Toseland firing on all cylinders for new duel with top guns of the track

Britain's superbike champion has left the comfort zone and is instead gearing up to take on the best in MotoGP. Gary James reports on a smooth change of saddle for the new season
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The Independent Online

"You're wrong," the critics told the Frenchman Hervé Poncharal when he signed the 27-year-old British rider James Toseland to join his Yamaha Tech 3 team in MotoGP. "You should have picked a young 20-year-old from the 250cc class."

Toseland, the reigning world superbike champion, admits that he himself had reservations about his move to the MotoGP category, motorcycling's equivalent of Formula One. "To leave superbikes after seven years was a big decision – I was apprehensive about it," he says. "I could have stayed there and won maybe four world championships, like Carl Fogarty."

But during winter testing on his Yamaha YZR-M1 Toseland has vindicated Poncharal's apparently risky selection. In tests on the Jerez circuit in Spain recently Toseland finished among the fastest six riders, out of 22 competitors, in both wet and dry track conditions. Only when the track offered a treacherous wet-dry surface – conditions he had not previously experienced on the Yamaha – did he drop to 12th place in a session.

So, well before the first race of the season next month, Toseland has metamorphosed from a tentative new boy fresh off the softer, plusher superbikes to a hard-edged MotoGP competitor.

"James has got on the bike and done the same time as the top guns of MotoGP," Poncharal declared after the three-day Jerez marathon on the 2.75-mile track. "At his first test James was asking, 'Am I capable of becoming a MotoGP rider?' But today neither he nor I have any doubt. There are four nouveaux venus [newcomers] in the category this year, and James has performed as well as any of them."

Poncharal is an experienced campaigner – the Frenchman Olivier Jacque won the 250cc world championship for him in 2000 – who wanted to recruit a rider with a deeper personality than a feisty youngster fresh out of the 250cc class would bring.

"James is a great star in his sport, but he hasn't got the attitude of a superstar," Poncharal explains. "Of course, a rider's results are important, but human relations are also important within a team. In this respect James is exceptional – he's got a very humble attitude. Roger Burnett [Toseland's manager] said to me that if you need someone to make the tea in the team, James will do it. It's true that he listens to everyone and he respects everyone. He's quick on the track, but it's also a pleasure to socialise with him afterwards."

Toseland's next hurdle in his induction to the MotoGP grid will come in the final winter test on the 3.34-mile Losail track in Qatar today and tomorrow, when riders will assess the 200mph bikes at night before the opening round under floodlights on the same circuit on 9 March. The superbikes on which Britain's top motorcycle racer has built his reputation have a bigger 1,000cc engine than the MotoGP machines, but are based on showroom models and only limited modifications are allowed. A MotoGP bike, however, is like a razor compared to a kitchen knife, and demands vastly more finesse and analytical powers from a rider.

"I didn't realise how quick a motorcycle can be round a track, and how late you can brake with carbon-fibre brakes," Toseland says.

"When I first saw the telemetry readings in the test in Malaysia, my mechanics said, 'You're braking 15 metres earlier than Colin Edwards [his American team-mate who is in his fifth year of MotoGP competition].'

"But now I'm braking at the same place as him. There's still a bit of improvement on braking to come: I'm still figuring out each lap how the bike needs to be ridden."

The four-cylinder engine concealed behind the fairing of his bike looks as innocuous as the motor under the bonnet of a Ford Fiesta. But it delivers 200 horsepower rather than 75, and spins to a frantic 19,000rpm rather than the 6,000rpm of a family car.

"It's more difficult to keep a MotoGP bike in the power band than a superbike," Toseland says. "The power is all at the top end, so you have to keep the corner speed high to keep the revs high. If you make a slight mistake, the engine doesn't cancel it out. A superbike is more forgiving."

There is just so much more for Toseland to learn and adapt to in the MotoGP stratosphere. The Italian company Pirelli supplies all competitors with tyres in the superbike series, but Michelin – whose rubber Tech 3 uses – and Bridgestone slug it out in MotoGP on a white-hot stage.

"With Pirelli it wasn't really a choice," Toseland says. "There was always one front and one rear tyre that stood out from the three or four they offered you. Here, you give a comment to Michelin at the end of the day and by the time you've finished the sentence they've shipped another lot out from France to meet your requests."

In the Tech 3 garage Toseland has six technicians ministering to his desires. Led by the veteran MotoGP crew chief Guy Coulon, they include a telemetry specialist who decodes the readouts from sensors scattered all over the bike, two mechanics, a suspension specialist from the Swedish company Ohlins, and a Michelin rubber guru. Two engineers from Yamaha also attend the briefings. This group listens to Toseland's comments when he walks into the pitbox, and helps him to pare tenths of a second – splinters of time unmeasurable by average humans – from his lap times.

Toseland then has to take the battle to the track, where he faces the world champion, Casey Stoner, only 22, on the Marlboro Ducati; Valentino Rossi, who has amassed seven world titles in his 29 years; the world No 2 Dani Pedrosa, 22; the 250cc world champion Jorge Lorenzo, who is only 20; and the 2006 world champion Nicky Hayden, 26.

Toseland is making the racer's equivalent of a mid-life career change to take on this bunch in his late twenties, so how does he think he will get on? "If I get full support from Yamaha and the team, there's no reason why a 10th place couldn't be sixth the next weekend, and then the podium," he says.

A racer has to develop phenomenal – some would say unrealistic – levels of self-belief about his potential. Paradoxically, if he does not nurture those beliefs he will never get to the top anyway. Britain has not had a world champion in MotoGP since the late Barry Sheene won the 500cc category – as motorcycling's pinnacle class was then known – in 1977. So does Toseland have any chance of changing this?

"Hopefully, we can re-enact what Barry did. It's about time that a British rider did well there," he told millions of viewers at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in December, when he finished fourth in the poll.

Toseland has already displayed guts and commitment to walk away from his comfortable throne in the superbike scene to compete in MotoGP. He may not be able to overcome his late start fast enough to win the world title, but at least Britain has a serious contender at the front of MotoGP once more.

Boy racer: Smith poised to come of age after Aprilia move

Bradley Smith is already being hailed as Britain's next Lewis Hamilton or Barry Sheene, but yesterday the Oxfordshire 17-year-old played down expectations when he launched his 2008 MotoGP campaign in London.

"If you win races, you put yourself in the right position," he said of his chances of winning the 125cc world championship. "But you have to be there every weekend and you also need a bit of luck with the bike."

On his new Aprilia bike he has set the fastest lap in two of the three sessions. In the most recent round of tests, at Jerez in Spain, he was faster than the 2007 championship contender Sergio Gadea by a tenth of a second.

In 2007 Smith rode for the famous Spanish talent coach, Alberto Puig, but his Repsol Honda was never fast enough to beat the dominant Aprilias, which won 15 of the 16 races. Smith did record his first podium position at Le Mans and finished 10th in the championship but it is the switch to an Aprilia – whose 50hp engine propels him to 150mph – that has unleashed Smith's talent. "The Aprilia has a stronger engine and the chassis is more rigid," he said.

Smith will open the final session of testing in Qatar on Saturday when he rides under floodlights on the desert circuit at Losail in preparation for the opening round there on 9 March.

Gary James