Carlos Checa may not have been able to threaten new team-mate Valentino Rossi in pre-season testing, but the Spaniard has benefited from the new and improved YZR-M1 and heads to the first round of the 2004 season an excited man.

The 31-year-old is twice a race winner in the former 500cc class, and can normally be relied upon to deliver consistent results if his machinery has few problems to 'ride around'. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case in recent seasons and even last year - when previous team leader Max Biaggi had left for Honda - Checa was never able to fill the Roman's shoes and take the M1 project forward.

"At the start of 2003 we had some problems with the bike and it did not evolve as much as I would have liked during the winter," said Carlos. "I didn't really feel ready to start racing at the Suzuka GP and it was the same at Welkom last year, when I had problems with rear grip and stability, and just could not break through the pack to fight with the top guys."

Nevertheless, it's almost impossible to know how much of last year's problems were within Checa's influence to solve - and equally how much of the apparent improvement over the winter has been down to Rossi and the former Repsol team members who moved with him.

Yamaha has been keen to stress that Checa's input into the new machine is significant, while former Yamaha rider Alex Barros has told that the vital changes needed to Yamaha's race programme had begun long before the Italian's arrival, but that the benefit is only now being seen.

Regardless of who deserves the credit, Rossi's headline setting pace is also rubbing off on Checa - a point proven at the final pre-season test in Jerez, where the #7 took the fourth fastest overall time.

"We have made great progress with the M1 and I really want to prove that at this first race, where the results will give us our reference point for the rest of the season," stated the Spaniard. "It feels like we are going to our first race this year at just the right moment in our development.

"Anything can happen but for sure it's going to be really tough this year because everyone is at such a high level," added the London resident. "It's really not easy to predict who could win the first race. The new rule change to have three guys per row on the starting grid will make things very tricky, but exciting.

"In fact I think maybe this is the most excited I have felt before a season in all my years with Yamaha (since 1999). It's going to be great!"