Engines screaming, tyres smoking - the new look Superside UEM European Sidecar Championship bursts into action next weekend at Vallelunga, Italy.
The 3.2km circuit just 30km from Rome plays hosts on 14/15 May to the first of eight exciting rounds, that will see the championship visit Hungary, Croatia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Holland, Germany, and Spain on route to deciding the eventual 2004 Champions.
Steve Webster and Paul Woodhead
Heading the multi-national entry list in Italy is 9 times World Sidecar Champion, Steve Webster and his double World Championship winning passenger Paul Woodhead. The formidable pairing on their new Castrol/Suzuki backed machine will start the season as firm favourites to take the title. Their brand new LCR-Suzuki GSXR1000 has performed well in pre-season testing, and Webbo will be keen to kick his season off in style.
However, Webbo & Woody are sure to face fierce competition from their fellow British rivals Tom Hanks & Phil Biggs, on the Halton Fabrications Windle-Yamaha R1, and brothers Tim & Tristan Reeves who now have Webster's 2003 championship winning LCR-Suzuki underneath them in the impressive Team M&M set up.
Tim and Tristan Reeves
Tom Hanks and Phil Biggs
Tom Hanks and Phil Biggs have scored a string of podium positions over the past few seasons, and narrowly missed out on their first win at top level last season at Misano.
In that race the pair finished ahead of Webster and with team owner Brian Ditchfield working throughout the winter developing the Windle chassis, Hanks will be aiming to show it was no fluke.
Meanwhile, the Reeves brothers enter their first full season of top level competition, having debuted during the second half of last year with some good results. Already this year they have shown excellent form in testing, pushing Webster all the way. They are more than capable of taking the fight to both Webbo and Hanks throughout the year, and scoring their first podium finish.
The Dutch father and son team of Martien & Tonnie van Gils are the third, and final pairing on the grid, who have tasted the podium champagne in the past, and will be hungry to improve on their best results of a brace of 3rd positions. The Maton Racing Team are a close knit bunch and as Holland's sole representative in the championship this year, will be making every effort to challenge for the title and keep the Dutch flag flying high.
Martien and Tonnie van Gils
Gerhard Hauzenberger and Werner Höhenberger
The irrepressible Adolf Hänni from Switzerland, once again partners the ever improving German Mike Roscher on the Hanni Racing LCR-Suzuki GSXR1000. Roscher and Hanni's best result has been a fourth position, so they too will be trying hard to make it onto the rostrum for the first time. From across the boarder in Austria, comes Gerhard Hauzenberger. Hauzi has proved to be very quick in the past, but the last few years have seen a number of incidents which seemed to have taken the spark away. If he can regain the speed and confidence, then the Austrian will certainly be another in contention for a podium finish during year. Maybe his passenger Werner Höhenberger can help him with that.
Finland's Tero Manninen and Pekka Kuisman move up to the European Championship this year, competing against the top teams for the first time. If they can show the speed and consistency that won them the EuroCup title last season, they too could prove to be worthy challengers for the podium throughout the year. They are joined on the grid by fellow Fin, Pekka Päivärinta with Swedish passenger Peter Wall. Päivärinta is relatively unknown to most of the competition at this level, but has had some good results in the past at various national races and could well surprise many of the regular teams.
Tero Manninen and Pekka Kuisman
Upholding Italian honours for the opening round are the youngest pairing on the grid. 23 yr old Gianbattista Lazzarini and his 22 yr old passenger Alessandro Polidori take on the best in the world, with their WLZ Suzuki GSXR. Lazzarini is a rising star in Italy, and the son of former Italian champion, Walter. On home ground, the pair could be the outside bet for a surprise result.
Billy Gallrös and Peter Berglund
Billy Gallrös, a former Grand Prix winner as a passenger [with Gote Brodin in the late 70's] and renowned paddock joker, leads the Swedish charge with long suffering partner Peter Berglund. Gallrös has a wealth of experience and, crucially, now has the right machinery to be a regular in the top six and occasional podium challenger. However, it's hard to see fellow Swede's Reijo Nurmi and Mikael Söderberg getting close to Gallrös, although they will be having their own private battles further down the field.
Robert Biggs, the youngest of the three passengering Biggs brothers (Phil with Tom Hanks, and former World Champion Jamie who rode with Steve Abbott), has teamed up with Dan Morrissey this year on the Excalibur Racing LCR-Yamaha R1. Morrisey has looked very good, but only on occasion, and is another who has lacked consistency. Hopefully Rob will bring renewed enthusiasm to the team, and if everything is to Dan's liking the young pairing should be aiming for the top six.
Robert Biggs and Dan Morrissey
Andy Laidlow and Pat Farrance
Completing the British line up are Tony Williams and Pete Hill. This experienced team finished runners up to Manninen in the EuroCup last year, beating their Swedish rival on one occasion. The Yorkshire based crew, who have close links to Webbo, will be aiming to beat Morrisey, at the very least. Whilst newcomers Andy Laidlow and Pat Farrance will undoubtedly be on a very steep learning curve, getting used to both the F1 machine and the longer race distances than they have been used to. But the former Scottish Champion should not be under estimated as the season progresses.
Rounding out the European contingent is Thomas Foukal with passenger Jiri Pertlicek from the Czech Republic. Foukal has yet to really trouble the German championship regulars, so it remains to be seen how he will cope at this level. However, the experience of racing against high class opposition will surely bring out the best from the Czech ace.
Barry and Jane Fleury
The series is not restricted to just European competitors though. New Zealand husband and wife duo, Barry and Jane Fleury have been on the scene for many years, and have a wealth of experience. This season they switch to Suzuki GSXR power - as favoured by many of the teams - in search of improving their recent run of results. The pair are capable of top ten finishes, if everything is right in the camp.
So, can Webster and Woodhead continue their winning ways at Vallelunga? Will Hanks, Reeves, or the van Gils' be able to show the old master some new tricks? Or will Manninen be able to spring a real surprise and show that the number one plate is justified?
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