JUST when it was looking like there might be no British riders in GP racing next season, FOUR riders from the UK have secured rides – all within a few days each other.
Jeremy McWilliams will ride for Proton on the KR3 500 two-stroke; Leon Haslam and Jay Vincent will partner each other at the same Spanish-run 250 team; while youngster Chaz Davies is to race in the 125 class.
McWilliams’ deal with Proton has saved his career. Even though he became the first British rider to win a GP in 15 years this year when he clinched the 250 race at Assen it didn’t stop the 37-year-old Ulsterman being left with virtually no job prospect for 2002. Aprilia cut back its efforts in the 250 class to concentrate on the new GP four-stroke racer.
Now he can look forward to slugging it out against the new breed of GP four-strokes on the Kenny Roberts-owned 500cc two-stroke triple.
McWilliams said: " The Proton deal is still not 100 per cent because I haven’t signed the contract yet – I should get that done very soon when I get back from my holiday in the Canary Islands. But I can say I have turned down other chances to ride in favour of the Proton because it’s my first choice and I want to move back to the top class. "
Team manager Chuck Aksland added: " At the moment we have a letter of intent signed by Jeremy to ride for us next year but until we have a full contract signed there will be no official announcement. But I am still confident in Jeremy’s talents. "
McWilliams will be partnered by Japanese rider Nobuatsu Aoki at the Proton team. Aoki has spent the past year testing with the Erv Kanemoto-managed Honda team and Bridgestone developing new tyres for the GP class.
Aoki’s experience may prove invaluable because the Proton team is expected to switch from Michelin to Bridgestone rubber in 2002.
McWilliams is known to have turned down an offer from Carl Fogarty to ride the new Petronas Sauber bike in the WSB series because he was uncertain when the bike would be ready to race.
He added: " There have been other tempting offers from WSB teams but I have always made it clear that I want to stay in GPs – and the Proton offer is the best chance for me to be successful next year. "
Vincent and Haslam will both ride for the Spanish BQR team, which ran Davide Tomas in 2001. Although the team was established seven years ago, last season was its first in the world championship. With increased backing from casino gaming company Cirsa, the team now want to develop further and with all the top Spaniards already signed, they looked to British talent to fill the two berths.
For both riders the chance to remain in GPs has come as a last-minute relief as it was looking increasingly likely that both would have to look elsewhere.
Haslam’s chances of riding in the top class evaporated when the Shell Advance Honda team ran out of backers and Vincent’s 2001 season was one of the most disappointing of his racing career. He started the year with the ill-fated Pulse team but bike and finance problems lead to the team collapsing. He was then forced to return mid-term to the 250 class on a Yamaha.
Both riders will have access to A-kit Honda 250s, which will be further developed over the winter to bring them up to specification of the factory bike that Daijiro Katoh won the world title with this year.
Vincent said: " I spoke to the team at the end of the season and a couple of weeks ago they called me and offered the ride to me. Obviously I was very happy to be given a chance like this and after riding Hondas in the past I know how good the 250 can be.
" Honda has promised lots of help developing the bikes over the winter so it will be more competitive against the full-factory bikes. "
Haslam added: " This will be a great opportunity for me to get some good results at a world level. There are still a few details to sort out before everything is finalised but I’m looking forward to getting going. "
Vincent and Haslam will get the chance to ride their bikes for the first time in Spain in January.
Davies is another British rider who has been helped out in his quest to be a world champion by Spanish backers. Just 14 years old, he will be taking part in the 125GP class providing the team he has been talking to can raise the money to add him to the roster.
Davies became the youngest ever rider to win a British championship race when he won the 125 event at Thruxton in July and could now become one of the youngest to ride full time in GPs.
Spanish ex-GP rider Alberto Puig assisted Davies in the Spanish 125 series and has been instrumental in persuading team bosses to talk to the young Brit.
Davies’ father Pete said: " Chaz has proved to Alberto that he can ride fast and that he is developing as a complete rider. At present I feel that the chances of the deal coming off is better than 50-50. Dorna seem keen to get him in and they know that if he ends up moving to a 600 he’ll be lost to their series. "