Yamaha Factory Team riders Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards begin their assault on the 2007 MotoGP World Championship next weekend as the most eagerly anticipated season in recent history finally fires up in Qatar. Saturday's race is the first of eighteen mouth-watering events across thirteen countries and four continents that will decide the destiny of the most coveted prize in motorcycle racing. For the first time since the turn of the millennium, Rossi starts out as a challenger to the throne.
After finally conceding his title to Nicky Hayden (Honda) in a dramatic last chapter to the 2006 campaign at Valencia in November, the ever-popular Italian has worked tirelessly alongside his engineers on development of Yamaha's all-new YZR-M1, which features an 800cc capacity engine in accordance with new technical regulations. The revised rulebook also stipulates a reduced fuel capacity of 21 litres and a maximum of 31 tyres (14 front and 17 rear) per rider during a race weekend, piling extra pressure on the teams and adding even more intrigue for the fans as the season gets underway.
Rossi's hopes of a winning start are substantiated by two victories from three previous visits to the Losail International Circuit since its inauguration in 2004. His confidence has been further boosted by an outstanding performance in the final pre-season test at Jerez, where he set the fastest lap in a televised 40-minute 'qualifying' session and capped an excellent winter of development work that has taken in seventeen days of hard graft at circuits in Spain, Malaysia and Qatar.
The equally diligent work of Rossi's dependable team-mate Colin Edwards, who was close behind Rossi in third during last week's 'qualifying' session, has contributed greatly to the swift evolution of the 800cc version YZR-M1 and the pair are now bursting to go racing. The 'Texan Tornado' is promising to whip up a storm in the desert and maintain a strong front throughout the year, as he looks to capitalise on a pre-season that has seen him side-by-side with Rossi at the top end of the time sheets at virtually every circuit they have visited.
Bike set-up at the Losail International Circuit is complicated by a host of slow corners that are preceded by fast changes of direction. The tight hairpin at turn six, for example, comes with a quick right-left change under braking, calling for a delicate balance between stability and agility. The most important section is the three fast rights at the end of the lap because this is where the rider can make up the most time, making stability at maximum lean angle an absolute must so that he has confidence to open the throttle with the bike still on its side.
Valentino Rossi - "Fast and fun";
The sight of Rossi and his new M1 in high-speed harmony during that final pre-season test at Jerez will have mesmerised his fans and demoralised his rivals, sending out a clear warning that the most successful motorcycle racer in recent history wants his title back. The 28-year-old has had just one thought in his mind since shaking hands with Nicky Hayden on the warm-down lap at Valencia and he is convinced that this season's ambitions will not be hampered by the misfortunes that ultimately denied him tenure of the number 1 plate for a sixth straight year.
"After the great test in Jerez we're going to the first race feeling confident and happy," says Rossi. "Last year we had some problems at the final test that left us feeling worried going to the first race but more than anything Jerez proved that we're in a very different situation to last year and confirmed the great job we've done with the new M1 over the winter. Now it's finally time for the first race and it's time to see if all our hard work pays off. Everyone is very excited and very motivated after what happened last year and our aim is very simple - to win!"
"I like Qatar a lot, it's fast and fun to ride and I have won there twice. Of course it's quite hot and dusty so tyre choice will be very important, especially with the new rules. The other key factor is going to be the fuel consumption - I think it is something everybody is worried about this season but we are all in the same boat. We know the bike should work well at the first two races but the championship is very long. Dani Pedrosa has looked the most consistent in testing but I think Nicky Hayden, Loris Capirossi and my own team-mate Colin Edwards will be in the fight for the title."
Colin Edwards - "A level playing field";
After stating earlier in the pre-season that the YZR-M1 is the best 800cc bike in the field, Colin Edwards has seen nothing to change his mind over the past two tests and the 33-year-old is now on the brink of what he hopes can be his best season since joining MotoGP in 2003. The former double World Superbike Champion has scored six podiums in that time, one of them coming at Losail in 2004, and he is confident of adding significantly to that tally this year - starting on Saturday at a circuit he feels provides a level playing field between him and more seasoned Grand Prix riders.
"Qatar is a great track, I love it and I always feel that it's a level playing field because we've only been there a few times as opposed to some of the European circuits where other riders have basically grown up," observes Edwards. "I'm feeling really confident going back there for the first race, especially after our last test there when I was pretty fast every day, and the progress we made at Jerez last week. The track suits my style and I felt really comfortable there during the test, so hopefully we can translate that to the race conditions."
"We had some problems in the race last year but I am feeling completely different now because this bike is a whole new ballgame. After working really well on smooth tracks like Sepang and Qatar we managed to adopt it to the bumps at Jerez with a completely different setting so I'm really confident that we have a great package for the whole season. I've said throughout pre-season that the target this season is to win races, so I'm looking forward to getting started."
Davide Brivio - "Let's go racing!";
Yamaha Factory Racing Team Director Davide Brivio echoes the confidence of his riders after watching them lap in record pace at all three of the circuits the team have visited during their exhaustive winter testing programme. Last Sunday's success in the competitive timed session provided an extra injection of excitement and motivation to the team's mood, as the Italian reports, the riders are not the only members of staff who are counting down the days to the new season's opening showdown.
"Finally we're going racing!" smiles Brivio. "I think this season will be very interesting because it is the first time in several years that Valentino isn't starting as the defending champion and there are many young riders who are now ready to fight for the title. We have had a good winter of testing and we feel that we have made a good job of preparing for the new season. Now we're excited to go racing and see exactly how prepared we really are."
"Qatar will be the first time everybody shows their cards for real and we are all very curious to see what level we are at compared to our rivals. The mood in the team is optimistic because both Colin and Valentino have been amongst the top riders all through the winter so providing everything goes OK then we can expect to be competitive. Let's go racing!"