by Peter McLaren

The third pre-season launch on Thursday at Barcelona, and attended by, was by the Kawasaki Racing Team, who unveiled their new 'potent' ZX-RR racer with which Shinya Nakano and Alex Hofmann will carry team green honours this season.

2003 was undoubtedly a tough and disappointing debut year for the Japanese giant, but some major changes - including two new race riders, tyre supplier (from Dunlop to Bridgestone) and a new chassis programme - appears to be reaping rewards, with testing times consistently improving - and the gap to Honda, Ducati and Yamaha decreasing.

"Last year was less than average so of course we wanted to improve, and this pushed us to make big changes on the bike, the team, the set-up and the tyres - this (the new bike) is the result of that," explained team manager Harald Eckl.

The German then commented on his new rider line-up, with Nakano and Hofmann brought in to replace Garry McCoy and Andrew Pitt.

"I've followed Shinya since he was racing in the 250cc class and I think he is an excellent rider - he's proved it many times and when he changed from 250 to 500cc he showed that despite his size he can handle a big machine," said Harald.

"I'm very happy to have him in the team, he's a lot of fun and a very nice guy to work with. He brings plenty of experience from his past and can give us ideas about engine characteristics, tyre development etc. Being Japanese, he can also talk directly to the Japanese engineers at Kawasaki and Bridgestone."

Turning to Hofmann, Eckl stated that he hopes the former test rider - who impressed in wild-card rides last season and has pushed Nakano in testing so far - can ignite a new MotoGP following in Germany.

"It's a huge opportunity for Alex, as a young 23-year-old rider, and (his presence) provides a good opportunity to bring racing at this level back to young German motorcycle fans," he said. "I hope he starts an effect like Tony Mang 25-years-ago when he started racing and he brought more attention and more young riders into the sport.

"I'm quite happy (with the changes) so far: The first tests in Malaysia and Australia were successful for us, a big step forward - of course our competitors have also improved their bikes, but we have to see in the next weeks how far we can continue to improve the machine," he added.

In addition to the new riders, a European chassis programme has been formed with Suter Racing Technology - a Swiss-based company specialising in motorcycle engineering, development and manufacture, who have previously worked with the likes of Foggy Petronas, Aprilia, Kawasaki and Yamaha.

"We have created a very good group, together with the Japanese engineers, and are getting the best from Japan and Europe," revealed company founder and former racer Eskil Suter. "I think we can get the most benefit for KHI (Kawasaki Heavy Industries) and our company. The people from KHI have moved over to Switzerland and I think that's a key point."

"Development and feedback over the past year has helped us build a new, more potent, Ninja ZX-RR," said a message from Shinichi Morita, president of consumer products and machines at Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

"The team has adapted to the hectic pace of MotoGP and being familiar with the circuits will help each member to focus on the job in hand and work as an efficient part of a unified whole.

"With the recent developments amongst the major teams and riders, MotoGP in 2004 will be more exciting than ever. And Kawasaki stands ready to face the challenge. Having completed our inaugural year, we are ready to up the pace and see our lime green machines running with the leaders of the pack."

More reaction from the Kawasaki launch to follow throughout the weekend...