The quietly spoken, but always polite, Tohru Ukawa admits he's facing a crucial time in his MotoGP career - and arrives at Motegi this weekend fighting to keep his Honda ride. To do that, the man who's often been happy to stay in the shadows of some pretty impressive team-mates will need to step out into the limelight.

Last year he fought for second place in the new MotoGP World Championship with his Camel Pramac Pons team-mate of this year, Max Biaggi. The battle went right to the final race of the year in Valencia where Ukawa eventually settled for a well earned third place.

His team-mate last year, a certain Valentino Rossi, has always been very adept at grabbing most of the limelight, even without the help of a team-mate.

"Sometimes Valentino spoke but not so much," recalled the 30-year-old rider who started his full time grand prix career seven years ago. "He was friendly but like everybody else he was also a rival and a very good rider."

At the second grand prix of last season Ukawa inflicted a rare MotoGP defeat on Rossi who won 11 of the 16 rounds. Typically his first and only win in the MotoGP class is now a distant memory.

"I've won five grands prix but I suppose the biggest was that MotoGP win at Welkom when I beat Valentino," he conceded. "It seems like a long time ago and I need some wins in the last five races this year. I've not finished one on the podium this season."

After twice winning the All Japan 250cc Championship it was Honda that brought Ukawa into grand prix racing. The giant factory are still seeking a Japanese rider to win the 500cc/MotoGP World title. They thought Ukawa and the late Daijiro Kato were the riders to achieve their dream. Sadly Kato's challenge ended in tragedy. Ukawa still shares Honda's ambition although it gets tougher as the years go by.

"For sure a Japanese rider can win the MotoGP World Championship although it's impossible this year," admits Ukawa, who finished runner-up to Rossi in the 1999 250cc World Championship. "Next year I may not be riding in MotoGP, but I want to stay in the top class. I need some good results in those five races because this year I've often finished sixth or seventh or crashed. I'm feeling much more confident but I must get some results starting in Motegi this weekend."

Coming to live in Europe can be a pretty daunting task for a Japanese rider. That complete change of culture is never easy and then there's the language. Ukawa thought he'd got that particular part cracked but he was wrong.

"I studied English in Japan for two years before I came to Europe but when I spoke to my team manager Trevor Morris for the first time I could not understand a word he said and he could not understand a world I said," explained Ukawa, who worked with Morris up to the start of this season when he joined Camel Pramac Pons. "He then spoke slower to me and my English got better and gradually we began to understand each other."

Ukawa chose a European base near Aalst in Belgium, the European base of the Honda Racing Corporation. It's convenient and quiet. This year even the weather played its part.

"When I first came over in 1996 I stayed in an apartment about 50kms from Brussels and I've been there ever since, It's quiet which is fine," revealed Ukawa, who further enhanced his reputation with Honda by winning the prestigious Suzuka Eight Hour race for them in 1997 and 1998. "Up to this year the weather has always been bad with plenty of cloud and rain but this summer it's been unbelievable. Thirty five degrees in Belgium is so good and I've even been to the beach."

All the travelling necessary on the European based world championship scene means that Ukawa gets little time at home, something he'd very much like to change.

"I only get home to Japan a few times in the season, for the Motegi race and the 8 Hour race and test. This year I also went home to Chiba in Japan between the grands prix in the Czech Republic and Portugal."

It's a massive race for Ukawa on home soil on Sunday. His MotoGP futures ways in the balance. A good result in front of the Honda hierarchy could ensure that future. He's under no illusions about the task that lies ahead.

"I need to win the race on Sunday. It would be my first grand prix victory in Japan and it would not come at a better time."

It's time for Tohru Ukawa to step out of those shadows. Motegi would be the perfect location for him to do just that and ensure his MotoGP future.



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