Sito Pons' MotoGP team has been hit by the sad news that technical director Antonio Cobas has died on the eve of the new season, which begins in South Africa this weekend.

The Spaniard was to have taken charge of Max Biaggi's side of the Pons pits this year - with team-mate Makoto Tamada run by Pramac team members - but had been seriously ill for some time.

Pons announced the parting of his friend and colleague shortly before departing for South Africa.

"It is with great sadness that I have to communicate personally to all our friends and colleagues in the grand prix motorcycle racing community that our dear friend Antonio Cobas passed away this morning, Wednesday 14 April," he said.

"As technical director of the Honda Pons team, Antonio will forever be remembered for his kindness. He has been a true companion to me for more than 25 years, and I shall miss him immensely. The fondness with which he will be remembered will lift the spirits of the members of the team to which he dedicated the best years of his personal and professional life.

"Everyone at Honda Pons wishes to pass on our condolences to his wife and children at such a sad time. I would like to take the opportunity of thanking you all for your support shown to him throughout our time together."

Cobas' illness was diagnosed - if not generally revealed - midway through the 2003 season. It forced him to stop travelling to races with the Pons team, although he continued to be involved at a distance, keeping abreast of developments and via the internet. Already absent by the time of the British Grand Prix, Cobas' work was remarked upon by Biaggi, who took pole under advice from the technical ace.

"I would like to dedicate this pole position to Antonio Cobas, who is in hospital in Spain," the Italian had said at the time, "I wish him a speedy recovery."

Barcelona-based Cobas started building chassis and motorcycles that were soon to bring world championship success to Spanish riders as long ago as 1975. Sito Pons himself won his very first grand prix riding a 250cc Rotax-powered JJ Cobas machine in the 1984 Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, while his great rival, Carlos Cardus, started the race from pole position riding a similar machine.

Former 500cc world champion Alex Criville also owed his early championship success to the 49-year-old, not only winning his first 125cc grand prix riding a JJ Cobas bike at the 1989 Australian Grand Prix, but going on to win further events in Spain, Germany, Sweden and Czechoslovakia to clinch his first world title.

Cobas was the innovator of many features of motorcycle design that have become standard on many of today's racing machines, and he worked closely with Pons when he won two 250cc titles for Honda in 1988 and 1989. Much of his work has been based around two-stroke engines, but he had no doubt that the new four-stroke motors would be competitive.

"I totally agree with the four-stroke regulations because I think it will benefit the technical development of MotoGP due to the participation of new manufacturers and more involvement in the teams," he explained at the time the new formula was being mooted, "It will also provide a better spectacle for the fans because it will be even more competitive with so many different technical solutions."

Cobas' wealth of experience did not just include grands prix, however, and he also contributed to BMW's rally raid machines and Montesa's quest for the World Trials Championship. He even branched out into four-wheeled racing, by assisting both Formula Renault and Nissan touring car projects.

Cobas' funeral will be held Thursday [15 April] in Barcelona.