Toseland faces power struggle in the battle for world domination

Chasing pack will be hard on the wheels of Britain's superbike champion in Qatar today, writes Gary James

James Toseland talks a dependable company line, but Britain's World Superbike champion knows the pack is fast closing in on him. "I've got the best bike and the best team on the grid, so I can know I can do it again," says Toseland, who became the youngest superbike champion when he won the title last year at the age of 23.

The trouble is that Toseland's Xerox Ducati has only two cylinders. And in 2005, the Italian maker's V-twin engine may start to look a little out of breath in the face of a new wave of bikes from Japanese manufacturers Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha.

They are fielding four-cylinder machines with creamier all-round power - and more of it at the vital top end of the rev range. Four, it seems, could be this season's magic number in superbike racing.

Suzuki's Troy Corser, 33, who was second in yesterday's Superpole qualifying session in Dubai for today's first of 12 rounds and 24 races in the superbike calendar. Watch, too, for Chris Vermeulen, the 22-year-old Australian phenomenon on the 200mph Honda of the Netherlands' hard-partying Ten Kate team. Britain's Chris Walker could celebrate his 32nd birthday by winning a front-row position on a Kawasaki.

Toseland is very aware of the challenge, and is not panicking. "The anxiety I felt about whether I would ever win the world championship has gone, because I've done it," he said at the Losail circuit this week.

"Ducati have done a lot of work on the new bike. It has new forks, which improve stability under braking and under acceleration. They've moved the electrics from the front of the bike to behind the forks, and a new fuel tank stores the gas under the seat, to get the weight further back. The whole bike is more balanced."

The factory's technicians have also squeezed another five horsepower from the Testastretta engine, so Toseland and his French team-mate, Regis Laconi, have 194-horsepower motorcycles capable of 194mph in the battle against the Japanese.

"Last year we were a little complacent and didn't make many changes to the bike, probably because the opposition was not strong," Ducati's spokesman, Julian Thomas, said. "But this we've given it a real rethink. Right from the start of testing the riders have said that the bike is much better."

Last year Ducati culled 55 podium positions, 18 race wins and nine pole positions from their 12 factory and private bikes in World Superbike competition. Honda were the only other manufacturer to win races, with four victories.

But some of the private teams have fled to the cheaper-to-run Japanese metal, leaving just seven Ducatis on this year's 30-strong grid. The Japanese factories deserted the superbike series last year in a tiff over rule changes, but have flocked back because there is no other world platform that allows them to showcase racing machines based closely on their showroom products.

Yamaha fill a third of the grid with 10 YZF R1s. Honda field five bikes and Kawasaki four. Suzuki have only two machines, but they are run by Belgium's highly experienced Alstare operation.

Walker has joined the Italian PSG team on a Kawasaki, and finished seventh fastest in the series' final pre-season tests at Losail. "The bike's power is fantastic, and the chassis uses lots of ideas from Kawasaki's MotoGP bike," he said. "We've found another 30 horsepower since I first rode the bike in December, and there's another 10 to come. I've qualified on the front row and I've had rostrum positions in world superbike racing, but I'm still waiting for that elusive win. This season could be it."

How wonderful if it happened in Walker's 100th World Superbike race at the British round at Brands Hatch, his favourite circuit, in August.

Any of five manufacturers could win superbike races in one of the most competitive seasons in the series' 18-year history, but sadly, Carl Fogarty's British-built Petronas FP1 is unlikely to be one of them.

During the winter the team coaxed 190 horsepower from its quirky three-cylinder engine, but in Thursday's provisional qualifying the Australian riders Steve Martin and Garry McCoy could only finish 20th and 25th fastest, some three seconds off the pace of the Suzukis.

Toseland's biggest task will be to keep ahead of the yellow and blue four-cylinder screamers. "I think I can win the title again," he said. "In this game confidence is half the battle, and I'm feeling very confident."

Yes, he has to say it, but it is justified. In 17 years of world superbike competition Ducati have won 11 riders' and 13 manufacturers' titles. They may not have the most powerful bike, but their vast racing experience could help Toseland to hang on.

Yesterday's qualifying did not go well for the champion when he could make only the fourth row after finishing in 13th position for today's race.

Toseland was 1.76sec slower than team-mate Laconi, who took pole. The 29-year-old Frenchman lapped the 3.35-mile circuit less than five-hundredths of a second faster than the former champion Corser on his Suzuki. Other Japanese bikes filled the next 10 places, underlining the new challenge.

Supercharged leading teams in race for world crown

Alstare Suzuki

Bike: 1,000cc GSX-R1000 four-cylinder.

Riders: Troy Corser, 33 (Australia), Yukio Kagayama, 30 (Japan).

Form: Fastest team in final testing; 1996 champion Corser could win the title again.

Xerox Ducati

Bike: 1000cc F05 Testastretta V-twin.

Riders: James Toseland, 24 (GB), Regis Laconi, 29 (France).

Form: Toseland has learnt from an inconsistent 2004 season, and has the speed and mental strength to retain his title.

Ten Kate Honda

Bike: 1,000cc CBR1000RR four-cylinder.

Riders: Chris Vermeulen, 22 (Australia), Karl Muggeridge, 30 (Australia).

Form: Vermeulen won four races last year in his superbike debut, and may be Toseland's biggest championship threat.

Race Dates

Today: Losail, Qatar

3 April: Phillip Island, Australia

24 April: Valencia

8 May: Monza

29 May: Silverstone

26 June: Misano, San Marino

17 July: Brno, Cz Rep

7 August: Brands Hatch

4 Sept: Assen, Neths

11 Sept: Lausitzring, Ger

2 October: Imola, Italy

9 October: Magny-Cours, Fr

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