Marco Melandri may be in line to clinch the 250cc crown, but attention at the Malaysian Grand Prix will be focused on an enlarged four-stroke contingent in the MotoGP class, with the arrival of more rivals for the successful Honda RCVs.

Two more YZR M1 four-stroke Yamahas will line up at the start of the race at Sepang on Sunday, as the Tech 3 duo of Frenchman Olivier Jacque and Japanese rider Shinya Nakano finally get their hands on the race-winning M1.

The Gauloises-backed duo have been testing the four-stroke machines at Shah Alam this week, in preparation for the race round the magnificent 5.548km Sepang circuit, having battled against the more powerful Yamahas, Hondas and Suzukis on their YZR 500cc two-strokes in the first 13 races of the year. They will be joined by an extra four-stroke Yamaha in the last two races with Japanese rider Norick Abe riding the M1 in Australia and Valencia.

Brazilian Alex Barros showed just what can be achieved if you get the chance to ride an RCV 990cc four-stroke Honda, the 31-year old West Honda Pons rider winning the previous round in Japan and beating world champion Valentino Rossi on his first appearance on the machine. To his delight, he will ride the bike in the last three races and is quite capable of a repeat performance around a Sepang circuit that is tailor-made for the characteristics of the four-stroke machines.

Twenty-three year old Rossi was denied his 50th grand prix victory in Japan, and will be working to cure the clutch and handling problems that dogged him last week. His Repsol Honda team-mate Tohru Ukawa will be looking to consolidate his second place in the championship, after taking over from Italian Max Biaggi when he finished fourth in Japan. They are separated by just five points after Biaggi was forced to retire with tyre problems on his Marlboro Yamaha, while Barros is also becoming a threat. He trails Biaggi by 21 points in fourth place, 16 points ahead of Biaggi's team-mate Carlos Checa, who was fifth in Japan.

Loris Capirossi leads the two-stroke charge after his brilliant third place in Japan riding the NSR West Honda Pons 500cc two-stroke. It will be even tougher for him in Sepang - along with the likes of Abe, the Proton KR pair of Jeremy McWilliams and Nobuatsu Aoki, riding at the home of their sponsors, and the Red Bull Yamaha duo of Australian Garry McCoy and American John Hopkins - on a circuit which is expected to favour the four-strokes.

It was a tough return for Kawasaki to MotoGP in Japan, where an engine problem caused Akira Yanagawa to crash the Ninja ZX-RR machine. Yanagawa was injured in the fall and Kawasaki have announced that former Supersport world champion Andrew Pitt will be his replacement. Kenny Roberts won the 500cc race at Sepang for Suzuki in 1999 and 2000, and returns on the four-stroke GSV-R in good form after third and sixth place finishes in the last two races. Daijiro Kato clinched the 250cc Championship with victory in Sepang last year, and the Japanese rider returns looking for a change of fortune after failing to score in the last three MotoGP races, now riding the RC211V.

Melandri is on the verge of clinching his first world title in the 20 lap 250cc race. The 20-year old Italian Aprilia rider holds an impressive 52-point lead over Spaniard Fonsi Nieto in the title chase, and has to leave Sepang on Sunday afternoon with a 50 -point advantage to be crowned champion with two rounds remaining.

It will also be a triumphant return home for the Malaysian-based Petronas Sprinta Yamaha TVK team of Sebastian Porto and Malaysian Shahrol Yuzy. Argentinean Porto brought the team both his and its first grand prix victory in Brazil three weeks ago, and currently lies fourth in the championship, just two points in front of the flying Toni Elias. Nieto was third in the race last year, but knows he must win on Sunday to have a realistic chance of preventing Melandri from taking the title.

Exhaust pipe problems for Arnaud Vincent in Japan blew the outcome of the 125cc Championship wide open. He slipped from second to 15th place in the last couple of laps in the race won by 17-year old Spaniard Daniel Pedrosa in brilliant style, riding the Telefonica Movistar Honda. However, current world champion Manuel Poggiali's unexpected second place after the demise of Vincent means he trails the Frenchman by just eight points going into the 19-lap race where he finished second last year, riding the Gilera.



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