team."

His manager, the former grand prix rider Roger Burnett, says: "There's no reason why James couldn't do well in MotoGP. I think he's reached a level of maturity that will allow him to take on the challenge, whereas a year ago he probably didn't have the right mental make-up to do it."

So Burnett continues to probe for openings for his protégé in MotoGP, while Toseland's thoughts are focused on showcasing his talents at tomorrow's British round of the World Superbike Championship at Brands Hatch.

After losing his superbike crown and a factory Xerox Ducati ride last year, Toseland has bounced back impressively this season. He has adapted swiftly - now there's a similarity with Pedrosa - to a new bike and a new team, the 1,000cc Honda Fireblade fielded by the ingenious Ten Kate squad.

Toseland holds third place in the points table, but the series leader, Troy Bayliss, the 37-year-old Australian who inherited his Ducati seat, is 74 points ahead and has racked up seven wins to Toseland's one.

"But there are 10 races to go and there's 250 points up for grabs, " Toseland said. "In the British Superbike Championship earlier this year [Ryuichi] Kiyonari was 70-something points behind, but now he's 14 ahead."

And consider this: Bayliss carries painful memories of the 2002 season, when the World Superbike Championship slipped from under his wheels at a moment when it seemed to be his. He led the series by 58 points after winning 14 of the first 17 races on the Ducati. But he did not win another race that year as Honda's Colin Edwards stole the last nine events and the title.

So Toseland is right to be upbeat: racing is so unpredictable. "One or two more weekends like Bayliss had in the last round at Brno, and the championship could be wide open," he says. The Australian suffered a crash on the first corner of the opening race in the Czech Republic, and came eighth in the second with tyre problems. Toseland closed the points gap by scoring second and fifth places.

Superbikes are based closely on the road-going bikes that you can wheel from a dealer's showroom. You can buy a Fireblade for less than £9,000, whereas the equivalent of an FO6 in Ducati's street-bike range is the £19,995. It is an indication that the FO6 is probably the closest thing to grand prix philosophy on the superbike grid.

It also has traction control, the electronic aid that does some of the thinking for a rider. Whack open the throttle too crudely, and the system could save you from tumbling across the track by preventing some of the power from overwhelming the rear tyre.

Toseland has to do it the man's way on his Honda, sensing through his hands, his backside and his feet how much of the Fireblade's 220- horsepower to use. But he remains unfazed by this apparent disadvantage.

"The lack of traction control was the main thing I had to get used to when I switched to the Honda," he says. "You don't have to worry so much about throttle control when you've got it. But now I've got used to living without it."

Toseland desperately wants to reward his British fans - and flag his talents to Honda and other manufacturers - when he competes in today's Superpole contest to decide the grid, and in tomorrow's two races on Brands' 2.62-mile circuit.

"I've had two shockers at Brands in the last two years, with two breakdowns, so now we're due for a good one," he said.

As well as Bayliss, Toseland must contend with the fearless Japanese rider Noriyuki Haga, who holds second place in the table one point ahead of him on Yamaha Italy's R1, and the reigning champion, Troy Corser, who has slumped to fourth place on his Suzuki GSX-R1000.

So for a mountain of reasons - this year's title and next year's possibilities, as well as the home fans' expectations - Toseland is hoping for his best-ever day at Brands tomorrow.

Super showmen Three to thrill at Brands Hatch

* TOMMY HILL, age 21 Virgin Mobile Yamaha

Grabbed pole in his first World Superbike race at Silverstone in May when rain confused experienced contenders. Would be happy with top-12 finishes.

* CHRIS WALKER, 34 PSG-1 Kawasaki

Only 11th in the championship, but "The Stalker" and his Italian team want results to attract factory Kawasaki backing in 2007. Big favourite with the Brands crowd.

* NORIYUKI HAGA, 31 Yamaha Italy

Sideways, inside, outside, anywhere - the fearless Haga is lying second in the championship and will use any slot to get past on the fast-improving Yamaha.