Arch-rivals Stoner and Rossi appear set for another titanic battle
By Matt Roberts
BBC MotoGP reporter
With the first race of the new MotoGP season a week away, it is already hard to see past another battle between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner for the title.
Certainly, that is the way it looked in pre-season testing, the first five days of which Yamaha rider Rossi dominated until Stoner stole his thunder on the final day in Qatar.
Rules changes have restricted testing to just six days, and that means those who got their homework right are more than one step ahead.
With Rossi's team-mate Jorge Lorenzo sure to need some time to fully recover from a hand injury and Dani Pedrosa in desperate trouble on the new factory Honda, old rivals Rossi and Stoner look like they will take some catching.
Lorenzo missed the second test in Malaysia in February after breaking a bone in his hand in a motocross training accident, adding to a catalogue of surgical interventions to the MotoGP grid during the winter.
Rossi dominated five of the six days of pre-season testing
The Spaniard was the first to go under the surgeon's knife at last season's end, with doctors removing a plate that had been fixed to his left collarbone since 2005 just two weeks after the final race at Valencia.
At the same time LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet had an operation to remove screws from his left ankle, which he had broken in the summer, while two days before Christmas Pedrosa had a screw removed from his hand.
Pramac Ducati's Aleix Espargaro had what is a routine operation for MotoGP riders to relieve compartmental syndrome (arm pump) in his left forearm, as did Ducati's Nicky Hayden, who then needed a clean-up procedure to remove scar tissue in February, between the two Sepang tests.
San Carlo Honda's Marco Simoncelli has avoided the surgeon's knife but he did require CAT scans in a Kuala Lumpur hospital following the worst of a series of confidence-sapping crashes in Malaysia - exactly the kind that knocked the stuffing out of James Toseland at the same time last year and effectively ruined his season.
Perhaps more of a danger to the MotoGP field than their own maladies, however, is a clean bill of health for Stoner, who has enjoyed a full pre-season without a visit to the doctors for the first time since winning the title in 2007.
Stoner spent last pre-season recovering from major wrist surgery and the winter before that struggling with an old shoulder problem that had previously affected preparations for his rookie campaign back in 2006.
Furthermore, the Australian is benefiting from the revitalised well-being of the Ducati Desmosedici GP10, which features a new 'big-bang' engine configuration and higher seat position amongst the most significant updates to the GP9.
The changes make the notoriously wild Italian stallion easier to handle, particularly in corner exit, and give it more pitch under braking and acceleration, giving the riders better feel for the tyres.
Perhaps more of a danger to the MotoGP field than their own maladies is a clean bill of health for Stoner
Hayden has benefited hugely from the modifications, ending third and fourth fastest respectively in the two tests at Sepang, Malaysia and Losail, Qatar, respectively, making him a contender for early podiums.
Changes to the Yamaha YZR-M1 factory machines of Rossi and Lorenzo have been of a more subtle nature, with testing focused mainly around finding the right electronic mapping for the new long-life engines. The overall performance of what was already the best bike on the grid has been evident in the preseason form of satellite pair Colin Edwards and standout rookie Ben Spies.
For my money Spies, whose ability to surprise is becoming less of a shock with every test, joins Hayden as an outside shot for a top-three finish in the opening race. With Lorenzo short of 100% fitness and preparation, the Americans are ideally placed to capitalize - especially with Honda in such dire trouble.
Andrea Dovizioso papered over the cracks with a quick late lap in Qatar to finish third but his pace throughout preseason has been inconsistent, whilst team-mate Dani Pedrosa has been consistently slow.
Stoner has looked quick on the new Ducati in testing
The HRC pair were told before the Brno race last August that they would be switching from Showa suspension to Öhlins for 2010 and whilst Dovizioso opted to do so immediately, Pedrosa stuck with the Spanish brand that he has used throughout his career until the end of the season.
So, while the Italian has finally begun to make progress with the opening race on the horizon the Spaniard is still going around in circles trying to find the right chassis stiffness for the new forks.
Pedrosa was a massive 1.5 seconds off the pace in Qatar, although he is not the only Honda rider with problems - the returning Marco Melandri and rookie pair Hiro Aoyama and Marco Simoncelli were three of just four riders slower than him at that final test.
Even a return to his traditional number 26 has failed to rescue Pedrosa, who has used two and three without much luck in recent seasons.
There are some other interesting numbers to look out for amongst the rookies this season, with Spies settling for 11 after missing out on his preferred 19 to Alvaro Bautista and Hector Barbera taking 40 in a shrewd sponsorship deal with Spanish pop chart radio station 'Los 40 Principales'.
Down one, fellow Spaniard Esparagaro is at 41 - cleverly incorporating the number to make the AL at the beginning of Aleix on his name graphics and logos.
Pedrosa has been struggling with the factory Honda
Espargaro is not the only forward thinker in the Pramac Ducati garage, which will be splashed in garish green paint this season in an attempt to raise environmental awareness. The team plans to use solar panels and wind turbines to power their hospitality units and trucks, although they chose an ironic venue to launch the initiative.
The 3,600 light fixtures that illuminate the Losail circuit require 5.4m watts of power - enough, the owners proudly claim, to light a street from Doha to Moscow. And who provides the generators? You guessed it
Green is not the only new colour to be appearing on a Ducati this season, with Team Aspar stepping up to MotoGP with backing from Spanish telephone directory Paginas Amarillas (Yellow Pages), meaning the combative rookie Hector Barberá will be very much the yellow peril of the premier-class.
However, with three wins from the last three visits to Qatar, it is likely to be the more traditional red Desmosedici of Casey Stoner that steals the limelight on 11 April.
British teenager Scott Redding established his credentials as a contender for the inaugural Moto2 World Championship in the final preseason test, which ended at Jerez on Monday.
Moto2, which features prototype motorcycles with identical Honda-powered 600cc engines, replaces the 250cc series as the feeder class to MotoGP this season.
Redding, 17, finished fourth overall after three days at the Spanish circuit, clocking a best time of one minute 44.394 seconds, 0.3secs behind Italian pacesetter Claudio Corti and marginally outside the 250cc lap record.
Redding, who became the youngest rider to win a Grand Prix with victory in the 125cc race at Donington Park in 2008, moved up from the minor category at the end of last season but has struggled to adapt to the bigger four-stroke machine over the winter.
However, he made a significant breakthrough during a private two-day session at Jerez last week and continued to improve throughout the final session, clocking up 170 laps and consistently running inside the top five on the timesheet.
"It has all come together during the last two tests here in Jerez and I'm glad to say we're now well and truly on the pace," said Redding.
"We've made some big steps forward with the set-up of the bike but the biggest improvement has come from me changing my riding style - I was trying to ride the bike like a 125cc machine, when it requires a very different style to get the best from it.
"Having been in the top five on the timesheet throughout these three days, we head for the first race in Qatar (on 11 April) knowing that we're on the pace, but I'm determined not to be over confident.
"We'll be aiming for a top-10 finish but, if I'm honest, I think top five could be a possibility if everything comes together for us. I just can't wait to get there and get the season started now!"