By almost unanimous opinion, Phillip Island is the greatest racetrack visited by MotoGP - the superb circuit layout demanding thrilling racing, whilst the enthusiastic Aussie fans and seaside scenery add further to the occasion.

As such, it was with considerable excitement that the MotoGP paddock regrouped for the penultimate time this year, and just a week after two of the three 2003 world champions were crowned at Sepang: Valentino Rossi wrapping up his fifth at the Malaysian circuit, while in the 125cc class young Dani Pedrosa claimed his first. Only the 250cc title is still undecided.

However, most of the talk today was based around the future movement of Rossi, who is yet to sign for next season (see separate story). The Italian would say only that all options remain open, but the day of announcement is surely looming - and once his plans are decided the other riders' contracts will soon fall into place.

Rossi only arrived this afternoon after spending two days exploring Sydney, whilst for others a range of extra-curricular activities including surfing, fishing, scuba-diving and - curiously for Carlos Checa - sheep-shearing topped the agenda.

Suzuki rider John Hopkins returned from a week of jet-skiing at his good friend Garry McCoy's house in Brisbane to make his comeback from a one-race suspension at Sepang last week, while home hero Troy Bayliss warmed up by forming part of a major Ducati Parade (pictured) in Melbourne on Tuesday.

The Australian and his team-mate Loris Capirossi were joined by around 100 fellow 'Ducatisti', who roared through the streets of the Victoria state capital to the delight of a captivated audience, which included the city's Mayor, John So (lower pic) - who had also taken part in the parade on a Ducati ST.

In the afternoon, both riders visited the Ducati Store in Melbourne, opened by Bayliss himself in December 2002, and were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of a crowd of supporters gathered at the local Fila Store, visited by the Ducati Marlboro Team at the end of an event-packed day. At the store, they met Ian Harvey, member of the World Championship-winning Australian Cricket team.

"I always say that I would treat this race like any other, but now I am here I have to admit it is pretty special," said Bayliss, who won both WSB races at this circuit last year. "I have a good record here and the Desmosedici went well during winter tests so I am quite optimistic, but we will have to see how we fare when the action really starts tomorrow."

Fellow home favourite Casey Stoner celebrated his 18th birthday today but insisted there will be no party unless he wins the 125cc race on Sunday.

"People keep asking me if I will be having my first pint of beer this weekend but I am more bothered about taking my first victory," said Stoner, who is nursing severely swollen fingers sustained in a spectacular race crash at Sepang four days ago.

Stoner will be one of a host of riders looking to extend a record run of 21 races in the class without a back-to-back winner after Pedrosa's title-clinching victory at Sepang on Sunday.

Meanwhile the Spanish teenager has hinted that he will not be defending the number one plate next season, something all but confirmed by mentor Alberto Puig last weekend. However, Pedrosa insisted the deal isn't done.

"I want to ride a 250," said Pedrosa today. "We have a few options at the moment and a lot of things to sort out, but that is definitely my intention."

The move would present a major challenge for the diminutive Pedrosa, but he was urged by his idol Rossi to take the step. "I saw Dani ride two years ago and have kept an eye on him since then. Now he is the champion and is ready for 250," said Rossi.

The Spaniard will also be encouraged by the swift adaptation of his former 125cc rival Manuel Poggiali, who has enjoyed a sensational debut season in the quarter-litre class.

The 20 year old San Marino rider could win the title at the first attempt this weekend, should he finish ahead of nearest challengers Toni Elias and Roberto Rolfo.

 

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