Toseland's burning ambition to emulate Hodgson and Fogarty

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The Independent Online

Already the critics are claiming that James Toseland will have it easy. All he has to do is turn up at the track, ride the factory 999cc Ducati to race wins, and the World Superbike Championship will be his.

That is the theory, but the 23-year-old Yorkshireman knows better. "No championship is ever that simple," he says. "Yes, I've got the best bike. But there are good riders out there, and the rules have changed totally since Neil Hodgson won the title last year."

In 2003 Hodgson had the advantage of the best bike and the best tyres when he captured his first world championship. His Michelins were individually built to match the power pulses of the V-twin Ducati and his personal riding style.

But during the winter the organisers of the superbike series, the Italian company FG Sport, introduced a "control tyre" intended to make competition fairer between the rich teams and those on shoestring budgets. From now on, all competitors will run on identical Pirelli tyres that will offer the same grip to everyone.

"It could give the crowds fantastic racing," Toseland said. "I've just got to get on with testing like everyone else to see what kind of set-up we can come up with for the Ducati."

If Toseland wins the superbike crown at his relatively young age, he will become Britain's third holder in 17 years, following the successes of Hodgson, and the four-times champion Carl Fogarty. Victory would almost certainly earn him promotion to the MotoGP series - motorcycling's equivalent of Formula One - where Hodgson will compete this year with Ducati.

But first Toseland will have to see off some talented rivals. They include his partner in the Fila Ducati team, the 28-year-old Frenchman Regis Laconi, whose CV includes six seasons of grand prix racing, and race wins in both grand prix and superbike competition.

Toseland recorded his highest finish in world superbike racing last year, when third in the championship on the British-run GSE Racing Ducati. He claimed his first world superbike race win and kept Laconi in fourth place in the points table.

But in the first tests of the new Pirelli tyres, in Spain late last year, Laconi lapped half a second faster than his British rival. And in further testing yesterday at the Phillip Island circuit in Australia, Laconi was again faster, getting around in 1min 35.19sec to Toseland's 1:35.80.

So psychological warfare is already raging between the new "team-mates". There is more testing to come before the season starts in Valencia next month, but Toseland must be careful not to allow Laconi consistently to establish an advantage.

That battle for mental superiority is often harder to win than the contest of speed and technique on the track, as Formula One drivers such as David Coulthard know only too well.

"It's about strength of character and who can handle the pressure best," Toseland admits. "But that plays to my personality. It's not even an option for me to think that Laconi might be better at it than me."

That's good Yorkshire hard-speak: Geoff Boycott would be proud to hear it from his fellow countryman. But sun-dried Australians are as tough as anyone when it comes to shoulder-barging into corners on a racing motorcycle and Toseland will also have one of those to cope with in 2004.

Garry McCoy, 31, has moved into superbike racing on a privately run Ducati after a demoralising time in Kawasaki's under-performing MotoGP squad. But in earlier seasons he won races and pole positions, and delights fans by power-sliding into 100mph turns as though he were throwing a speedway bike around at half that speed.

"If he's still got the urge to win, he could be hard to beat," Toseland concedes. Opposition to Ducati from Japanese manufacturers will be weak this year, as they have taken umbrage at the new superbike rules and decided to boycott the series.

Their attitude is inscrutably odd, as the revamped formula enables a team to put a showroom-based 1,000cc bike on the grid for as little as £50,000, instead of the lottery budgets required to build a prototype MotoGP bike.

Honda will, however, support the formidable Dutch team Ten Kate, who will make their debut in World Superbike competition with the new and formidable Fireblade four-cylinder model. They field their 21-year-old Australian phenomenon Chris Vermeulen, who gave them the World Supersport title in 2003 on a Honda CBR600.

This will be a big year for British motorcycle racers. The national superbike champion Shane Byrne and the grand prix veteran Jeremy McWilliams are also competing in MotoGP, on the brutally fast three-cylinder Aprilias from Italy.

Leon Haslam, just 20, moves into World Superbikes with the British-owned Renegade Ducati team, and Nottingham's Chris Walker will campaign Carl Fogarty's Foggy Petronas FP1 machine.

Walker opened his test programme at Phillip Island yesterday with a lap in 1:37.1, better than his team-mate, the Australian Troy Corser.

But of them all, Toseland is the only one who could realistically bring a world title back to Britain in 2004.

"It feels fantastic to be a factory rider at my age," he says. "With the Ducati I know that I've got the right package. I'm getting stronger every year, both mentally and in my riding skills. I just want to be consistent, whether I win races or finish fourth, and get that championship by the end of the year."

WORLD SUPERBIKE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES (1,000cc bikes based on showroom models). Contenders: Honda CBR 1000RR Fireblade; Kawasaki ZX-10R; Suzuki GSX-R1000; Yamaha YZF-R1; Foggy Petronas FP1; Ducati 999. Performance: 200bhp, 195mph. Schedule: 12 rounds, 24 races. First round: Valencia (Sp), 29 February. British rounds: Silverstone, 13 June; Brands Hatch, 1 August. Final round: Magny Cours (Fr), 3 October.