Toseland ready to take on all comers - even his team-mates

Britain's world Superbikes leader tells Gary James why he will not curb his aggressive style at Brands Hatch tomorrow
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The Independent Online

For a man who has a nation's expectations resting on his 23-year-old shoulders, James Toseland is talking a very upbeat game.

"It's about time someone got a bit aggressive in this championship," he says. "I wasn't able to stuff it up people earlier this year. But now that I've got the right set-up on the bike, I'm able to ride the way I like."

Toseland will not hesitate to "stuff" other competitors at Brands Hatch tomorrow, when he defends his lead in the European round of the World Superbike championship. One of the victims could be his team-mate in the Ducati Fila works team, the Frenchman Regis Laconi.

The pair clashed in the last round at Laguna Seca, California, when there was on-track contact and Toseland received a veiled caution from his employers.

"It was close and we touched a couple of times, but that's racing," Toseland says. "There was nothing dangerous about the passing manoeuvres." According to Toseland's, team manager Davide Tardozzi said that his tactics had been "a bit naughty", and he did not want to see both his men ending up in the gravel trap.

"Laconi came into the garage and threw his arms about a bit," Toseland adds. "But Davide calmed him down and told him to get his dummy back in."

Tardozzi would not have used that phrase, of course, to the 29-year-old Frenchman, a highly-respected rider with seven seasons of grand prix racing under his belt. But clearly Toseland's sudden emergence from his former role as "Mr Consistency" rattled his partner.

The relationship between team-mates in motorcycle and car teams is a bizarre one. You might think that they would pal up and close ranks to try and beat the opposition.

However, usually they don't. Instead, they wage bitter psychological warfare on each other in an attempt to destabilise the other's performances. There's too much at stake; whoever finishes ahead in the points at the season's end is likely to get the best offer for next year.

Toseland and Laconi do not call or text each other on their mobiles between races, according to the British rider. "We're not the best of friends," Toseland says. "I don't really know him as a person."

The next skirmish between the two will take place this afternoon in the battle for Superpole on the 2.62-mile Kent circuit. Toseland leads Laconi by only three points in the championship, and Honda's Chris Vermeulen is only another 10 points further back.

So there is a lot of pressure on Toseland. Britain is accustomed to owning the Superbike series - Neil Hodgson, who is now riding in MotoGP, won the title last year. Carl Fogarty claimed it on four occasions in the 1990s.

Toseland wants to make it back-to-back titles for Britain. If he does so, he will become Britain's youngest world motorcycle champion in 39 years, since Ulsterman Ralph Bryans won the 50cc world title in 1965 at 23 years and 231 days. Toseland will celebrate his 24th birthday on 5 October, two days after the final round of the championship at Magny-Cours in France.

Can he do it? Earlier this season it seemed unlikely. Laconi rattled up four pole positions and five wins to Toseland's single race win, and a complete inability to capture pole.

He hung close to the top of the championship table purely through some dogged finishes which racked up the points. The Yorkshireman hadn't lost his native grit, he just could not find the right set-up on his Ducati 999R FO4, a nervous thoroughbred with a 190-horsepower V-twin engine.

"Set-up" is the most frequently used word in motorcycle racing these days. In the Mike Hailwood era of the 1960s, a rider took what he was given and got on with the job. Now they know better: mechanics for John Reynolds, the British Superbike championship leader, say that he can identify if a control lever has been set one millimetre out of position. Neil Hodgson recently shortened the wheelbase of his Ducati by just 10mm in an effort to make it turn into corners more responsively.

Toseland's problem was that he could not find predictability on the front end of his superbike. He spent the first half of the season making minute adjustments to try and find the confidence to slam the red Ducati hard into turns. Eventually, he fitted a different clamp that moved the handlebars closer to his body.

This gave him the feel and the confidence he had been seeking. It was as simple and as subtle as that. Now he's ready to "stuff" the bike under anyone in order to get into a corner first.

"I've never been dangerous but I've always been an aggressive rider," he says. "I've always been passionate about what I do, and the British people appreciate a trier." His chances on Sunday? "I'm capable, the bike's capable and the team's capable of getting two wins," he asserts.

This is a different Toseland from the one who endured 13 races without a win in the first half of the year, after his sole victory of the season in the opening round in Spain in February.

"Laconi is very good at setting one great lap in Superpole," Toseland says. "He also has more experience. But those are probably the only advantages he has over me. I beat him last year [when Toseland finished third overall to Laconi's fourth], so I've not got too much respect for him. I know I can beat him."

You get the feeling that Toseland is more fearful of Vermeulen, the 21-year-old Australian who has won the last three races on his Honda Fireblade. "The Honda hooks up better on the exit from corners," he says. "But overall, my Ducati is the equal of it." So England expects. We'll know by tomorrow afternoon whether Toseland can deliver.