by Peter McLaren

Long time Yamaha rider Shinya Nakano has revealed that his new Kawasaki isn't as far away from the former race-winning YZR-M1 as some expected, and is actually better in some areas.

Nakano had been a Yamaha man from the age of 15, bursting onto the 250cc GP scene six-years later, in 1999. By the following season he was already a title contender, 'Super Shinya' claiming five victories but being denied the championship by just 0.014secs in the championship decider.

The #56 graduated to the 500cc class in 2001, with his French based Tech 3 team, and would take a podium finish on his way to becoming rookie of the year. 2002 saw Nakano still riding a two-stroke against the new MotoGP competition, but he would be handed an M1 for the final rounds of the season.

With Alex Barros signing for Tech 3, Shinya switched to the one rider d'Antin Yamaha team for 2003 and, despite a lower level of factory support compared with the Gauloises and Fortuna teams, would deliver solid points finishes at all but the final round on his way to tenth in the championship.

But with Luis d'Antin receiving manufacturer support from Ducati for 2004, Nakano was forced to leave the Spanish based team. Most expected a seat to found at Yamaha, especially with the return of Barros to Honda, but Shinya instead signed for relative MotoGP newcomers Kawasaki.

The Japanese manufacturing giant, by its own admission, experienced a tough debut season in 2003 with Garry McCoy and Andrew Pitt, claiming a best finish of ninth in the two-part French Grand Prix and being left last in the manufacturers' championship.

Such results were unacceptable for 'team green' and a major overhaul of their MotoGP operation was made by team manager Harald Eckl for this season - involving new riders, tyre supplier and a European chassis programme with input from both Kawasaki and Suter Racing Technology. But what was it that convinced Shinya to sign?

"I had some options for this year, maybe I could have stayed with Yamaha," Nakano told "Harald showed me the new bike at the end of last season and I thought wow! It's a big difference over last year, Kawasaki also has a really good team and I checked their plans for the project. As well, I was interested in doing something different to keep my motivation high.

"After the meeting I couldn't sleep for two or three days because I was thinking about the Yamaha people, I've known them for a long time and it was a really hard decision to move," he admitted. "Racing is my life and I wanted to make the right decision. Kawasaki were offering me everything I need and the chance to be a full factory rider, so I said 'yes'!"

The early indications are that the 2004 ZX-RR is indeed a considerable step forward - a point proven last weekend at the first official MotoGP test, at Catalunya, where Nakano was a second away from fastest man Valentino Rossi.

That was the closest Kawasaki has ever been to the sharp end of the grid in the dry and Nakano was ahead of not only his evenly matched team-mate Alex Hofmann, but more importantly three Aprilias, two Ducatis, two Suzukis, a Yamaha, a Honda and a Proton.

WCM aside, Kawasaki and Yamaha are the only teams to use an inline-four cylinder engine to power their MotoGP prototypes. Nakano is the only person to have ridden both bikes, so how do they compare?

"I was a bit nervous at my first test with Kawasaki - it was my first time on Bridgestone tyres, a new bike and of course a new team - but after a few laps I realised that the bike feels similar to the Yamaha, partly because of the same kind of engine," revealed Nakano.

"There are also some better points on the Kawasaki, such as more front end feeling and also the engine braking is better - I think Yamaha has worked on those things for their new bike, but for sure the ZX-RR has many good points.

"We still have plenty of work to do, but when I'm learning and improving things I enjoy what I'm doing even more," concluded the polite Japanese.

The second MotoGP test session starts today (Wednesday) at Jerez, and will conclude on Thursday. The season-opening Africa's Grand Prix takes place on April 18.



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