Motorcycling: Easy rider holds all the aces

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The Independent Online
Even those people who would not recognise one end of a handlebar to another know at least one tenet when it comes to motorcycling. Basically, it is not considered good for your health to go out of your way to belittle a pack of riders.

Which makes the rest of us one up on Michael Doohan. The Australian may be the best motorcyclist in the world but when it comes to tact he is not so much in the the slow lane as at a complete halt. Let us say there are one or two of his rivals who will not break out in tears if he gets to the first corner in tomorrow's British Grand Prix and his engine seizes.

Doohan, the reigning world 500cc champion, opened his mouth before yesterday's first practice and the throaty roar was not confined to his Repsol Honda engine. "To be honest," he told Motor Cycle News, "I reckon it's boring as shit at the moment.

"I'm not saying Daryl Beattie's slow by any means but it's not like racing Kevin Schwantz or Wayne Rainey. With someone like Kevin you knew he was going to try and pass and then make it stick. We don't have the riders in the 500 class who could do it the moment.

"There are guys out there who don't warrant having factory bikes," he said. "People like Alberto Puig can go good in Spain so why can't they go fast on every other race track? Luca Cadalora is the same. I'm in the situation where I'm riding easy."

Which would have Formula One drivers queuing up to do things that would make Damon Hill's manoeuvre on Sunday seem like Rule One of the Highway Code if Michael Schumacher disparaged his peers in such a manner, but motorcycling is different. Doohan may not have phrased it as gently as they would have liked but rival teams could follow his reasoning.

"I don't think Mick was saying anyone is a bad rider," Kenny Roberts, three times a world champion and now owner of Marlboro Team Roberts, said generously, "but not many people can ride at his level. He knows it and the others know it too.

"I think he was trying to gee people up a bit. It's up to them to prove him wrong on the track."

Doohan, the world championship leader by 10 points, certainly backed his words by his deeds yesterday, taking up provisional pole position with an almost lazy superiority. He does not like Donington - it is one of the few tracks where he has failed to win - but it was hard to understand why when a fast lap seemed to be his almost at will.

At various stages of the session Scott Russell, Beattie, Alex Barros, Shinichi Itoh, Carles Checha and Alex Criville headed the list of times, and on each occasion Doohan turned up the throttle and charged past it. It was as if he was doing just enough; riding easy.

His time of 1min 33.701sec was a fraction slower than that which claimed pole position 12 months ago but it was still nearly 0.4sec faster than anyone else. Beattie was closest, just as he is the World Championship standings, with his Lucky Strike Suzuki team-mate Russell third.

Britain's best rider was Neil Hodgson, on a Yamaha, who was seventh with 1:34.913 while James Haydon was ninth. The home nation is unlikely to have a home winner to match Johnny Herbert's success at Silverstone, however, and the search may be on tomorrow for lesser trophies. Chris Walker, for example, began track racing only a year ago but is racing in the 500cc race, a rare opportunity for someone so inexperienced, as well as the 250. He was 23rd fastest in the latter event and 27th on the more powerful bike. His very appearance at Donington is an achievement.