The main talking point heading into this weekend's Qatar MotoGP season opener is the potential of the new Ducati GP15, which topped the final test in the hands of Andrea Dovizioso.
With team-mate Andrea Iannone a close third - having been quickest on day one - plus the revelation that Ducati did not run its soft Open class rear tyre, many are asking what the bike can achieve on its race debut at the same Losail circuit this weekend.
On Wednesday some of Ducati's main rivals gave their opinion. All felt that the Italian factory has made a big step, with some believing Ducati will provide world champion Marc Marquez's main opposition for victory this weekend.
“Of course the Yamaha riders and my team-mate [Dani Pedrosa] will be really strong like every year. But it looks like Ducati did a big step,” said Repsol Honda's Marquez, the only rider to finish the Qatar test ahead of a GP15.
“So this weekend they will be there, and it will be a difficult fight with them. But I think it's good for championship, and it will be interesting to see more manufacturers at the front. Both Andreas, but especially Dovi, he has a lot of experience and he will be there. I think it will be nice to see.”
Movistar Yamaha's Valentino Rossi, whose two-year misery prompted a Ducati overhaul, pointed out that the loss of the final day of testing to rain meant a question mark hangs over race pace.
However the Italian legend stated that, as things stand, Ducati start as Marquez's closest rivals at Losail.
“Unfortunately for everybody we miss one day. Because we have other work to do, and try to do the simulation, and all can be more clear, no? Like this, it can be more a surprise,” said Rossi, title runner-up in 2014.
“But from what we saw from the test here in Qatar, the two Ducatis are the two bikes closer to Marc, because they are very fast in one lap, but also about the rhythm. We have to work, because we want to try to stay with them and try to fight for the podium.”
Team-mate Jorge Lorenzo added: “Obviously at the Qatar test we saw a lot of riders very close. We saw the Ducatis being stronger than last year, they made a big step.”
Tech 3 Yamaha's Bradley Smith also believes the test top three are a step ahead of the rest - and isn't sure they can be caught by Sunday.
“Looking at it the top three are a step away at the moment with Marc and the two Ducati. I don't see anyone at the test that will have anything for them,” said the Englishman. “The pace here is close but 0.3 or 0.4s a lap here is very tough to find. If someone has 0.2s a lap it can be enough but they [top three] had 0.4s so that's a big step.”
“We don't know the long run pace [of the Ducatis] but if they are already 0.4s ahead after ten laps we'll be four seconds behind them and that's a lot to lose in the rest of the race. I believe that they'll be strong but it's good for the sport to have it competitive. It's worse for us because we're not really able to look for podiums for the team but at the end of the day we are a satellite team and we're expected to be the top satellite and not expected to beat the Ducatis.”
A softer rear tyre allocation is part of the Open class technical package available to Ducati, Suzuki and Aprilia. It's a major boost for qualifying, making Ducati the team to beat for pole, but could be a disadvantage in the race if the hardest rear (not available to Ducati, Suzuki and Aprilia) was best.
However Smith confirmed: “The harder rear tyre isn't an option so we'll all use the same tyre in the race.”
“It'll be difficult to get into Q2 from your practice times because Suzuki has shown that they are quite fast on the soft tyre and Ducati are the fastest with the soft tyre,” stated Smith's team-mate Pol Espargaro. “We don't know what they can do in the race but we do know what they can do in qualifying.
“This track is quite important for the soft tyre because when the track isn't in perfect conditions-cold or dirty-the soft tyre is much better than the hard tyre. Here we'll find difficult conditions and the soft tyre will work really well so it'll be interesting.
“Our expectations will depend on where Suzuki and Ducati are this year.”
Former Ducati rider Cal Crutchlow insists he isn't surprised by the GP15, having been shown plans for Gigi Dall'Igna's new machine last season.
“Same as I thought last year when I saw the design for it and how it was going to be made,” said the new LCR Honda rider. “It's special. There's no doubt about that. Fast in a straight line that's for sure. With the combination of two fast riders, being fast in a straight line and turning a lot better I think we - a lot of guys - could be in trouble… “I took my decision and I have no regrets. I wish them well.”
Meanwhile Dovizioso and Iannone are carrying the kind of confident smiles former Ducati riders could only dream of.
“Of course, to finish the test before the race in the first position is really important, especially because we have a new bike,” said Dovizioso. “I believe now we have the pace to fight for the podium. I mean, still it is quite early for us , because made just five days on the track, and still I believe we have to understand more and more about the bike. And I believe we have margin to improve the bike, not about the speed, but to be consistent at every track.”
The Italian, who took two Ducati podiums last season, added: “If we make a comparison from last year, we were very fast, especially in the last part of the season, but we didn't have speed in the race. We knew the reason, and I believe and I hope that we are in a different situation, because now the bike is working more normal. And we are able to work on small things to try to fight for the podium. Last year we were fast with a new tyre, but when the tyre grip drop, we weren't able to keep the lap time.”
For Iannone, the move from Pramac to the official Ducati team has come at exactly the right moment.
“I feel good and I'm happy because the last test was so good for Ducati and for me,” he said. “I'm really charged for the start of the season and I hope that it's a good season for me and my team. I think that the bike is competitive and the performance is very high. I don't know if we are the Yamaha level but I think that in the factory the guys are working very hard and my feeling is so good.
“It's completely different compared to Pramac because I now have one more year's experience. The team works very differently too and there are many more people supporting me at the track and in the garage. I now think that I can fight for the top five in every race.”
Ducati has not won a MotoGP race since 2010.
Opening practice for the Qatar Grand Prix, MotoGP's only night race, takes place on Thursday.