By Barry Russell
Most of the world's top road racers gathered in the Asian gambling capital of Macau over the weekend to prepare for the 45th running of the Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix, which begins with the first practice session on Thursday morning.
The injured Stuart Easton, who won the last three Macau grands prix, is one of very few notable absentees this year.
The others are his 2010 team-mates, the promising Simon Andrews, who also suffered serious injuries during the season and Keith Amor, who decided to stick with the longer, flowing circuits of the British Isles after last year's race around the challenging Guia Circuit.
Past winners John McGuinness and Michael Rutter have points to prove.
It is ten years since the Morecombe Missile took his single victory, while the speed and smooth style of six-times winner Rutter, who took pole position and finished second behind Easton in 2010, makes him the form favourite and a target for the rest of the field.
Rutter has plenty of data for his Riders Motorcycles Ducati to be fast straight out of the crate, while McGuinness will be on his familiar SMT Honda, with local backing from Roadhouse.
Perennial wild-card Bruce Anstey returns to Macau for his third appearance and is as capable as ever of reaching the podium.
Another two senior road racers are using Macau as a tough test of their rehabilitation from career-threatening injuries.
Ian Hutchinson will be on the Swan Yamaha, which he has been testing with a thumb-operated rear brake and a specially designed right-side gear change mechanism, while Conor Cummins makes a welcome return with Paul Bird's IGT sponsored Kawasaki Racing Team. Both joined Stuart Easton on the podium on their last appearances in 2009.
These five legends will be getting a very hard time from some of the sport's emerging stars.
Gary Johnson's career got back on track in 2011 with his first win and a third place in the Isle of Man TT and he has been one of the fastest men around Macau for the last two years, despite considerable technical handicaps. He is now one of road racing's hottest properties and will be riding the IGT Suzuki by TAS machine on which Josh Brookes contested the 2011 British Superbike championship.
Other men to watch (it is culturally unacceptable for women to race motorcycles in China, according to the organisers) will be Paul Bird's other two recruits for Macau, Michael Dunlop, who is unlikely to let being there for the first time slow him down and Californian Jeremy Toye, who caused a sensation by taking third place in 2010 on the Locust-Lee's Cycle BMW.
William Dunlop will be on the Wilson Craig Honda, while Rutter's teammate, Martin Jessop, should also be a threat.
Non-factory riders capable of embarrassing some of the big names are James Hillier, who has had an excellent year on the roads for Bournemouth Kawasaki and loves the Guia Circuit, Stephen Thompson, who will partner McGuinness on the Honda Gary Johnson took to third place in the Isle of Man Superbike TT and Czech champion and Irish roads star Michal 'Indi' Dokoupil, who improved throughout the event in his debut appearance a year ago and this time will be astride the DMR Racing BMW.
While they are unlikely to threaten the top eight, plenty of colour will be added by the BMWs of Germany's Rico Penzkofer, Austria's Horst Saiger and the USA's Sean Dwyer.