Reigning six-time MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi expects 2008 runner-up Casey Stoner to be his number one rival during an “even more difficult” 2009 season.
Stoner joined only Kenny Roberts Jr (2000) and Nicky Hayden (2006) in beating Rossi to a premier-class title when he dominated the 2007 world championship, during a stunning first season with Ducati.
2008 proved more problematic for the young Australian, who suffered early season set-up problems before twice falling from the race lead, at Brno and Misano. By contrast, Rossi was the epitome of consistency, finishing off the podium just twice during 18 races and winning nine events to wrap up his first title since 2005.
Nevertheless, Stoner proved his raw speed remained intact by taking more pole positions and fastest race laps than any other rider on his way to second in the world championship - and Rossi is backing him to come out fighting in 2009.
“I think that the number one rival will be Stoner,” said Rossi, during an interview marking Fiat Yamaha's online team launch. “Then also Pedrosa will be very fast, and of course [Rossi's team-mate] Lorenzo.”
Despite finishing 93 points clear of Stoner in the final standings, Rossi has claimed that the 2008 title was his hardest ever - but he now expects 2009 to be even tougher.
“2008 was difficult because it was the year in which I had to give the most of myself in order to win,” he explained. “In 2009 it will be even more difficult because my adversaries, who suffered in 2008, are now out for payback and will be looking to beat me. I think it's going to be even harder than 2008!”
Rossi's team manager Davide Brivio agreed with his rider, both in terms of their number one rival and the size of the challenge they face in keeping their crown.
“Stoner, who declared he'll be more aggressive,” said Brivio, when asked to name his biggest threat.
“Certainly next year will be more difficult, partly because in 2008, after two hard years, we were not among the favourites,” Brivio stated. “Maybe some people thought that it was the beginning of Valentino's decline from a competitive point of view. Instead we managed to have a great, redeeming season, so now everybody is waiting for us, especially our rivals. This is normal; when you don't win, you become more hard-bitten.