Three former champions and half a grid of potential race winners will descend on Qatar this weekend, hoping to make strong starts to one of the most anticipated seasons in the 20-year history of World Superbike.
Reigning double title holder Troy Bayliss
may have confidently swept to his second title on his MotoGP return last season, but few feel that he and Ducati Xerox will have as clear a path this year. The 999 is said to have reached the end of its development, while the latest generation of four-cylinder 1000cc powerhouses from Japan are still galloping forward.
Nevertheless, Bayliss and Ducati are a well-oiled - and incredibly determined - fighting machine, with the Australian again backed up by young team-mate Lorenzo Lanzi
- who finally appears capable of repaying Ducati's faith in him following a horrendous 2006.
But the biggest story this weekend is likely to be the debut of former four-times 250cc world champion Max Biaggi
- the Roman Emperor, who for many years clashed with fellow Italian Valentino Rossi on (and more often off) the track, having switched to WSBK this year following a dramatic exit from MotoGP at the end of 2005.
Biaggi's grand prix exit, triggered by a brutal split from Honda, also brought down the entire Pons team and saw Camel switch sponsorship from Honda to Yamaha - that's the sort of drama the Roman creates and even his harshest critics, of which there are many, admit his move is a huge boost for WSBK. Having sat out 2006, Biaggi could easily have retired to enjoy the rewards of his 14-year grand prix career - when he won 29 250cc GPs and 13 500cc/MotoGP races - but the competitive fire still burns strongly and Max will step into the unknown, with 2005 champions Alstare Suzuki, as he starts a new era of production motorcycle racing in Qatar.
After mixed testing performances, the often intense #3 will be looking for a solid debut in Losail, before the championship moves onto one of his favourite circuits, Phillip Island in Australia. Biaggi's team-mate, Yukio Kagayama, will surely be looking to reclaim the Qatar victory he lost with less than half a lap to go in 2006 - when he was torpedoed by 'friend' Noriyuki Haga
- and build on a strong finish to last season.
Runner-up to Bayliss last year, and the second of the former WSBK champions present in 2007, is Hannspree Ten Kate Honda's James Toseland. Last season saw the young Briton brilliantly rebuild his career, after being sacked by Ducati, and he now carries Honda's hopes for its first title since Colin Edwards in 2002.
Toseland, who turned down a MotoGP ride for a shot at his second title, will be joined by former grand prix rider Roby Rolfo, who has been given a golden opportunity for WSBK success after moving from a privateer Ducati team. The Italian has been steady in testing, but will be expected to improve race-on-race as he adjusts to the CBR1000RR.
Completing the three former WSBK champions is double champion Troy Corser, who lost his Suzuki seat to Biaggi after a tough 2006 - but was quickly snapped up by Yamaha Italia. The Australian thus has a point to prove, while the re-signing of another WSBK legend, Noriyuki Haga, means that Yamaha has high hopes of fighting for the 2007 crown.