Ant West South African GP preview

West aims to break Australia's 21-year podium drought in 250cc South African Grand Prix. TUESDAY, APRIL 22: Revitalised motorcycle racer Ant West headed for South Africa today with high hopes of this Sunday becoming the first Australian in 21 ...

West aims to break Australia's 21-year podium drought in 250cc South African Grand Prix.

TUESDAY, APRIL 22: Revitalised motorcycle racer Ant West headed for South Africa today with high hopes of this Sunday becoming the first Australian in 21 years to secure a top-three podium finish in the 250cc world championship series.

West, who did not race in 2002, is fresh from a strong comeback in the season-opening 250cc Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on April 6, holding second place for most of the event until crashing his Zoppini Abruzzo Aprilia just four laps from the finish.

The 21-year-old from the Gold Coast will start among the favourites in round two, the South African Grand Prix at Welkom, and if he finishes on the podium he will be the first Australian to do so in the 250cc world championship since 1982 when Graeme McGregor was second at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium on a Rotax Waddon.

The closest any Australian has been to a 250cc podium finish since then were fourth placings by West in the Dutch and Portugal rounds of the 2000 world championship, and by now-retired Daryl Beattie in the 1990 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island. No Australian has won a 250cc grand prix since the late Gregg Hansford triumphed at Rijeka in Yugoslavia in 1978 on a Kawasaki.

Assessing the race at Welkom, West said the 4.2km circuit was among his favourites -- he finished fifth there in the 250cc South African Grand Prix after a lengthy dice with eventual world champion Olivier Jacque and German Ralf Waldmann, after qualifying a career-best fourth.

"It's a tight layout with a lot of corners, and you've got to be smooth on the throttle," said West.

"The thing that makes this race different is the high altitude, which means less engine power, plus the track is out in the middle of nowhere so it's usually dusty and slippery, especially if you have to go off the racing line."

Beattie, now a motorsport commentator for MotoGP telecasters Network Ten in Australia, believes West will challenge for a podium finish in South Africa and the following races this season based on his performance in round one in Japan.

"The way Ant rode at Suzuka was very encouraging considering he's had a year out of racing, plus he was carrying injuries, and I don't think it will be long before we see him on the podium," said Beattie.

"His grand prix results have always been competitive, relative to the capabilities of his equipment, and he's got a good record for finishing races."

West said that since the race at Suzuka he had continued to make a satisfactory recovery from breaking three vertebrae in a pre-season crash in Portugal in February. He required a medical clearance before being allowed to ride in Japan.

"The back pain is not nearly as bad as before and I don't think there will be any problems this weekend," he said.

West's crash at Suzuka was only his fifth in 48 grand prix starts since 1998, and he said it could be partially attributed to a lack of dry-weather track-time in practice and qualifying before the race.

"Our bike set-up wasn't right because it had been raining on and off for two days and then it was dry for the race," said West.

"I had some big slides just before my crash because the set-up we ran was hard on the tyres. If we get some good bike settings this weekend there's no reason why we can't be competitive."

The opening practice and qualifying sessions at Welkom will be held this Friday. West is in his third year of 250cc grand prix racing, and finished sixth in the world championship in 2000.

AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION COVERAGE: Foxsports -- from 7pm Sunday. Channel 10 -- from 11.45pm Sunday

-mp-

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Series MotoGP
Drivers Olivier Jacque , Phillip Island