After a five-month festival of speed on European shores, the MotoGP World Championship heads south this week for the first of four 'flyaway' events, starting with the Rio Grand Prix in Brazil.

Current world champion Valentino Rossi arrives in the party capital of Rio de Janeiro looking to celebrate his sixth victory at the Nelson Piquet circuit, having won the MotoGP race there for the last three seasons, adding to 125 and 250cc glory in 1997 and 1999.

On Saturday - traditionally, it's a Saturday race in Brazil - the Italian will aim to make the notoriously slippery and bumpy track the only venue on the MotoGP calendar where he has yet to be beaten after four seasons in the premier-class.

Despite a mid season blip, the Repsol Honda rider is now totally focused on retaining his title after winning the last two grands prix in the Czech Republic and Portugal. He leads Spaniard Sete Gibernau in the riders' championship by 46 points with five rounds remaining - while Honda only needs one more podium finish to clinch its fifteenth constructors' title.

Telefonica-backed Gibernau must surely beat Rossi in the 24-lap race to have any realistic chance of preventing the Italian winning the title. Unfortunately for him, the Catalan doesn't have a good record at Rio, with his best result a fifth place four years ago, although he's shown this season that past performances count for nothing as he's stormed to four grand prix victories.

Third-placed Max Biaggi is also chasing his first victory in Rio, and his first on track win of the year for the Camel Pramac Pons outfit. The 'Roman Emperor' finished a very determined second to Rossi in Portugal and is chasing Gibernau for the runner-up spot in the championship, although the two riders are currently separated by 30 points.

Meanwhile, fourth-placed Loris Capirossi will give the Marlboro Ducati its first taste of the infamous Rio bumps this Thursday, and it should be some battle for the diminutive Italian and his team-mate, Australian Troy Bayliss, who makes his Rio debut. However, the circuit's long straight will be a blessing for the Desmosedici riders and Capirossi could well better his previous best Rio finish: a third place in the 250cc race four years ago.

The closest championship battle is for sixth place between the Fortuna Yamaha of Carlos Checa and Biaggi's team-mate Tohru Ukawa. Checa leads by one point and has mixed memories of Rio. One year ago, he fought back from last place to lead the race, only to crash out just a few laps from the end, whilst, in 2001, he was cruelly denied victory on aggregate times after losing out to Rossi on the final corner.

One man desperate to impress the home crowd will be Brazilian Alex Barros, who has had a tough season on the Gauloises Yamaha. Injuries and machine set-up problems have meant only one rostrum appearance for Barros this year - and he could yet miss Saturday's race after being diagnosed with a broken tendon in his shoulder. What a change from one year ago, when he completed the season with two grands prix victories.

Marco Melandri finished second in the 250cc race last year and, at last, his MotoGP career is kicking off after also having an injury-hit season. Meanwhile, impressive American AMA Champion Nicky Hayden will hope to continue his MotoGP education and improve on ninth in the championship.

But spare a thought for American Kenny Roberts. Three years ago, the American clinched the world 500cc title for Suzuki in Rio. In a disastrous season for the team this year, however, Roberts currently lies 23rd in the championship, with team-mate John Hopkins six places in front.

Elsewhere, the 250cc world championship is building into a superb climax. The leading five riders are separated by just 22 points, with the Aprilia of former 125cc world champion Manuel Poggiali leading the way throughout the opening eleven rounds.

'The Pog' holds a 14-point advantage over the Telefonica Movistar Aprilia of Spaniard Toni Elias, who rode both bravely and brilliantly to win in Portugal.

Mr Consistency, Italian Roberto Rolfo, riding a Fortuna Honda, has scored in every round to trail Elias by three points, with Frenchman Randy de Puniet a further two points behind. It's a very big race for Spaniard Fonsi Nieto, too, who dropped from second to fifth place after a disappointing ride in Portugal.

Argentinean Sebastian Porto, currently eighth in the championship, is no longer in the battle for the title, but he will be looking to celebrate his 25th birthday with a repeat of his only grand prix victory, in front of strong 'local' support at this circuit one year ago.

Pablo Nieto's maiden victory at Estoril last weekend made it a record eighteen consecutive races in the 125cc class without a back-to-back winner. A whole host of riders will be looking to make it nineteen, particularly Italian veteran Stefano Perugini, who recently celebrated his 29th birthday.

Perugini started from pole at Rio in 1995 and needs a big result this weekend as he looks to cut back the gap to teenager Dani Pedrosa, currently leading by 28 points. Pedrosa, meanwhile, will be looking to consolidate his lead with his first ever finish at the Nelson Piquet circuit, having crashed out on both of his two previous visits.

 

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