Preview - Spanish Grand Prix.
Wednesday, 22nd March 2006
Valentino Rossi starts what could be his final MotoGP campaign this weekend, when the Italian superstar brings his five consecutive world titles to the season opening Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez.
With Rossi's current Yamaha contract expiring at the end of the year, and with the Ferrari Formula One team making no secret about their interest in the Italian, speculation about the future of the #46 is sure to be a major talking point for much of the season - but of more immediate concern to Rossi will be a solution to the handling set backs suffered by his YZR-M1 at the recent Jerez test.
Vibration problems for both Rossi and Camel Yamaha team-mate Colin Edwards left the latter in seventh - 1.3secs from fastest man Loris Capirossi - and Rossi tenth, almost 1.5secs from the top. That vulnerability means their rivals sense a chance of inflicting a rare defeat on Rossi at the opening round of the 17 stop title chase.
Fans from throughout Europe will converge on Jerez for the first clash of the year with a weekend crowd of over 200,000 hoping to soak up some spring sunshine. Heading the pack ready to give seven times world champion Rossi a tough time will be the Ducati Marlboro pair of Loris Capirossi and his new team-mate Sete Gibernau.
They dominated that final test session on the Bridgestone-shod Italian machines and Gibernau in particular has a score to settle with Rossi in front of his home crowd. Last year at the opening round in Jerez, he was involved in a controversial collision with Rossi at the very last bend of a classic race (pictured). Rossi won and Gibernau, then riding for Movistar Honda, ended up running through the gravel trap to start a disastrous season that ended without a single grand prix victory.
Meanwhile, 27 year old Rossi once again ran away with the championship - although he was beaten at the final two races of the season by former 250cc World Champion Marco Melandri. However Melandri - together with new Fortuna Honda team-mate Toni Elias - has also hit testing problems and Honda could be relying on the factory Repsol Honda duo of American Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa to get the good start which is so vital to any title campaign.
Whatever happens on the racetrack, it will be a massive weekend for home hero Pedrosa - who be taking part in his first ever MotoGP race after winning three titles in 125 and 250cc racing. The intense Pedrosa has impressed even Rossi during testing and will be looking for at least a podium finish on Sunday.
Meanwhile Hayden, who secured his breakthrough first grand prix victory at his home US GP last year, is facing his biggest season in the sport - but has struggled with a brand new version of the RC211V during testing. Former team-mates Alex Barros and Max Biaggi both struggled in the role of HRC team leader and Hayden will need to quickly find a base set-up for his bike if he is to be a title contender.
Of the other Honda riders, two times grand prix winner Makoto Tamada hopes to erase all memories of his awful 2005 as he continues his campaign on the Konica Minolta Honda, while a new one rider team will also be entering the class with RCV machinery.
Australian Casey Stoner was runner up in the 250cc Championship last year and joins Champion Pedrosa with the big boys for the first time on Sunday. The 20 year old has missed much of the winter testing because of a shoulder injury but he's fully recovered and will be seeking a decent points scoring finish on his and Honda LCR's debut in the premier-class.
Kenny Roberts Senior and Junior have also switched to Honda power and the Oxfordshire-based Team Roberts have a real chance of success this year, with the combination of former 500cc World Champion Kenny Junior, who returns to the fold, and RCV power making them a realistic top five challenger with the brand new KR211V.
Kawasaki is also looking for a big season after some very impressive winter testing. Japanese ace Shinya Nakano has been flying with some very fast and consistent times, including third fastest behind the two Ducatis in Jerez last week. He's joined by French 250cc star Randy de Puniet who already looks to have made a successful transition to MotoGP despite a few customary tumbles.
Anglo American John Hopkins stayed with Suzuki despite offers from other teams and he's joined by a new team-mate in Australian Chris Vermeulen and team sponsor Rizla for 2006. Hopkins - long overdue a podium - has settled well in his new role as team leader and been in great shape during testing, while former World Superbike star Vermeulen improves every time he rides the bike.
Another rider to impress during the winter is Spanish veteran Carlos Checa, who has bounced back in style from the collapse of the Honda Pons team by securing a ride alongside James Ellison at the Dunlop backed Tech 3 Yamaha team - and setting head turning one-lap testing times. German Alex Hoffman also retains a MotoGP ride with Pramac d'Antin where he's joined by Spaniard Jose Luis Cardoso.
Meanwhile, the 250cc World Championship is wide open after the departure of Pedrosa and Stoner, leaving the way open for some typically frantic battles between Spaniards Jorge Lorenzo and Hector Barbara who have switched to Aprilia power. Also look out for Alex de Angelis, Hiroshi Aoyama and Marco Simoncelli to liven up the action.
125cc World Champion Thomas Luthi returns to defend his crown in 2006, but is recovering from a broken collarbone. Last season Luthi won a tight title race with KTM's Mika Kallio and the Finn is sure to be a leading contender once again.