Roberts' mission of control

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A Howling, frighteningly fast red and white racing motorcycle was recently spotted being tested at Donington Park. It was discovered that its nearest relative in engineering genealogy was the humble Proton family saloon car. The improbable link is a Malaysian company, Modenas, who make the Proton and are also backing the 45-year-old American former world motorcycling champion Kenny Roberts as he works around the clock to get a highly unusual British-made dream machine ready for his son to ride in the first grand prix of the season in Malaysia next month.

Modenas want a foothold in the motorcycle market and to compete with the Japanese manufacturers. Roberts is keen to stop the Japanese dominating racing. So Modenas are investing in the KR3, an innovative 500cc machine. The engine has three cylinders rather than the four that for years have powered successful Japanese bikes. Roberts is confident that within a few grands prix, one of his riders, either Kenny jnr or the Frenchman Jean-Michel Bayle, will be up on the podium.

Since the project has gone from drawing board to prototype in less than a year, that would be akin to Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows team seeing Damon Hill win a Formula One race. In fact some of the TWR people would be almost as happy to see one of Roberts' men take a top-three place as they would to watch Hill overtake a Williams. Marlboro Team Roberts are based at Banbury, which makes them neighbours of TWR. Co-operation between the engineers has been a closely kept secret but the KR3 power unit is very much a TWR motor in disguise.

The project began to take shape last summer, when Roberts left Yamaha. Some of the TWR people had already been working on his plans for the unusual machine, which Roberts had first suggested in 1992. He explained: "Before, I'd never felt able to help in the development of the Yamahas. I wanted to design a bike from the beginning. Almost everything we use is designed and made by us apart from the tyres and suspension. At last I'm in control of my own destiny."

The first to try the prototype in January had to be Roberts himself. After powering up a nearby airstrip he admitted enjoying "more excitement than I'd ever experienced since I stopped racing". His first ride on a track was at rainy, wind-swept Donington but he immediately made the bold prediction that the machine would be a winner. After his son stepped off the bike for the first time he was more cautious: "This thing is fast for its size." The whole point of having an engine with only three cylinders is to save weight. There is none of the excess power which in many of the four-cylinder bikes is a useless luxury. "Nimble and quick" was Roberts' aim for his baby.

No sooner had the prototype been baptised in a Donington downpour than things went wrong. The weather made testing a nightmare. Minor faults developed. "We knew there would be these delays," Roberts said. "But at least I knew I could get things done and not wait around for weeks waiting for parts." The first test abroad, in Spain, was disrupted by engine trouble. He sent the bike home in his own plane, a wise move in view of later experience.

Having arranged for his next testing to be in Malaysia, the team took off from Heathrow believing that the precious bike was in the hold. They arrived only to find that the bike had not. Customs in London had off-loaded it and then failed to put it back on board. Almost two days of testing was lost. But when it did turn up the bike ran for 150 miles without problems. "It was the equivalent of doing two grands prix," Roberts said. Even so he added: "I'm not yet talking about running with the big boys, but it won't be long." Bayle says he loves the machine's lightness while Roberts jnr says the aerodynamics are "real smooth".

The Modenas company used their influence to take over the Shah Alam circuit for five days' private testing, which was doubly useful since it is where the season's opening grand prix will be held on 13 April. There is no guarantee that the KR3 will be on the grid, but Roberts himself has a special reason to be ready. His own career as a rider was in effect ended back in 1983 when the last efficient three-cylinder machine, a Honda ridden by Freddie Spencer, beat him and took the world title. Roberts is determined to win belated revenge. And if that should fail, he is still going to enjoy himself, watching his younger son, Kurtis, make his grand prix debut riding an Aprilia in the 250cc class.