After a long but successful winter test programme spanning four months and three continents, the Kawasaki Racing Team return to the Jerez circuit in Andalusia, Southern Spain this weekend for the opening race of the 2006 MotoGP World Championship season.
It was at this circuit 12 months ago that Shinya Nakano secured his best result of 2005, bringing his Ninja ZX-RR home in fifth place. One year on and the Kawasaki rider returns to Jerez to race the all-new version of Kawasaki's Ninja ZX-RR, and with his sights set firmly on a podium finish.
Nakano has good reason to be confident of a strong result in Sunday's 27-lap Spanish Grand Prix, having posted the third fastest time overall during the IRTA test at Jerez less than two weeks ago, where the top three positions were filled by riders on Bridgestone tyres.
Nakano's teammate, Randy de Puniet, has been a revelation during testing, surprising many with the speed at which he's adapted to the demands of riding Kawasaki's Ninja ZX-RR MotoGP machine. The 25-year-old rookie capped an extensive winter test programme by finishing fifth fastest overall during the IRTA test at Jerez earlier this month.
And while de Puniet is the first to admit that he still has much to learn about racing in MotoGP, he arrives in Jerez determined to mark his race debut in the premier class with a strong performance throughout practice and qualifying, followed by a good result in Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix.
Jerez is one of the most popular events on the MotoGP calendar, with more than 200,000 spectators packing into the circuit over the course of a race weekend.
Both Nakano and de Puniet cite the 4.423 km Jerez circuit as one of their favourites, due in equal parts to the technical nature of the track and the thrill of the high-speed final section.
Shinya Nakano: #56"Hopefully we will be able to carry on the momentum from the IRTA test here two weeks ago, building up throughout practice to end Saturday with a good qualifying position. Qualifying is important this weekend for two reasons; firstly this is a difficult track on which to overtake, so the closer you are to the front of the grid the better, and secondly because it is Harald Eckl's 50th birthday on Saturday and it would be nice to give him something extra to celebrate! We proved during the IRTA test that both the new Ninja ZX-RR and our Bridgestone tyres work well around this circuit, so I'm confident that we can put in a strong performance on Sunday. If everything comes together on the day, I think a podium finish is a realistic target for us."
Randy de Puniet: #17"After a successful overseas test schedule, and finishing fifth fastest here at the IRTA test, my feeling with the Ninja ZX-RR is good coming into my first MotoGP race weekend. But I am not fooling myself, I know I am still on a steep learning curve and that racing is very different to testing. My final position this weekend is less important than continuing to do a good job on the bike, and putting in a strong performance during practice, qualifying and the race. Testing has been good, but now I'm looking forward to Sunday and making my MotoGP race debut aboard the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-RR."