LCR Honda boss Lucio Cecchinello insists that Randy de Puniet has what it takes to succeed in MotoGP, and is backing the Frenchman to transform a lacklustre 2008 into possible podium appearances in 2009.

This season will be de Puniet's fourth in MotoGP, with his best results to date coming in 2007 with Kawasaki, when he took a debut podium on his way to eleventh in the world championship.

Last season's switch to LCR - for whom Randy had raced in 250GP - brought a best race result of sixth at Laguna Seca and just 15th in the championship, making him the lowest ranked RC212V rider.

However, while de Puniet only finished in the top six once, he qualified in the top six no less than ten times and Cecchinello - himself a seven time 125GP race winner - insists the 28-year-old has what it takes to succeed at the highest level of two-wheel motorsport.

"I have spent 22 years of my life on the circuits worldwide, 15 years riding a motorbike, and I believe I can judge a rider," declared Cecchinello. "Randy is talented, he's fast, he has defeated riders like Pedrosa, Dovizioso, Elias etc.. he has been on the podium [23 times in all classes], technically he has grown up impressively and we have to continue to work close together because I'm sure, and he proved it, that the MotoGP podium is not out of his reach."

de Puniet admits that last year was a disappointment, but believes 2009 will be his best LCR season yet.

"This is my fourth year with the LCR Team," said Randy. "During our first year in 2003 in the 250cc class I had a lot of fun and I keep good memories. Last year wasn't as easy and we didn't achieve the results we were hoping for, therefore I trust this season to be the best with the LCR Team. I believe our potential is higher this year and I'm very confident."

A satellite rider hasn't won a MotoGP race since the switch to 800cc engines in 2007, and the customer Honda teams have been hit particularly hard by the capacity change. Nevertheless, Cecchinello believes 2009 will see a reduction in the gap between factory and satellite teams.

"It's clear that 2007 and 2008 for the independent teams were not easy years," said the Italian. "Since the 800cc class made its appearance, it has become harder than ever to oppose the performance of the Factory Teams.

"Now we are approaching a phase where the Factories can even supply the satellite Teams with the state-of-the-art technologies and this will make us more competitive. In particular, Honda, for the year 2009, has really made a big effort by giving us the same engines as the ones they use, featuring the pneumatic valves technology and all the relevant managing software.

"Now it's up to us working hard together with Randy to be ready to battle and, where possible, challenge the Factories riders," he stated.

Whilst instantly enjoying the engine power, de Puniet - who rode with Michelin tyres last season - initially struggled with the handling of his '09 machine, but appeared to make clear progress at the following Qatar night test.

The #14's final chance for improvements before the new racing season begins will come this weekend at Jerez.

"The first impression I got from the motorbike was very positive. The engine is more competitive compared to last year's, especially as far as its maximum speed is concerned," said Randy. "However, the first competitive test in Malaysia didn't go as well as we were hoping for, but later, in Qatar, we have improved the fine tuning and I hope for a further improvement in Jerez.

"I already have a two-year experience with Bridgestone [at Kawasaki] but the front tyre is now different," he revealed. "I will have to adjust my riding style to this grip but in Qatar we have already done a lot. I can still improve the feeling with the front tyre and be faster.

"We will have to work hard also on the racing set-up but there are all the prerequisites to have a highly competitive bike on track. My goal for the season is to race to the top even though my opponents are very tough. The Team and I want to show our potential but it's too early to anticipate my placing," he warned.

LCR has secured title sponsorship from Playboy at selected events this season (see separate story).

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