Capirossi dream team ready to challenge the champion

Loris Capirossi has won only one MotoGP race this year, and trails in fourth place in the world championship table after seven of the 16 rounds.

But there's something about a roguish Italian male riding a flame-red Italian motorcycle at 200mph that turns the crowds wild. So the 93,000 fans expected here this weekend for the British Grand Prix will probably be cheering for Capirossi and his Ducati, rather than championship leader Valentino Rossi and his Japanese Honda.

Rossi, 24, is that rare phenomenon - a world class sportsman who has no downside. He drifts his five-cylinder Honda sideways at 150mph like a speedway rider on a 50mph dirt-track, he displays a wicked sense of humour, and he shows grace in defeat.

If there is a problem, it is that Rossi is motorcycling's top gun, the dominant figure who rides the best bike made by the world's biggest manufacturer.

Capirossi stands 5ft 5in tall, and at 9st 4lb is less than half as heavy as his 990cc, four-cylinder Ducati charger. Ducati has yet to win the MotoGP title; Honda has dominated it since 1985 with 11 victories. Therefore, the Capirossi/Ducati combo is the underdog package - and how the British love to see the underprivileged toppling the establishment (in sport at least).

"The project and the bike are new, and we just wanted to gain experience this year," Capirossi said yesterday. "But at the start of the season we see that the bike is strong, and now we have the chance to win races."

Capirossi put Ducati's Desmosedici (16-valve desmo, for the techno-freaks) on pole position in only its third race - astounding progress in a sport in which a new bike often needs a season of development to become competitive. Then he gave the bike its first victory after only six rounds, when he defeated Rossi in Catalunya.

Capirossi also achieved the fastest speed recorded in motorcycle racing when he hit a breathtaking 207mph on the long straight at the Barcelona circuit. This is quicker than even Michael Schumacher has gone during tests on the same circuit in his Formula One Ferrari. It was a mind-blowing breakthrough - an accident at this speed would dash the rider on to the tarmac at around 300- feet-per-second. So are things getting out of hand in MotoGP racing, with car-sized engines pushing out more than 220 horsepower? Capirossi dismisses the question. "No, it's not too fast," he exclaims. "The performance is good - no problem."

The 30-year-old makes his wrestling contest with the Ducati seem no more hazardous than piloting a wayward supermarket trolley. The bike has so much power that it can spin its rear tyre on the exit from almost any corner.

"Yes, it's so funny," he laughs. "I like so much that with the Ducati it's so easy to do this." In order to tame the raging red beast for the 75-mile duration of a MotoGP race, Capirossi has had to increase his fitness regime. He now spends hours in the gym, and cycles and swims in order to build up his legs, arms and shoulders.

"The bike, for sure, is so big for me," he concedes. "But I don't care: I try to do my best all the time, and with the proper training, no problem."

He has always been a precocious performer on two wheels. At the age of five he started riding a motocross bike near his home in the hills two hours north of Ducati's headquarters at Bologna. At 14 he turned to road racing, and three years later he won his first world title, on a 125cc Honda. It made him motorcycling's youngest world champion.

Like all of the great motorcycling heroes, Capirossi rides through pain barriers that would keep a normal human off work for weeks. In the Netherlands in 2000 he scored his first pole position in the 500cc class, but crashed in the warm-up session on the morning of the race and broke bones in his left hand. With the aid of pain-killing medication he made it to the grid - and to the podium after he had wrestled his bike to third place.

Capirossi says that the Ducati is currently performing at only 85 per cent of its potential. When the factory has civilised the engine's throttle response and refined the bike's handling, he will be ready to challenge not just for race wins, but for the world championship.

"I am Italian and Ducati is Italian," he stresses. "We are the dream team."

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