The MotoGP teams make their return to Europe this weekend, after two 'fly-away' races, for the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez, round three of the 2001 World Championship.

This weekend's race marks the 15th year for Jerez as a GP venue, but only its 14th as host to the Spanish GP. The exception was in 1988, when the race was intended to be the Portuguese GP, renamed the Expo 92 GP at the last minute.

By then the event was already becoming well established as an important start to the European season, attracting big crowds to the venue outside the capital of Spain's sherry district, close also to Cadiz.

The crowds kept on growing over the years, as did the race's importance, in line with Spain's growing love affair with GP racing. Now it is the first of four events on the Iberian peninsula, with three more in Spain and a new event in Portugal, underlining the status of motorcycle racing in the region. The Spanish GP also coincides with a number of springtime Fieras in the region, making it an early holiday race for crowds, who can expect sunny if not necessarily always hot weather.

The circuit itself is considered to be one of the most challenging, rewarding a determined riding style, with plenty of long corners where riders must fight to keep their machines on the fast line.

The track surface is also very temperature-sensitive, offering huge levels of grip in cool conditions, but much less as temperatures rise. Several riders were well inside the lap record during pre-season tests but those times are unlikely to be reproduced this weekend when temperatures will be substantially higher.

Jerez was modified in 1994 when a chicane was cut out of the loop and replaced with the fast right-hander that leads on to the back straight. This modification went against the general trend of slowing circuits and made Jerez an even better racetrack.

In the 500cc class, Valentino Rossi has claimed victory in both Japan and South Africa to put the flamboyant Italian firmly on top of the point's standings. While on paper Rossi's success looks to have been dominating, the truth is that both races in the premier class have been some of the most exciting in recent seasons with a number of top riders battling bar-to-bar for the entire race distance, with a handful of potential winners.

One of those must surely be Loris Capirossi, the sometimes erratic Italian seems to feel at home on his West Honda Pons machine, and has put in stunning qualifying performances in both Suzuka and Welkom, and chased Rossi home in the closing laps of the latter.

Capirossi's performance is all the more impressive given that his Honda is not of the same specification as his conquering fellow Italian, and seems to lack the straight line speed of Rossi's Nastro Azzuro sponsored machine.

Marlboro Yamaha's Max Biaggi had a poor race in South Africa after battling with Rossi at the season opener. Nevertheless, it would be a brave person who ruled out the Roman and a fight back by Biaggi in Spain can be expected.

Carlos Checa, who missed the South African GP after a training crash, will rejoin Biaggi in the Marlboro Yamaha garage, and will be making his return in front of a fanatical Spanish crowd who will see him as their best chance of success in the premier class, barring a significant upturn in the performance of 1999 champ Alex Criville.

Another rider looking to turn their season around will be Kenny Roberts Jr, the reigning World Champion having had a torrid start to the season, with suggestions that the Suzuki is simply not a match for the other factory Japanese machinery.

Nevertheless, Roberts lead in the early part of the South African GP (thanks mainly to a storming start) and his never-say-die attitude could push the American into contention regardless of machinery imperfections.

Also in the hunt in Jerez are likely to be 500cc rookie's Shinya Nakano and Tohru Ukawa, both of whom have outpaced their more successful teammates (Jacque and Criville respectively) in the opening two races, and look to be improving race by race.

Red Bull Yamaha, with their exciting partnership of Garry McCoy and Noriyuki Haga, could also pull out a surprise given the known speed of both riders. They just need to be a bit more patient as to avoid a repeat of their South African DNF's.

In the 250cc class Marko Melandri shocked the MotoGP pitlane by hunting down - and almost passing - Daijiro Katoh, in Welkom. The young Italian, still suffering from a shoulder injury, proved that the Japanese rider can be beaten (despite his easy win in Suzuka) and this weekend should see a thrilling battle between the pair as they pick up where they left off two weeks ago.

Also in with a chance of the podium will be fellow Aprilia riders Harada, Locatelli and McWilliams, the Ulsterman having played catch-up in the first two races after virtually no testing on his 250cc machine.

In the 125's pre-season favourite Youichi Ui won the Welkom race from his impressive young teammate (albeit on a Gilera) Manuel Poggiali, and this trend could be set to continue.

However, Poggiali proved in South Africa that he has what it takes to win, while Nobby Ueda and Suzuka winner Masao Azuma (who was a disappointment in South Africa) could all also take the honours away from 2000 championship runner-up Ui.

When the noise dies down and the crowd heads home on Sunday evening the GP circus keeps rolling, heading north to Le Mans for the French GP on May 20. Three quick-fire GPs follow in June at Mugello, Catalunya and Assen before the season's halfway point at Donington on July 8. The year ends with four 'flyaway' events in Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Brazil, concluding with the Rio GP on November 3.