Valentino Rossi will start his first MotoGP event for Ducati at Qatar this weekend.

After seven seasons at Yamaha, the Italian megastar has made the high-profile switch to his home-brand, and is chasing a slice of history as he seeks to become the first rider to win premier-class titles for three different manufacturers.

One further title would also mean that Rossi, who already holds the record for top-class race wins (79), could tie Giacomo Agostini's record of eight premier-class championships.

But what would be a tenth title, in all classes, seems a long way away at the moment. Rossi finished the final pre-season test in just 13th position, having been troubled by persistent cornering problems with the Desmosedici and a lack of strength in his healing shoulder.

Whilst seeking to limit expectations for Sunday's night race, Rossi also insisted the situation was nowhere near as bleak as it looked on Monday's best-lap testing timesheets.

"For the first practice session in Qatar, we'll start with the settings that we found on the last day of the test, because our final lap time notwithstanding, they weren't bad," revealed Rossi, who was 1.3sec behind Casey Stoner.

"In fact, I think I could have gone faster if the strength hadn't left my shoulder almost without warning before I had even tried the soft tyres. The race weekend has sessions of 45 minutes and one hour, so it should be easier from that point of view.

"Naturally, my shoulder isn't the only issue: if we want to have a good race, we know that in addition to me being physically ready, we'll have to find some solutions that will help us be faster and improve our pace.

"In any event, the debut with Ducati brings a lot of motivation, and Sunday will definitely be very emotional.

"A greeting to all the Italians who will be celebrating the 150th year of Italy's unification tomorrow: we know there are a lot of you supporting us, and although we probably won't yet be at our best by Sunday, we'll give it our best effort.

"I'm also thinking of everyone in Japan who is living through this very difficult moment. What happened is truly frightening, but Japan's people are very strong and capable of reacting. We're all behind you."

Team manager Vittoriano Guareschi may doubt Rossi's fitness, but he doesn't doubt his commitment.

"Tomorrow, practice starts for the grand prix, and we'll try to apply everything we've learned during winter testing," said Guareschi. "With Valentino, we weren't able to completely use all of the days at our disposal, and because of that, we still haven't found all the solutions for an optimal setup for him.

"He still won't be at 100% physically for a couple more months, but we know that when the starting light goes off, he'll give everything he has and more! In the meantime, we'll continue working without pause to improve the bike, because the others have made a lot of progress and the level is very high.

"Sunday will be very important and emotional for us and for all motorcycle racing enthusiasts--Italian and otherwise--and that gives us even more motivation and desire to do well."

Rossi, who made his MotoGP debut with Honda in 2000, won his first race for Yamaha at Welkom, South Africa, in 2004.

First practice at Qatar takes place tomorrow (Thursday) evening.



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