History will be made on Sunday 7 April with the much-heralded opening confrontation between the 500cc two-strokes and the new 990cc four-strokes at the first round of the new MotoGP World Championship in the SKYY Vodka Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka.

New regulations pitch the all conquering two-strokes against the more powerful but heavier four strokes, who chase their first grand prix victory for almost 26 years, around one of the most demanding and exciting motorsport venues in the world. The leading manufacturers have invested millions of pounds to develop new machines to compete in the premier two-wheel world championship.

Heading the four-stroke challenge is 500cc World Champion, Italian Valentino Rossi who looked very impressive during the winter tests of the RC211V five-cylinder Honda, after winning the title last year on the NSR two-stroke machine. He's joined by Japanese rider Tohru Ukawa who's also spent the winter testing the new machine. Test rider and former grand prix star Shinichi Itoh will make a one-off appearance to put three RC211V machines on the Suzuka start line.

Suzuka is Honda's home circuit and they will be looking to a debut victory for the RC211V machine. Winter testing would suggest it's a two-stroke 500 that might spoil the party. World 250cc Champion Daijiro Katoh loves Suzuka and has switched to the MotoGP class this season. Riding the NSR Honda two-stroke at a recent Suzuka test, the first day he lapped faster than Rossi who was quickest at the Barcelona test the previous week. Just behind him in Spain was Italian Loris Capirossi, riding another Honda NSR two-stroke who, together with his experienced team-mate Brazilian Alex Barros, will keep the two-strokes near the front throughout the 16-round championship. Capirossi started last year's race in pole position.

Australian Garry McCoy hopes to be fit after breaking two bones in his right leg when he crashed during testing at Estoril in Portugal. The Yamaha rider looked in tremendous form on the two-stroke before his crash and he's joined in the team by American teenager John Hopkins, who makes his GP debut. Former 250cc World Champion Tetsuya Harada returns to the premier class, recovering from a broken collarbone on an NSR Honda while another former champion Olivier Jacque, will be looking for an injury free season on the Gauloises Tech 3 Yamaha with his team-mate Shinya Nakano, who qualified second fastest last year.

Norick Abe riding the two-stroke Yamaha D'Antin machine chases his third grand prix victory at Suzuka while team-mate Pere Riba makes his MotoGP class debut, replacing former world champion Alex Criville. Dutchman Jurgen van den Goorbergh at last gets a chance on a four-cylinder factory machine when he teams up with the legendary Erv Kanemoto on a Bridgestone-shod NSR Honda.

So what about the other four-strokes? Marlboro Yamaha seemed to have stolen a march on everybody with the early testing of their 990cc M1 but when they joined all the other teams in the pre-season tests the results were not so promising. Both Max Biaggi, who was runner-up to Rossi last year and Spaniard Carlos Checa struggled against the RC211V Honda and the quick two-strokes. Suzuka may have come too early for them to produce a race-winning machine.

Suzuki brought forward the development of their GSV-R four-stroke by a complete year to put former world champion Kenny Roberts and Spaniard Sete Gibernau on the Suzuka grid. The machine, that uses Dunlop tyres, only appeared for the first time at the end of January and Suzuki will be treating this season very much as a development year as will the Italian Aprilia factory.

Frenchman Regis Laconi will ride their RS3 machine that features advanced technology but which like Suzuki has not completed many testing miles. The beautifully styled machine is very quick but like the other four-strokes will benefit from a season of development.

The 250cc World Championship outcome has been blown wide open by the departure of Katoh and Harada to the MotoGP class. Nineteen-year-old Italian Aprilia rider Marco Melandri was third last year and won his first 250cc grand prix. If he can stay clear of injury he must have a great chance although fellow Aprilia riders, including impressive Spaniard Fonsi Nieto, former 125cc World Champion Roberto Locatelli and last year's 125cc sensation Spaniard Toni Elias, will give him a hard time. The main Honda threat comes from new Fortuna Gresini pairing of Italian Roberto Rolfo and another former 125cc Champion, Spaniard Emilio Alzamora.

Eighteen-year-old Manuel Poggiali from San Marino defends his hard won 125cc world title riding the Gilera. His double threat will come from some of the experienced established stars such as Youichi Ui, Lucio Cecchinello, Simone Sanna and Masao Azuma plus the new very fast breed of youngsters including Daniel Pedrosa and Joan Olive.

The outcome of the first grand prix of the season always gives an indication of the battles that lay ahead for the remainder of the year. Events at Suzuka on Sunday could give everybody an indication of the battles that lie ahead for the next decade.


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