Both new Proton riders Jeremy McWilliams and Nobuatsu Aoki made a strong start to the all-new two-stroke versus four-stroke MotoGP class at the season-opening Japanese GP at Suzuka. Race-day rain helped both to far exceed expectations after troubled qualifying sessions.

The track should be more on their side at Round Two, at the very different Phakisa Freeway circuit at Welkom in South Africa. And both riders plan to be ready to exploit the advantages offered by the nimble Proton KR3 three-cylinder 500cc two-stroke.

Built among gold mines in the Free State town of Welkom, Phakisa is short, tight and complicated, with a 2.84-mile (4.24km) lap and a lap-record average speed only just over 100mph. The compact layout - incorporating part of a banked tri-oval NASCAR-style track - gives the Proton riders a chance to exploit the KR3's good handling and high corner speed; while the expected hot weather should also suit the team's Bridgestone tyres.

In Japan, Nobuatsu Aoki overcame pain and stiffness from a heavy practice fall to claim a strong top ten finish, surviving treacherous track conditions to bring the KR3 home seventh - the third two-stroke home.

McWilliams had qualified at the back of the closest ever starting grid - but forged through the field to seventh, only to slip off on the streaming wet track, one of nine riders to fall out. During his stirring ride he had set fastest lap of the race, and though this was eclipsed as conditions improved by the finish, the point had been made.

The lightweight Proton KR3 is highly adaptable, especially in difficult conditions. And both riders are ready to exploit that.

"I'm not sure what to expect at Welkom - but in general the omens are not bad," said McWilliams, "It's a track with lots of slow corners: very technical, with some difficult problems. At the end of the back straight, you have to brake from high speed while leaning harder and harder into a slow corner. I think the KR3 should be one of the better bikes there, though of course nobody has seen what the new four-strokes can do there. It will be interesting."

"It is two years since I raced at the South African circuit, but I remember it well - tight corners and difficult sections that ask a lot of the rider and the motorcycle," said Aoki, "I'm ready to try my hardest, and the Proton's excellent handling means that bike should help us. It should be one of our better tracks, and I'm looking forward to it."

The Bridgestone tyres - new not only to the England-based team but also to racing's top class - were another factor at Suzuka, and could be again at Welkom. The strong race performance in Japan was possible because of the good performance of the wet-weather Bridgestones. The other condition in which the newly developed tyres excel is in extreme heat - a likelihood at the Highveld circuit of Welkom.

Team owner Kenny Roberts explained the situation at the start of the season. "At this point, we need it to be hot, or raining. The weather turned in our favour in Japan. At Welkom, we just want it to be as hot as usual."

There are other reasons to hope that Welkom might favour the three-cylinder two-stroke Proton. The Mk3 version is now in its third full season, and at its best-ever level of development. Team Manager Chuck Aksland enlarges.

"Welkom is a rider's track rather than a horsepower circuit, but very different from Suzuka, with short, tight corners. I'd like to think the nature of the circuit will help us to be more competitive. Last year, Jurgen only just missed the top ten, while Jeremy McWilliams was sixth in the 250 class.

"Tyres could be an issue, because Bridgestone have not tested at the circuit. But they generally work better when it is hot, so we can hope for a good race."


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