Valentino Rossi the favourite ahead of new MotoGP season
After a winter of new riders, rule changes, and six fiercely competitive days of testing, the MotoGP season finally begins in Qatar this weekend.
Rarely has anticipation for a season been higher after the two Yamaha riders of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo fought tooth and nail for the title last season, with the irrepressible Italian eventually prevailing.
Spaniard Dani Pedrosa, despite finishing a distant third in the standings, showed glimpses of quality to snatch wins in America and Spain, while 2007 champion Casey Stoner came a credible fourth after missing three races through illness.
So, the 2010 title race looked set to be more competitive than ever, until Lorenzo broke a bone in his hand during a motocross training accident, ruling him out of valuable testing time in Malaysia, and is still causing him discomfort.
Lorenzo did register the seventh fastest time at the final test in Qatar, but with just six days of pre-season testing allowed, he has undoubtedly lost ground on Rossi before the season has even begun.
Speaking of the Italian, Rossi continued where he left off, setting blisteringly quick times at the opening tests, and finishing almost a quarter of a second faster than Stoner in Sepang.
However, despite dominating for so much of pre-season, Casey Stoner outdid his Italian foe by setting the fastest lap time on the final day in Qatar.
Despite his affable and easy-going mannerisms, Rossi understands the importance of psychological victories, such as epic last-corner overtake of Lorenzo at Catalunya, which meant much more than just an extra five points to his tally.
As a result, Stoner setting the fastest time of a pre-season which Rossi had dominated will surely irk the veteran Italian.
Stoner, on the other hand, must surely be delighted with how things are shaping up. With his health problems of last season firmly behind him, the Australian has started to peak just as the season commences, and Losail is a circuit at which he has won the last three races.
His team-mate Nicky Hayden has also set impressive times in pre-season, indicating that the Ducati Desmosedici is also in fine fettle with its new, ominously-named Ã¢â‚¬Ëœbig bang’ engine.
So what of last season’s third-placed man, Dani Pedrosa?
The diminutive Spaniard has endured a torrid preseason, setting just the 13th best time in the last testing session.
His team-mate, Andrea Dovizioso, has adapted far better to the new suspension Honda are using this term, and he registered an impressive third-fastest time at testing in Qatar.
Pedrosa still has the backing of the Repsol Honda team, but he finished a massive 72 points behind Rossi last season, and it will be interesting to note for how much longer Honda tolerate such dominance from their Japanese rivals Yamaha.
Rossi enters 2010 as favourite but, after a strong pre-season, and with an imperious record at Losail, do not be surprised to see another Italian, the Ducati of Casey Stoner, take the chequered flag in Qatar, and push the current champion all the way to the title.