The opening MX1 Motocross Grand Prix of the 2004 season, at Zolder this Sunday, will see two GP firsts as Joel Smets lines-up in Suzuki colours, and the Japanese company's brand new RM-Z 450 four-stroke faces its world championship rivals.

However, the 34-year-old has greater worries than simply his relatively untested machinery, after sustaining a knee ligament injury that sidelined the Belgian for several weeks - indeed the five-times World Champion only competed his first full race of 2004 last Sunday.

"I impressed myself last week at Mons," revealed Smets. "We had the wrong set-up in the first moto but in the second and third races I made some good laps and was close to winning. For my first race after the Motocross des Nations I was satisfied with how it went.

"The leg is not too bad," he added. "I can stand the pain but the swelling is not helping my movement. The main thing that is distracting me is the link and level of confidence between my head and the knee. I am also concerned by the lack of riding and testing.

"I know what my knee can do when I am off the bike and the strength of the joint is OK considering there isn't a ligament inside but I do not trust the leg when it comes to right hand corners; it will take me a few more races before I can get fully accustomed to my situation. I know that I should not worry too much - but I am scared of making mistakes.

"In a way this injury has made me a bit more relaxed for this race. I'll let the young Belgian guys like Kevin, Steve Ramon and Cedric get nervous! I think they will take confidence to see both myself and Stefan struggling," said the Belgian, referring to reigning world champion Stefan Everts' rib injury last Sunday.

Joining Smets on the factory Suzukis will be Kevin Strijbos, now entering his fourth season of GP racing - and second as a factory rider. The teenager has still to get a top three world championship result - his best to date being a 4th place at Valkenswaard last year - but his form and speed, along with a hefty slice of development work in Smets' absence, since the team took delivery of the four-stroke has been encouraging.

"My speed has been OK and everything has been working well on the bike," remarked Strijbos. "I think there are other riders like Mickael Pichon also going quickly so I should be able to see my level this weekend. I feel more prepared than this time last year so that is good.

"I haven't ridden the track at Zolder but it seems to have changed from the one used at the des Nations. I think it looks like a good circuit. We are starting the season in Belgium but I will be focussed on riding my own race and trying not to think that it is my home GP; I will try to make the best of it. I'm happy we are back to two motos. I am hoping for some good starts and a place in the top seven."

"The bikes are ready and the team is ready," announced team manager Jens Johansson. "I think Joel would have wished to be better prepared but he will make it. Kevin has been doing really well in the pre-season races and he is still only 18, he has nothing like the experience of a Smets or Everts but he has been winning motos and that clearly shows both his and the bike's potential.

"I think the Suzuki (four-stroke) will be a contender very soon. We have a four-year deficit compared to the other manufacturers concerning the four-stroke but then it also means we have been able to look and see what they have done.

"Zolder should be an exciting GP," he continued. "It is a tricky circuit and I think one of the most demanding on the calendar. It will be a difficult prospect for the riders who were not at the Nations. It is a home race for us and simple in terms of logistics but there is also a lot more attention so it won't be easy."

To add to the unpredictability of the Zolder event, the weather forecast for the weekend suggests cloud and rain...


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