Rossi responds to keep Ducati duo at bay

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The Ducati riders Troy Bayliss and Loris Capirossi maintained their pressure on the world champions Honda in practice for the British round of the MotoGP series at Donington Park yesterday, but it was the Japanese manufacturer's favourite son, Valentino Rossi, who claimed the provisional pole position.

Rossi, the 24-year-old reigning world champion, headed the times for most of the one-hour session. Bayliss crashed twice during the day, but with less than two minutes to go in the final period he found a 1min 31.278sec lap in the four-cylinder Ducati and bounced ahead of Rossi. The Italian responded with 1:31.196 which no one was able to counter.

"They were not so much crashes as low-speed ballet," Bayliss said, dismissing his get-offs. "Both times the bike slid and nearly picked itself up, but not quite. Overall it feels good and we have a base setting which is pretty effective everywhere." After the session he received treatment for damaged muscles in his left shoulder, but the injury will not prevent him from riding in today's final qualifying for pole position.

Sete Gibernau, the 30-year-old Spaniard who holds second place in the championship only 38 points behind Rossi, finished third fastest, just a third of a second slower. His countryman, Carlos Checa, was the only intruder to disrupt the Honda-Ducati power balance, placing his Yamaha fourth best, ahead of Capirossi. The latter was not unduly worried: he rode on race tyres instead of qualifiers.

The varied make-up of the provisional grid - American Colin Edwards was eighth fastest on the three-cylinder Aprilia - reflects the vibrant phenomenon that MotoGP has become since the sport reinvented itself two years ago. From 1975 to 2001 it was dominated by 500cc two-strokes: to many fans, they had all the aural appeal of a yapping terrier.

The rules were recast last year to welcome 990cc four-strokes - and the noise, speed and spectacle of the new bikes have brought crowds flocking. Attendance at the British GP at Donington sank to a pitiful 18,000 as recently as 2000. Tomorrow a sell-out 60,000 is expected at the 2.5-mile circuit, bringing the weekend total to around 93,000. In motorcycle-crazy Spain, which is granted two GPs per season, 203,000 turned up at Jerez, and 215,000 at Barcelona last year.

"The public didn't understand what the two-strokes were, because they had no connection with motorcycles on sale in showrooms," said Nick Harris, the spokesman for the MotoGP series. "You can't buy a replica of a MotoGP machine, but at least they are four-strokes like all the big road bikes.

"Another factor is Valentino Rossi, who is the best world champion that motorcycle racing has ever had. His performances on and off the track have earned him legions of fans all over the world."

More than 320 million spectators in more than 200 countries are said to watch same-day televised coverage of MotoGP races. They are rewarded by the sight of riders battling to tame bikes with car-sized engines that put 220 horsepower through a patch of rubber the size of a credit card.

Riders have no rear-view mirrors or radio contact to alert them of pursuing rivals, and overtaking is done mano a mano on the track and not by means of slick pit-stops.

British Grand Prix (Donington Park) Leading MotoGP positions (after first qualifying): 1 V Rossi (It) Honda 1min 31.196sec; 2 T Bayliss (Aus) Ducati 1:31.278; 3 S Gibernau (Sp) Honda 1:31.527; 4 C Checa (Sp) Yamaha 1:31.562; 5 L Capirossi (It) Ducati 1:31.583; 6 O Jacque (Fr) Yamaha 1:31.655; 7 T Ukawa (Japan) Honda 1:31.711; 7 C Edwards (US) Aprilia 1:31.820; 8 M Biaggi (It) Honda 1:31.861; 9 A Barros (Br) Yamaha 1:32.039; 10 N Haga (Japan) Aprilia 1:32.175; 11 N Hayden (US) Honda 1:32.199; 12 M Melandri (It) Yamaha 1:32.283; 13 S Nakano (Japan) Yamaha 1:32.483; 14 J Hopkins (US) Suzuki 1:32.798; 15 Y Kagayama (Japan) Suzuki 1:32.859; 16 M Tamada (Japan) Honda 1:33.338; 17 J McWilliams (GB) Proton KR 1:33.386; 18 A Pitt (Aus) Kawasaki 1:34.028; 19 R Kiyonari (Japan) Honda 1:34.220; 20 G McCoy (Aus) Kawasaki 1:34.451; 21 N Aoki (Japan) Proton KR 1:35.203; 22 C Burns (GB) Yamaha 1:35.221; 23 D De Gea (Sp) Sabre 1:36.851.