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Hungry rivals to challenge Rossi at Le Mans

Hungry rivals to challenge Rossi at Le Mans

Hungry rivals to challenge Rossi at Le Mans

MotoGP World Championship leader Valentino Rossi arrives at Le Mans this weekend aiming to score back to back wins for the first time since September last year, but he is sure to have his work cut out with a growing group of rivals scenting glory. His chief adversary Max Biaggi has a strong record at the Bugatti circuit, having won the 500cc race here in 2001, and he has a point to prove after missing out on a shot at victory last season when the race was cut short due to rain and handed to Rossi, his first career victory at the French racetrack. Biaggi has started from the front row and finished on the podium at each of the first three rounds of the 2003 season, and is hungry for his first victory aboard the Honda RC211V.

The Ducati challenge grows stronger with each passing round, with Loris Capirossi and Troy Bayliss having established the Desmosedici as one of the fastest motorcycles ever constructed. The Italian and the Australian have been sensational in qualifying, never more so than at Jerez where they took the front two positions on the grid, with Capirossi becoming the first Italian to take a MotoGP pole on an Italian machine since Franco Bonera in 1975. The pair have one podium finish each from the opening three rounds, having both led races at various stages, and now the challenge is on to maintain their electric pace over race distance and challenge the factory Honda fleet.

Latest HRC recruit Sete Gibernau, who rode the official RC211V for the first time in Jerez but crashed out on the seventh lap, will this weekend be joined by new team-mate Ryuichi Kiyonari, a 20 year old rookie from Saitama, Japan. Kiyonari has signed with Team Telefonica MoviStar Honda for the remainder of the 2003 season, with an option for another year in 2004, and makes his MotoGP debut appearance in France. Previously, Kiyonari raced in the ST600 Class of the 2002 All Japan Road Race series, winning four of the eight races he entered and taking the championship in his debut year. The youngster gained international recognition with second place in the World Supersport round at Sugo last month, despite having never ridden there before.

A much more familiar Japanese name is also added to the entry list this weekend, with Norick Abe returning once more to ride as a wildcard for Yamaha. Abe, who has three Grand Prix victories to his credit, also rode as a wildcard in the opening round at Suzuka and then as a replacement for Marco Melandri at Welkom, finishing eleventh and eighth respectively. Yamaha colleague Melandri´s recovery from a broken leg was hindered by back problems as he made his MotoGP debut at Jerez, but the 250cc World Champion claimed to feel much better during factory tests last week at Mugello.

Yamaha weren´t the only team to return to the track after Jerez, with several MotoGP convoys stopping off for tests on their way through Europe. Whilst Ducati stayed on at the Spanish circuit, Aprilia and Suzuki dropped in for two days of development work at Catalunya, whilst Proton headed up to England to roll out their V5 four-stroke for a shakedown session on a local airstrip.

MotoGP, 2003, Grand Prix Polini de France, Valentino Rossi

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