Biaggi bumps his way to the front

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Donington Park, beautifully set in the rolling Derbyshire hills, could not be more English. Though it would be if you could escape from a substantial army of noisy Italians who this weekend have arrived for the British Grand Prix to give their full-throated, flag-waving support to their countrymen Valentino Rossi, Max Biaggi and Loris Capirossi, who currently hold the top three places in the world championship. The enormously popular Rossi starts today's race as only the 11th fastest qualifier but no one would bet against him winning.

Rossi can count himself fortunate to be racing at all today. In Friday's practice he came off his Honda at around 130mph, and but for the wide expanses of grass at Donington, would almost certainly have been seriously hurt. As it was he wrote off his £160,000 bike but with typical resilience finished the session on a spare machine. Capirossi also crashed and he, too, was unhurt, returning to record some impressively fast times. Yesterday, even before the rain arrived, Biaggi also tumbled. He was unhurt but reminded of the circuit's bumps, which can catch out even the most confident of riders. Nevertheless, he starts today in pole position.

Together with Biaggi on the front row will be Capirossi (Honda), the Brazilian Alex Barros (Honda) and the Japanese rider Shinya Nakano (Yamaha), who unlike the others improved on his best time of Friday in spite of some running water on the track yesterday. Rossi made one last-minute attempt to improve his position but got caught up in traffic.

The rivalry between the extrovert 22-year-old Rossi and the older, more calculating Biaggi has been so intense this season that after the recent Spanish round they got off their bikes and knocked each other about with such venom that the authorities had to warn them that any recurrence would lead to a one-race suspension. The threat kept them apart in last week's Dutch Grand Prix – off the bikes that is. On them they could not have been closer. Biaggi closed the points gap on Rossi to 21 but it was a rain-reduced and, perhaps, misleading race.

Biaggi, four times a world champion in the 250cc class, says he has "never ridden better than this summer'', but the point is that Rossi has a huge incentive. Should he become world champion he will be the first rider since Britain's Phil Read in the 1970s to have had a full set of titles from the 125cc, 250cc and 500cc classes.

His thousands of home-based, fanatical supporters are so obsessed with the possibility that Rossi himself has had to escape them and now calls Knightsbridge his "home''. He explained: "It was as bad as being a footballer. In Italy I had fans coming up to me all the time. They were knocking at my door any time they liked. In London most people don't recognise me – except a lot of Italians.''

Rossi has an unsettling affect on Biaggi. "I smell the trouble when he comes near, but we shook hands after the race in Spain,'' Biaggi said.

British interest in the 500cc race today will be centred on the Honda rider Chris Walker, who qualified in 14th place in 1min 33.501sec compared with Biaggi's 1min 31.964sec. Like Rossi, he, too, had recently experienced a 130mph crash but in his case he had landed on his head at the Dutch Grand Prix in Assen and was unconscious for some 20 minutes. After a night in hospital he returned home but admitted yesterday that the concussion was still leaving him feeling as if he had a bad hangover. Reluctantly, doctors have given him permission to race. He was determined to do so whether they had or not.

There is real hope of a home victory in the 250cc class, since only a week ago, after 13 years of trying, the 37-year-old Jeremy McWilliams, riding an Aprilia, won a Grand Prix. It was his 119th attempt. He admitted: "There have often been times when I've asked myself what I'm doing trying to make a living in this sport, but until the last couple of years I've never had the machinery to do the job properly.''

As an Ulsterman he particularly wants to do well in memory of Joey Dunlop who was killed a year ago. McWilliams starts on the second row of the grid less than a second slower than Tetsuya Harada, of Japan, who recorded a record 1min 33.651sec.