Motorcycling: Byrne hails potential of new bike

MotoGP underdog Proton-KR aims to topple might of Honda and Yamaha. Gary Jamesreports

The British underdog Shane Byrne and the American maverick Kenny Roberts will today join forces to begin an audacious campaign to try to rock the wealthy establishment in motorcycle racing.

The British underdog Shane Byrne and the American maverick Kenny Roberts will today join forces to begin an audacious campaign to try to rock the wealthy establishment in motorcycle racing.

The 28-year-old Byrne will debut Roberts's new Proton KR-KTM bike in qualifying for the first round of the MotoGP world championship in Jerez.

Roberts, the 53-year-old three-times world champion, would like to see Byrne gain a midfield grid position for tomorrow's 27-lap race, the first of 17 rounds in motorcycling's equivalent of Formula One.

Everything is stacked against them: their funding is tiny, they have only one bike against Honda's seven and Yamaha's four, and they've done minimal testing. But hope springs eternal in motorcycle racing, one of the last refuges for the mad and the bold in a world increasingly ruled by budgets.

"This project has amazing potential," Byrne said yesterday. "The bike's got the smoothest engine you could ask for: I feel like I could ride it to the shops. We've done only a quarter of the testing that other teams have had, but I hope that by the end of the year we'll be getting into the top 10."

"We watched Shane when he won the British Superbike Championship in 2003," said Chuck Aksland, Team Roberts' general manager. "The kid definitely has good skills. If we can get him confident, who knows what he might be capable of.

"We've got probably the most advanced engine in MotoGP. Now we just need track time to develop its potential. We're not interested in the 11th to 15th positions - we want to get into the top places."

The engine that inspires so much hope in Team Roberts is a 990cc V4 made by the Austrian dirt-bike specialists KTM. It is housed in a chassis created by the former Ferrari and McLaren Formula One designer John Barnard, and made at Roberts's factory in Banbury, Oxfordshire.

After winning three consecutive 500cc world titles as a rider in 1978-80, Roberts took four more world titles as a team owner in the 1990s, leasing bikes from Yamaha.

But then he became bored with the "rent-a-racer" concept, and in 1997 launched his own motorcycle with the aim of beating the Japanese companies. Nine years later he's still trying, although his bikes have yet to win a single race.

"We're the only independent maker in MotoGP", Aksland claims. "It would be a shame for Britain if we had to stop, because we have the only British-made motorcycle on the grid."

The fans love Team Roberts' giant-killing attempts, but the reality is that this year's MotoGP title will again be disputed by Yamaha's Valentino Rossi and Honda's army of riders, who fill a third of the grid.

Honda are making frantic efforts to stop the Italian Rossi from winning his seventh world title. They have signed the veteran Australian Troy Bayliss and future hope Marco Melandri, 22, and promoted four-times 250cc champion Max Biaggi into the factory Repsol squad to partner American Nicky Hayden.

Honda began testing their 2005 machines much earlier this season, and Hayden, Melandri and the Spaniard Sete Gibernau have performed well.

There's going to be a Honda on the track everywhere you look in MotoGP this year (imagine Ferrari fielding seven cars in an attempt to block Renault's Fernando Alonso in Formula One), but many experts reckon that the bike in front will usually be Rossi's Yamaha.

In yesterday's opening practice sessions Gibernau continued his domination, but was only 0.086 seconds faster than Rossi. Byrne finished 19th fastest, 3.76 seconds off the pace. "It doesn't matter how good Honda's bike is, they're trying to beat Rossi, and that seems impossible at the moment," said the former MotoGP rider Jeremy McWilliams.

"I think Rossi will win it again," reigning British Superbike champion John Reynolds predicts. "My dark-horse tip is John Hopkins on the Suzuki."

Suzuki's fortunes have changed dramatically during the winter, under the new team manager Paul Denning, 38, who guided Reynolds to his 2004 superbike title. Hopkins, a 21-year-old Californian, finished third-fastest in the final pre-season tests at Jerez, and now looks ready to claim his first podium positions.

"The bike revs higher and we've got 10 per cent more power," said Denning, who runs the team from a base in Verwood, Dorset. "Now we want to get the engine and chassis package working so that we can run 27 really good laps like the guys who are winning the races."

This year's MotoGP championship expands from 16 to 17 rounds. China and Turkey will stage their first races, and the series will return to the USA for the first time since 1994. The Rossi phenomenon has boosted attendance at the British round at Donington Park from 18,500 in 2000 to 129,000 last year.

YOUNG GUNS THREE TO WATCH IN MOTOGP THIS YEAR

NICKY HAYDEN (USA, 23)

Repsol Honda RC211V

Only Hayden and the Italian Max Biaggi get Honda's factory Repsol bikes. Expect Hayden to score his first wins this year.

JOHN HOPKINS (USA, 21)

Suzuki GSV-R

Hopkins's blazing talent and self-confidence could be turned into podium positions this year by new British team manager Paul Denning.

MARCO MELANDRI (IT, 22)

Telefonica Honda RC211V

The 250cc world champion in 2002 has suffered two seasons of crashes and surgery, but is finally fit and lapping dangerously fast.

RACE CALENDAR

Tomorrow: Jerez, Sp; 17 April: Estoril, Por; 1 May: Shanghai, Chin; 15 May: Le Mans, Fr; 5 June: Mugello, It; 12 June: Catalunya, Sp; 25 June: Assen, Neth; 10 July: Laguna Seca, US; 24 July: Donington Park, GB; 31 July: Sachsenring, Ger; 28 Aug: Brno, Cz Rep; 18 Sept: Motegi, Japan; 25 Sept: Sepang, Malay; 1 Oct: Losail, Qatar; 16 Oct: Phillip Island, Aus; 23 Oct: Istanbul, Tur; 6 Nov: Valencia, Sp.

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