Who can stop Valentino Rossi? That has been the conundrum facing riders and teams in MotoGP in recent seasons - and this campaign looks as if it is going to be no different. Statistically, the Italian is the greatest rider in the history of the sport and he looks to be as motivated as ever going into the new season, which starts this evening in Qatar, as he targets a 10th world championship and eighth in the top echelon of the sport.
Since he moved up to the 500cc category - the top level of motorcycling - in 2000, Rossi has been pipped for the title on only three occasions. One was his debut year, in which he finished second. Then in 2006 he had the title sewn up until a rare mistake, a crash in Valencia, allowed Nicky Hayden to take the crown. And in 2007 he was powerless to stop the dominant combination of Casey Stoner and Ducati from sweeping all before them.
Two titles in a row have raised the 31-year-old's reputation to even greater heights and he is the strong favourite to win a third successive championship this year and take his haul of honours into double figures. The Yamaha rider has been quick throughout pre-season testing and arrived at the Losail track full of confidence for the opening race. "The pre-season has gone well for me," the confident Rossi told crash.net.
"Yamaha and [tyre-makers] Bridgestone have done a great job and we have been fast. "We have only had six days on track so we still have work to do and things to learn about the new bike, but we are starting in good shape." It is difficult to read too much into testing, but Yamaha's one-lap pace did look exceptional, and if Rossi has any kind of a performance advantage over the rest of the field then he is going to be a formidable force.
Rossi's teammate Jorge Lorenzo's preparations for the new season have been hindered by a hand injury. Lorenzo, who suffered the injury during testing in Malaysia, will compete in Qatar tonight, but he is unlikely to be at full fitness. Rossi's closest rival is expected to be Stoner, who was the form man at the end of the 2009 season. The Australian won two of the last three contests after recover from the debilitating illness that forced him to miss three races.
He has won the last three races in Qatar and he believes he is well placed to go for a fourth win in a row at the Losail track. "Ducati have come up with a much more manageable engine for this season, it is easier for everybody to understand and from my point of view I am finding it easier to ride fast on used tyres," he said. "We have made progress with the set-up ever since the first test at Sepang and we're happy with what we have going into the first race."
Honda's Dani Pedrosa will hope to push for more than the occasional race win, while the Tech 3 Yamaha riders Colin Edwards and Ben Spies, the latter having moved over from the World Superbike Championship which he won last year, are both optimistic that they can push the factory Yamaha and Ducati bikes on their day. But it is all about Rossi. If the bike is quick and reliable it is his championship to lose.
And considering that he has been the champion seven times in the past 10 years it is hard to see anyone finishing ahead of him. * Compiled by Graham Caygill