French GP: Team Proton KR preview

Proton hopes for favours at tricky french track. So far, so good. With three races done and two top-ten finishes in the bag, Proton Team KR goes to the French GP at Le Mans with hopes of once more bucking the odds at a track that looks difficult...

Proton hopes for favours at tricky french track.

So far, so good. With three races done and two top-ten finishes in the bag, Proton Team KR goes to the French GP at Le Mans with hopes of once more bucking the odds at a track that looks difficult on paper, but might be different on the ground.

The French race, fourth of 16 rounds in the all-new four-stroke-versus-two-stroke MotoGP championship, takes place at the Bugatti short circuit at the venue of the famous 24-hour car event. And the stop-and-go layout of the slightly altered 2.7-mile track not only favours the powerful new 990c factory four-stroke prototypes, but also the four-cylinder 500cc two-strokes.

The lightweight alternative Proton KR3 is at its best on faster and more flowing circuits, where the sweet-handling machine's corner-speed advantage pays big dividends. With little time to be gained on the slow low-gear U-turns, Le Mans rewards brute horsepower instead. But racing practice doesn't necessarily play by the theory, and last year Jurgen van den Goorbergh claimed a good top-ten finish, putting his V3 500 ahead of several of the faster-accelerating four-cylinder machines.

This year, the Proton team fields two riders, each with their own agenda.

Japanese star Nobuatsu Aoki is riding high, after following up his strong seventh in the wet at Suzuka with seventh in the dry at the last race, the Spanish GP. Aoki was able to use his KR3's handling to the maximum at the technical Jerez circuit, finishing ahead of all the new four-strokes except for the impressive new five-cylinder Hondas. He gave the latest new-profile Bridgestone rear tyre a rewarding debut, and he is anxious to continue as he has begun.

Team-mate Jeremy McWilliams has been dogged by ill fortune all year, unable to capitalise on several strong performances in qualifying. In the wet in Japan, he crashed out, and broke down in South Africa. His hopes were dashed again at Jerez, when various problems conspired to drop him to the bottom of the points. Then, after the race, his luck got worse. He and another rider were penalised for passing an ailing machine under yellow flags - shown because of a track invasion by over-zealous Spanish police - and he was dropped from 14th to 16th position, once again out of the points. Now he is determined to open his championship account at Le Mans.

Aside from his determination, McWilliams will be looking for some support in his bid to kick-start his season. One friend might be the often extreme weather conditions at the track. The team uses Bridgestone tyres, in the premier class for the first time, and the Japanese firm has acquitted itself well on the England-built motorcycle. They have shown particularly well in the rain in Japan, and in hot conditions, as in Spain. Team manager Chuck Aksland described how Le Mans has been unexpectedly favourable to the Proton KR3 in the past.

"On the face of it, it's not a track that favours our machine - it's very stop-and-go, which is not our favourite type of circuit. We expect better chances at the faster and more technical tracks, which reward our good cornering, and give the riders a chance to use the KR3's special characteristics. But last year we were surprised at how well the bike performed, with Jurgen qualifying on the third row of the grid, then finishing even better, in the top ten.

"So far, this year has been difficult to predict, with the new four-stroke motors not always performing as expected. Our new tyres also mean we're in uncharted territory.

"Bridgestone have done an excellent job so far. They're working really hard, and taking it very seriously. They brought a new construction rear to Spain, which both our riders chose for the race," he continued.

"For the first year out, their performance is excellent. Like us, they're building for the future."

JEREMY McWILLIAMS

"I like the layout of the track and I've done well there in the past - so I'm going there with some hope. I thought we could have cracked it last weekend, but things added up so it didn't work for me. I had fuel starvation problems on the last lap, and dropped from 11th to 14th. Losing two more positions and falling out of the points because of the protest was like getting kicked when I was down. After that race I was feeling pretty low, and wondering what I could do right. For Le Mans, I'll go back to basics. I'm going to throw caution to the wind, and ride harder than ever."

NOBUATSU AOKI

"Le Mans is a simple track, and there's not much chance to make up for any shortages by your own riding or by using the KR3's roadholding. It's just throttle and brakes, throttle and brakes. It's not really very interesting. Things are basically going well for me with my new team. Their support is very valuable, and we've been able to improve the bike at every track during qualifying, so I can go out and race to my maximum. I'm planning for the same thing in France, and hoping to add some more points to my score so far."

-tpkr-

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About this article
Series MotoGP
Drivers Jeremy McWilliams , Nobuatsu Aoki
Teams Williams