The European MotoGP season kicks off on Sunday with one the biggest sporting events of the year in Europe, the Gran Premio Marlboro de Espa?a at Jerez. Around 150,000 fans are expected to converge on the Andalusian region of Southern Spain for their first sight and sound of the so far all-conquering four-stroke MotoGP machines.

Although the infrastructure has been totally rebuilt over the winter, the 2.748 miles (4.423kms) Jerez circuit remains the same and as always should be the perfect venue to provide some close racing and excitement for the masses of fans who make the long journey southwards.

The RC211V four-stroke Hondas of World Champion Valentino Rossi and Tohru Ukawa have dominated the opening two races of the new era in Japan and South Africa - they arrive in Spain full of confidence. Italian Rossi, who won the race last year on the Honda NSR500, leads the Championship by an impressive 18 points from Spaniard Carlos Checa, who will get enormous support from the crowd, riding the M1 four-stroke Yamaha. Rossi proved he was human at the last round in South Africa when a mistake on the last lap handed the race to his team-mate Ukawa. Also two crashes during practice for the Japanese Grand Prix illustrate the enormous pressure on Rossi as he spearheads Honda's four-stroke campaign.

Checa was impressive in the Japanese rain where he finished third, but in South Africa he finished further off the pace, fifth behind the Honda of Daijiro Katoh, who won the 250cc race at Jerez last year. His Yamaha team-mate Max Biaggi finished a disappointing ninth in South Africa after crashing in Japan. It is an important 27-lap race for Biaggi and the factory Yamaha team on Sunday.

As always the hard-riding Loris Capirossi will mount a serious challenge, riding the Honda Pons NSR500. The Italian finished third in South Africa and is in brilliant form. He's currently fourth in the Championship, only four points behind Checa and Jerez, which has no long straights and a low average speed, could be the venue where his two-stroke fights back. His team-mate Alex Barros has fully recovered from his crash in Welkom and will be seeking a good result to get his season underway. Just three points behind Capirossi is the D'Antin Yamaha of Norick Abe, who finished second behind Rossi last year.

It could be a difficult race for the Suzuki team after their problems with the heat in Welkom. While their new GSV-R four stroke continues to make impressive progress with Kenny Roberts and Sete Gibernau in the saddle, they are having problems with tyres and settings in hot conditions. In the rain at Suzuka wild card Akira Ryo finished a brilliant second, but it was a very different tale at Welkom in the sunshine where both riders had problems which saw neither of them score points. Dunlop has returned to the new MotoGP class and has to develop and test tyres for the new four-strokes as the season progresses.

Aprilia will continue their development of their RS three-cylinder four-stroke with Frenchman Regis Laconi who has scored points in both opening rounds. World 250cc Champion Kato, after his impressive ride on the Honda Gresini NSR in Welkom, is sure to give the rest a tough time while Australian Garry McCoy should be getting much nearer 100 per cent fitness. He broke his right leg in a testing accident in February, found a screw loose in his ankle after Japan and rode into a brave tenth place at Welkom on the Red Bull Yamaha. The Tech 3 Yamaha duo of Olivier Jacque and Shinya Nakano both opened their points scoring accounts in Welkom as did Dutchman Jurgen vd Goorbergh, riding Erv Kanemoto's NSR Honda, fitted with Bridgestone tyres that enjoyed the hot conditions. The performance of the Bridgestones will also aid Jeremy McWilliams and Nobuatsu Aoki, riding the three-cylinder Proton KR machines.

Two riders who have yet to win a Grand Prix share the lead in the World 250cc Championship. Italian Franco Battaini and Frenchman De Puniet both ride Aprilia machinery, both have finished on the podium once this season and both have 26 points after two rounds. Right behind them, just one point adrift, is the Aprilia of 19-year-old Italian Marco Melandri who led from start to finish in Welkom after crashing out two weeks earlier in Japan. Just seven points separate the first nine riders and Italian Roberto Rolfo and home-rider Emilio Alzamora, riding the Honda Gresini machines, as well as Spaniard Fonsi Nieto, who finished third in Welkom on an Aprilia, will be the men to watch.

Frenchman Arnaud Vincent retained his lead in the 125cc World Championship after finishing second behind World Champion Manuel Poggiali in Welkom. Vincent won the opening Japanese race in the rain. They are separated by just four points with 16-year-old Spaniard Daniel Pedrosa, riding in the Telefonica Movistar Junior Honda team, third. He has started both Grands Prix this year from pole position.


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