Taunts inflame Toseland's desire to be world No 1

After a disastrous defence of his World Superbike crown, Britain's top rider has swapped Ducati for Honda and is determined to blow everyone away. By Gary James

At just 25, James Toseland knows far more about pain than is right for a young man of his age. He learnt about the physical kind six years ago when he crashed and broke his thigh, an injury so agonising that at times he wanted to shoot himself to end the torment.

Now he also has an intimate relationship with emotional pain - the kind that comes when you win your first world championship, only to have it ripped away the next season by a faster, better prepared rival. But perhaps even harder to bear are the barbs of sports fans when they turn on you.

Toseland became the youngest World Superbike champion when he won the 2004 title for the Ducati Xerox team. But he had a bad season last year and slumped to fourth in the table. At mid-season a Motor Cycle News reader dismissed the Yorkshireman as no better than riders competing in the second tier British Superbike series. The taunt still jars with Toseland - even though he has since found a new team and a new bike, and is a serious contender in this year's world title battle, which starts in Qatar tomorrow.

"I would like to invite whoever wrote that, or whoever thinks badly about my performances or my commitment, to the Isle of Man to do my training regime to get myself prepared to win a world championship for myself, for my family, and for this country," Toseland seethes.

You can feel the hurt as we sip coffee at London City Airport shortly before he flies to Qatar.

"It makes me laugh," he continues, when clearly it does not. "It's our own people, the British people, saying this about a British competitor. They're sat at home, they've turned the computer on and they've typed a letter about someone they've never met, and criticised them like it's one of their worst enemies. I don't understand the mentality of that kind of person and I never will.

"It's sacrifice and dedication that you need in this sport. We put our life on the line every weekend to fulfil our dreams. "

Clearly top sports personalities - even if they are in an income bracket that prompts them to move to an offshore tax haven - are as sensitive as the rest of us.

But this roller-coaster of experiences, rather than cowing Toseland, appears to have toughened him. "I want to get that trophy back in the UK," he says.

"It's bugged me losing my No 1 plate. But it hasn't done me any harm, because I want it back. I get more determined every year, and I feel really up for the 2006 season."

Toseland has signed to ride a 1,000cc Honda Fireblade for the Dutch Ten Kate team, a group of inventive engineers who build the world's fastest superbikes. Their Fireblade finished second last year in the hands of Australian Chris Vermeulen, who has now won promotion to Suzuki's MotoGP team.

In pre-season testing, Toseland had to adjust to a four-cylinder bike after riding twin-cylinder machines for the past six years, the last five of them on a Ducati.

The biggest difference in riding the two bikes is that the factory Ducati has a traction control system: the rider can open the throttle fiercely, but sophisticated electronics prevent the rear wheel from spinning out of control. Traction control has not yet filtered down to the privately run Ten Kate operation, however.

"I got very dependent on it," Toseland admits. "It was predictable and safe. The electronics controlled little slides and moments, and it was a lot less to think about.

"Now it's all back to the right wrist and controlling the bike through your body and your own feel for the grip. It's not necessarily a bad thing: we can still do the times."

Competition in this year's championship will be fiercer than for many years, bolstered by the arrival of the MotoGP refugees Troy Bayliss and Alex Barros. Bayliss has been impressive in testing for Ducati, for whom the Australian won the superbike title in 2001, and the Spanish rider Barros, 35, a veteran of 251 grands prix, will handle a Honda for Switzerland's Klaffi team.

But the biggest danger remains the reigning champion, the Australian Troy Corser, who again competes on the Suzuki GSX-R1000 of Belgium's Alstare Corona squad.

Nottingham's Chris Walker could also compete for podium positions on a Kawasaki, and his 21-year-old fellow Briton Craig Jones, makes his World Superbike debut with Carl Fogarty's Foggy-Petronas team.

This is the biggest season of Toseland's career and if he can get into the top three by the season's end he will have proved he deserves a chance with the big boys in MotoGP. Maybe such a performance would open doors to greater things with Honda, who field no less than six bikes on the MotoGP grid.

The Big Three in this year's WSB

Troy Corser AUSTRALIA, AGE 34, ALSTARE SUZUKI

226 WSB races, 31 wins, 97 podiums, 34 pole positions, two world titles - no current rider can match this Aussie's pedigree

Troy Bayliss AUSTRALIA, AGE 36, DUCATI XEROX

Hungry for success after a three-year victory drought in MotoGP. Ducati seem remotivated after their drubbing by Suzuki last year

Noriyuki Haga JAPAN, AGE 30, YAMAHA ITALY

Fearless and fast crowd favourite, who has twice finished second in the WSB. Could bring bike giants Yamaha their first WSB title

WSB dates

Tomorrow: Losail, Qatar

Mar 5: Phillip Island, Aus

April 23: Valencia

May 7: Monza, Italy

May 28: Silverstone

June 25: Misano, Italy

July 23: Brno, Cz Rep

Aug 6: Brands Hatch

Sept 3: Assen, Neth

Sept 10: Lausitzring, Ger

Oct 1: Imola, Italy

Oct 8: Magny-Cours, Fr

Oct 22: TBA, South Africa

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