Motorcycling: Piano-man Toseland out to end 27 years of British blues

Barry Sheene was the last home rider to win a grand prix, but that could all change at Donington tomorrow, writes Gary James
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England expects, and so too does James Toseland. "Getting on the podium is not a massive leap compared to what I've been doing so far," Toseland said yesterday as he reflected on his chances of finishing in the top three in tomorrow's British MotoGP here.

"I have a bike that's capable of being there, so it's all down to me. The challenge is do-able," he added.

If the 27-year-old Yorkshireman achieves his ambition in the 30-lap, 75-mile race on Donington's rolling slopes, it will be the first time in eight years that a British rider has climbed the rostrum at the British grand prix, such has been the tattered status of our motorcycling fortunes.

You have to go back even further for a victory. It is 27 years since the late Barry Sheene became the last Briton to win a MotoGP event – then open to 500cc machines – in 1981, while Tom Herron was the last Briton to win a 500cc world championship event on British soil at the Isle of Man TT in 1976.

The 80,000 fans who will pack into the green amphitheatre will swarm over the fences like Valentino Rossi's followers in Italy – who says that Brits can't do Latin passion? – if Toseland brings his Tech 3 Yamaha into third place, or higher.

You would think that trying to beat MotoGP legend Rossi – who has won a record seven grands prix on this circuit – would be enough of a task. But Toseland, fit as a Yorkshire terrier, played a gig with his rock band Crash in Chesterfield on Wednesday night, laid on three more gigs at the Riders for Health charity day at Donington yesterday, and will play the piano in a final session for fans at the track tonight.

"I've learnt that as long as I stop at 9.30pm, doing a one-hour gig on the evening of a race meeting doesn't take anything away from my concentration on the track," he said. "I get a big adrenalin rush from it, but the early finish gives me time to come down."

In March, most observers figured that Toseland would be lucky to get into the top 10 in his debut year in MotoGP, motorcycling's equivalent of Formula One, even though he entered the series as a double world superbike champion.

But he holds seventh place in the points table after only seven rounds – way beyond what anyone could have forecast – after a series of results that have prompted Yamaha to lock him into a two-year deal. In Toseland, they know they have something hot.

"I've had four sixth places, and I qualified second fastest and got on the front row of the grid in the first round in Qatar," he said.

"I've been breaking the trend of British riders. They've come in and failed for a long time. But I didn't want to be another one like that. I wouldn't have been happy finishing 12th every week and banging my head against the wall."

Toseland's results are all the more remarkable in that he has had to learn tracks on which he has never raced before. He memorises corners by watching videos of last year's races, and then jogs round the circuit for two or three laps on the Thursday evening before practice starts the next day.

"Walking the track is too slow for me, but running gives me just the right amount of time to memorise the way the corners go," he said.

But that hardly makes up for the dozen years that the 29-year-old Rossi, who is leading this year's championship, has been skimming round classic venues such as Mugello in Italy, Barcelona and Estoril in Portugal.

This weekend, however, Toseland is on home ground – he won at Donington last year in his final season with world superbikes – and was able to focus on setting up the 800cc four-cylinder Yamaha in the first practice session yesterday instead of trying to figure out the apex points for the 140mph downhill swoop through the Craner Curves.

The results showed – he was eighth fastest after the first hour, instead of being around 12th quickest, which is his usual performance at a brand new venue.

In his seven turbulent races in MotoGP, Toseland has already booted out several hoary maxims – that the sport has a two-year apprenticeship curve; that superbike riders can't make the transition; that a rookie has to be a 20-year-old transplant from the 250cc grand prix class.

Maybe next season, tooled up with total circuit knowledge and more self-confidence, he could also think seriously about winning a grand prix. Now those same pundits – myself included – who thought that Toseland would do well to cop a solitary top-10 finish in the first half of this year are also starting to wonder: could this guy actually win the MotoGP world championship? Sheene again was the last man to do that for Britain, 31 years ago in 1977.

It is a serious question: think about Toseland's astonishing capacity to learn and adapt, and imagine how he might be riding, say, three years from now. In an increasingly youth-obsessed sport, "JT" could become the first rider since Phil Read – another Brit – in 1973 to win his first MotoGP title at the age of 30 or more.

Boy racers The British teenagers hooked on speed. By Gary James

As well as James Toseland, three teenaged riders are leading Britain's biking revival in MotoGP's 125cc class, the category that breeds tomorrow's Valentino Rossi. The trio – led by the 17-year-old Bradley Smith, who is now in his third year of grand prix racing – handle one-cylinder two-strokes with razor-sharp handling and a 145mph top speed. All are determined to put on a show in front of a British audience.


Age: 17. From: Oxford

Poised to become the first British rider in 35 years to win a 125cc grand prix after scoring three pole positions and two podium positions on his Polaris World Aprilia. Has crashed too often and is on crutches here. Tough, resilient and cheerful, but may be a little restrained this weekend. Was 12th in practice yesterday.


Age: 15. From: Quedgeley, Gloucs

Extraordinary talent who qualified for the front row in his first grand prix in Qatar this year and finished fifth in the race. Has since scored a further top-six finish for the Bluesens Aprilia Junior squad, and is already being monitored by teams seeking tomorrow's top grand prix riders. With luck, could achieve a top 10 placing here. Fourth yesterday.


Age: 17. From: Tunbridge Wells

Signed by the Dutch Degraaf team, Webb rewarded them by finishing sixth in the opening round of the year at Qatar. Has followed this up with another top-six finish. Now in his second year of racing, he looks poised to settle into a permanent grand prix career. Another top 10 possibility from a massive swarm of nearly 40 starters. 14th yesterday.