Remember the build-up to the race in Suzuka last year? It was the first grand prix for the new 990cc four-strokes, and questions flowed throughout the weeks before the historic race....

How would the 990cc four-stroke fare against the 500cc two-strokes that had ruled the scene for so long ? Were the four-strokes the future of grand prix racing and would other manufacturers be tempted to dip their toe into the MotoGP water, to challenge the might of the Japanese ? Finally, would the transition tempt riders from other championships, primarily the World Superbike Championship, to switch to MotoGP?

Ironically, the answers to those questions twelve months ago, come by perusing through the questions that are being raised before the opening race in 2003.

When will the Proton KR four-stroke bike be ready to race is among the posers being asked. The reason, the Proton KR team are the last to complete a four-stroke machine. The machine has been unveiled and is undergoing extensive dyno testing. It will not be ready for Japan and the team will enter the only two-stroke machines on the grid at Suzuka. The rest will be four-strokes and Proton hope to join them by the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez in May.

Eight separate makes of machine will start the MotoGP season. Honda,Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Aprilia, Ducati, Proton KR and Harris WCM will battle for the most competitive manufacturers' championship in the 54 year history of grand prix motorcycle racing.

World Superbike specialists Ducati are the big newcomer with their 990cc machine, that led the way in the Barcelona test two weeks ago. The Italian factory know they have to compete against the other major manufactures in the premier world championship. Kawasaki competed in four races last year, before their full time involvement this year, while for the first time Austrian off road giants KTM compete in the 125cc class, to prepare the way for a MotoGP challenge in 2005. Yes, four-stroke are the future for MotoGP and yes, new manufactures are already being tempted to join.

So, what about the riders?

No less than nine world champions line up at Suzuka for the 21 lap race that heralds the start of the new season. Never in the history of motorsport on two or four wheels have so many world champions come together, to contest a single championship crown.

The veritable who's who of motorcycle racing headed by 125, 250, 500 and MotoGP world champion, Italian Valentino Rossi, while American Kenny Roberts is the other 500cc world champion on the grid. They are joined by no less than five 250cc world champions - Camel Pramac Pons star Max Biaggi won the 250cc title four times, Loris Capirossi has won the 125cc Championship twice and the 250cc once, while Daijiro Kato, Olivier Jacque and last year's champion Marco Melandri, have all been crowned as king of the 250s.

So all the top grand prix riders competing in the MotoGP class, but they were all there last year, apart from Melandri -who was busy winning the 250cc title. Perhaps the most significant world champions to join the fray come from the World Superbike Championship.

American Colin Edwards, who won the title for the second time last year, brings the hopes - and perhaps some fears - of the WSB fans as he joins MotoGP for the first time to take on the likes of Rossi and co. Just to add to the plot, Australian Troy Bayliss, who won the title in 2001 and only lost it to Edwards in a final round showdown last year, has also decided to put his considerable talent to the ultimate test in MotoGP.

Already Edwards and Bayliss have shown in testing they can hack it with the MotoGP stars, while Noriyuki Haga, who finished fourth last year, returns to MotoGP as Edward's team-mate after a disastrous time on the two-stroke Yamaha in 2001. British rider Neil Hodgson, a former 500cc grand prix rider, is clear favourite to win the World Superbike crown this year and, already, the rumours suggest he may return to MotoGP next year.

So back to the question and a very simple answer. Three out of the top four have 'defected' to MotoGP this year. The switch to a MotoGP four-stroke is a lot easier than the terrifying roller coaster experience of switching to a 500cc two-stroke for the superbike stars. Expect more, probably headed by Hodgson, to be following the same path next year.

For the MotoGP race at Suzuka, just add a few more facts. Max Biaggi has won there twice before on a 250 and 500cc machine and his Camel Pramac Pons team-mate Tohru Ukawa held the 500cc lap record at the old circuit in 2001. Daijiro Kato has won four 250cc Japanese Grands Prix, wild card entry Norick Abe won the 500cc race in 1996 and 2000, while Valentino Rossi has won 500 and MotoGP races at Suzuka - but never a 125 or 250 - on his way to those respective world titles.

So all the 2002 questions are answered a year later as we await the start of the 2003 season. What questions should we be asking this year and will we have the answers in twelve months time?


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