With Valentino Rossi's stunning debut Yamaha victory still fresh in the memory, MotoGP 2004 begins its European leg this weekend with round two of the world championship; the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez.

The Italian's phenomenal achievement in South Africa ended an unprecedented spell of eighteen races without victory for Yamaha and made Rossi the first rider in the 55-year history of the sport to win consecutive races with different factories.

However, Valentino will have to rewrite the records books once again if he is to be successful this weekend, with Yamaha having taken just four podiums at Jerez in the last ten years - and their only previous win coming back in 1988 with Eddie Lawson.

Indeed, this Sunday's race could arguably be even more unpredictable than the opening round, since more questions were raised than answered in South Africa: Was the amazing Rossi/Yamaha performance a one-off? Is Max Biaggi the only rider that can beat his fellow Italian or did the rarely used Welkom circuit make the other Honda riders look worse than they are? Will Biaggi receive more HRC support this weekend? Why were the other Yamaha riders so far behind Rossi? What happened to Ducati? Can Kawasaki and Suzuki build on their promising Welkom pace? Etc etc...

Expected to lead the Honda charge is Biaggi who, despite little testing time with a new chassis, rode brilliantly to push Rossi to the absolute limit in South Africa. The Roman, now on the verge of becoming only the fifth man in history to score 100 podiums, arrives at Jerez full of confidence that he can defeat not only Rossi but - perhaps more importantly - the five other Hondas.

As such, Alex Barros, Nicky Hayden, Colin Edwards, Makoto Tamada and Sete Gibernau have much to prove this weekend - with the Spaniard in particular facing one of the most important races of his career this weekend.

Gibernau lies third in the championship after one round, where he at least hung with the top two for the first third of the race, and heads for his home track looking to banish the memories of one year ago - when he crashed out of second on the seventh lap and dented an otherwise glorious season.

Brazilian veteran Barros replaced Rossi at Repsol Honda and after a slow start exceeded some expectations by finishing fourth at Welkom, in front of highly rated team-mate Hayden. Both will be looking for at least a podium finish on Sunday while Biaggi's team-mate Tamada was a strong sixth on his European debut at Jerez last year.

Meanwhile, it was a tough season-opener for the Marlboro Ducati team with Loris Capirossi a brave sixth, but former World Superbike champion Troy Bayliss just 14th. Both riders are struggling with the latest changes to the Desmosedici GP4 and need to get back on pace before the Yamaha and Hondas pull away in the title chase.

Nevertheless, the pair can at least look to the past for inspiration, having taken the front two spots on the grid at Jerez one year ago as they ignited a stellar season which has so far left something of a hangover in 2004.

By contrast, two teams that look to have turned around their 2003 form for the better are Kawasaki and Suzuki. Shinya Nakano qualified the ZX-RR an excellent sixth in Welkom and eventually finished 12th in the race, one place in front of Suzuki's John Hopkins. Hopper's team-mate Kenny Roberts had also looked impressive during qualifying, but dropped out of the race with mechanical problems.

MotoGP rookies Neil Hodgson and Ruben Xaus also retired at round one, but the former SBK stars already look capable of battling for the GP middle ground - with Xaus even claiming a top six may have been possible if he'd reached the chequered flag. Such a result in his home race this weekend would make Ruben a national hero - and give Luis d'Antin the perfect boost for the team's 'to be announced' sponsor.

Aprilia's own rookie, Shane Byrne, did reach the finish to claim the final world championship point at Welkom, but the BSB champ will be hoping that prior testing at the Spanish circuit will allow him to take another step forward on Sunday.

Jerez will also provide a crucial opportunity to Carlos Checa, who already seems to be struggling to deal with the pressure of life as team-mate to Rossi at Yamaha. Checa finished almost 40 seconds behind the Italian at Welkom and knows he must do better in front of his home fans and sponsors, with a host of talented Spanish youngsters in the 250cc and 125cc classes already staking their claim for a place amongst the MotoGP elite.

In particular, the stock of teenage sensation Dani Pedrosa rose significantly last week when he became the youngest winner of a 250cc race on his debut in the class. Pedrosa, the reigning 125cc world champion, has raced at Jerez on three occasions but has never finished on the podium and will compete fiercely for that honour this weekend with compatriots Fonsi Nieto and Toni Elias, winners of the last two 250 races at Jerez respectively.

Nieto and Elias have their own score to settle after a controversial last lap incident in South Africa, whilst reigning World Champion Manuel Poggiali will be looking to break his duck at the Spanish circuit having also never finished on the podium there.

Andrea Dovizioso leads the 125cc World Championship after making history in the first round, not only for collecting his maiden victory at Grand Prix level but also for extending a record run of 24 races in the class without a back-to-back winner.

The last man to win consecutive races in the ultra-competitive series was Arnaud Vincent at Donington and then Sachsenring in 2002, before a stunning sequence which has seen thirteen different winners, with seven taking their debut victory.

Three of those riders in particular, Spaniards Hector Barbera, Pablo Nieto and Jorge Lorenzo, will be desperate to return to the top step of the podium in front of a sell-out home crowd of over 125,000 people.

 

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