31 March 2006
Preview - Grand Prix of Flanders.
Stefan Everts starts his final season of grand prix racing at Zolder on Sunday, when the Belgian legend kicks off his quest for a tenth world title.
Standing between the Yamaha star and a farewell championship victory is an unprecedented level of competition, but Everts is inspired by the prospect of his final season and - worryingly for his rivals - has completed a perfect sweep of pre-season victories in the run up to Zolder.
In short, the #72 is looking stronger than ever, while his rivals - expected to be led by 2005 runner-up Josh Coppins, returning former champion Sebastian Tortelli and ex-title holder Mickael Pichon - have all lacked consistency during the pre-season.
Perhaps the biggest post-2005 story has been the return of former 125 and 250cc world champion Tortelli - who beat Everts to the 1998 250cc crown after a dramatic last round showdown, before heading for the US based AMA championship.
Much has been made of that 1998 victory, and more specifically the effect it may have on Stefan's mind, ahead of the 2006 season but - having seen his own hopes of an AMA title ended by one injury after another since 1998 - the spectacularly fast Tortelli also has past disappointments to overcome this year.
Pre-season testing has shown the Frenchman to be fast and determined, but he is yet to fully gel with his new KTM and is something of an unknown quantity - in terms of definite Everts beating potential - for round one... but can never be written off.
With much of the attention on Tortelli, temperamental countryman and team-mate Pichon has enjoyed a more pressure free pre-season - and could prove the most dangerous of the orange riders over the course of a season, although he may lack the mental strength of Tortelli if it comes to a one-on-one title battle with Everts.
CAS Honda rider Coppins enters 2006 knowing that he repeatedly beat Everts at the tail end of 2005, but his victories came too late for a proper title challenge and the kiwi will be determined to place pressure on the Belgian from the opening round. If Everts has a weakness, it is that he can occasionally falter in the heat of a battle - and Coppins intends to be the man providing that heat.
Meanwhile, pre-season racing has indicated that the young Team Suzuki line-up of Kevin Strijbos and Steve Ramon could spring a 2006 surprise - both having battled bar-to-bar with Everts in several 'warm-up' events to raise their confidence ahead of Zolder. Being Belgian, they are also likely to thrive in the deep sand of this Sunday's event.
Other MX1 riders to look for will be Honda's Ken de Dycker, Kawasaki's Tanel Leok and Everts' team-mate Cedric Melotte (who returns to the premier-class after a season in MX2).
In the highly competitive MX2 class, 2005 champion Italian Antonio Cairoli returns to defend his crown with Yamaha, but faces a tough task against the likes of factory KTM stars Marc de Reuver, David Philippaerts and Tyla Rattray - with a whole host of rising stars expected to grace the podium this season.
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