Today marked the first anniversary of Kawasaki's MotoGP debut with their Ninja ZX-RR four-stroke prototype, which was raced for the first time at Motegi in 2002 by factory test pilot Akira Yanagawa.

Then, the Japanese set a best time (over both qualifying sessions) of 1min 51.2secs, but one year on - and a lot of hard work later - the 2003 spec racer was actually 0.6secs slower, in the hands of Garry McCoy, with team-mate Andrew Pitt 1.3secs behind Akira's pace.

To add to team green's disappointment, McCoy was also 1.1secs behind his best qualifying time of 2002 - when he was riding a two-stroke privateer Yamaha. But perhaps most worrying is that the gap to pole has grown from 2secs with Yanagawa in 2002, to 3.3secs with McCoy today. Oh dear. Maybe things will improve tomorrow...

As well as handling problems, McCoy is suffering from a mild cold and cough, which he puts down to the recent heavy load of international travel, and today's variable temperatures contributed towards him not feeling 100 percent during afternoon qualifying.

"I'm never happy being 21st and I hope we can move forward; at least I'm the number one Dunlop qualifier today, so I'm first at something," he said. "With the hard acceleration, slow speed corners at Motegi the wheelie problem we experience at some tracks is back. I'm playing with the set-up to help that, including some longer gear ratios, but a lot of guys out there are looking more comfortable than me; it's difficult to tuck-in and follow anyone.

"The motor has more rpm and feels like it has a little more power overall, but the bike also feels like it is pushing forward into some corners. We've still got some work to do to settle on race tyres, when the temperatures warm up in the afternoon it changes tyre performance."

Meanwhile, Pitt was 24th fastest on his first day at Motegi.

"I'm coming to grips with the track but I'm not touching the bike, it feels as good as it can be with what we've got; I'm just going to keep doing laps and working with the circuit," said Andrew. "The engine upgrade here has more top end power and acceleration is better, but traction coming off the slow corners is not as good; the rear is spinning up and the wheelstand problem is back.

"This motor has gone back to a heavier crankshaft specification and that seems to be a problem for me; the bike wants to push forward into the slow corners and there are lot of dead-stop corners here. I did a whole session on a front tyre this morning so that looks good for the race; we just have to settle on a rear tyre for the race now."

McCoy looks on his way out of the team at the end of the year, with Pitt being tipped to be retained alongside Alex Hofmann. Certainly, team manager Harald Eckl's words seemed to favour the younger Australian.

"This is Andrew's first time here at Motegi, so his aim today has been to learn his way around the circuit and improve his lap time in each session, which he has done," he began. "Garry has raced here in previous seasons, so the fact that he's less than a second faster than his relatively inexperienced team-mate is a little disappointing, although I'm sure the cold he is suffering with has taken it's toll."

Kawasaki weren't the only team facing difficult questions: Suzuki were also slower than their 2002 qualifying pace today, although John Hopkins was 'just' 0.1secs slower than Kenny Roberts' best lap from last year - which had put the 2000 World Champion eighth on the grid.

 

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