For the first time in two years and 38 grands prix, MotoGP heads to an event without Valentino Rossi at the top of the world championship standings.

Rossi won the opening round in South Africa on his Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha debut but was only fourth in the Spanish rain, a result which allowed Jerez winner Sete Gibernau to take the world championship lead for the very first time, as the premier two-wheeled series heads for round three, this Sunday's French Grand Prix at Le Mans.

31-year-old Gibernau currently leads Rossi by three-points and won last year's rain interrupted French GP, but the Italian took victory at Le Mans in 2002 and - if the rain stays away this weekend - is expected to return to the front at what has traditionally been a 'Yamaha track'.

However, ahead of his great rival and lurking ominously in the runner-up spot, just one point off Gibernau, lies Max Biaggi. The Roman has taken consecutive second place finishes in contrasting conditions at Welkom and Jerez to confirm his own title credentials, but must be anxious to stand on the top step of the podium.

Biaggi is the only current rider in the MotoGP field to have scored a dry premier-class victory at Le Mans since the series returned to the venue five years ago, and he arrives in France buoyed by the confidence of a milestone rostrum finish in Spain which made him one of only five riders in history to have scored 100 Grand Prix podiums

Alex Barros finished third in Le Mans last year for Yamaha and would wait until Jerez two weeks ago before returning to the top three. The Brazilian has finally recovered from the shoulder injury which dogged him last year and, together with Repsol Honda team-mate Nicky Hayden, will be looking for at least another podium finish on Sunday to close the growing gap on the 'big three'.

Another Honda rider starting to feel the heat is former World Superbike champion Colin Edwards, who is yet to achieve the kind of results he expected and already trails team-mate Gibernau by 23 points, to sit two in front of Rossi's team-mate Carlos Checa.

Nevertheless, the biggest surprise of the season has been the disappointing performances of the two Marlboro Ducatis of Loris Capirossi and another former World Superbike champion, Australian Troy Bayliss.

Both have struggled on the much changed 2004 version of the machines that did so well on their MotoGP debut last year and as a result Capirossi and Bayliss are placed eighth and eighteenth respectively in the rider standings - compared to seventh and fourth at the same stage last season.

The Bologna based company now hope for more dry track time in France to measure key progress on weight distribution and engine management at a circuit notorious for its 'stop-and-go' nature.

By contrast, Kawasaki have enjoyed a comparatively strong start to the season with Japanese star Shinya Nakano qualifying for both opening races on the second row of the grid and currently lies tenth, three points in front of former World Champion Kenny Roberts.

Roberts is preparing for his 120th grand prix start and looking to build on a strong record at the French circuit for Suzuki, Kevin Schwantz having scored the last of four Le Mans wins for the Japanese factory in 1991. Roberts and team-mate John Hopkins head to Le Mans boosted by positive initial tests of a radically modified version of the GSV-R engine, to be debuted later in the year.

Proton Team KR were one of only three teams not to test at Jerez, along with Aprilia and WCM, but have reported key changes to their four-stroke V5 prototype ahead of its first anniversary this weekend.

The machine turned its first corner at Le Mans one year ago after shakedown tests on an airstrip and the latest steps in the exhausting development process which has taken place since then, encompassing research derived from aerospace technology, are a revised firing order and new bodywork which are set to be used by Nobuatsu Aoki and Kurtis Roberts for the first time.

Of the class rookies, Neil Hodgson heads to Le Mans fresh from his awesome rain ride last time out, which saw him as high as seventh before his D'Antin Ducati cried enough, while team-mate Ruben Xaus needs a consistent weekend to halt his 'fast but falls' reputation after dropping his Desmosedici several times at Jerez.

Aprilia's Shane Byrne was another race day casualty, breaking a bone in his hand, but - like WCM's Chris Burns (who broke his thumb in qualifying) - expects to ride this weekend. Burns will line-up alongside team-mate Michel Fabrizio, who beat several factory riders to give Peter Clifford's team a dream tenth place in Spain.

In the 250cc class Randy De Puniet arrives at his home race leading the world championship standings for the first time in his career and looking to extend a lengthy French tradition in quarter-litre racing.

After taking consecutive second places in the opening two rounds, De Puniet heads the rider standings by eight points from Roberto Rolfo and will be roared on by an expected record home crowd as he bids to become the fourth French 250cc World Champion after Jean-Louis Tournadre, Christian Sarron and Olivier Jacque.

Reigning 250cc world champion Manuel Poggiali took wins from the opening two rounds of the 2003 season but currently lies ninth in the rider standings and will be looking to make up for his disappointing start at the track where he scored his first ever Grand Prix win in the 125cc class three years ago.

Meanwhile Dani Pedrosa, shock winner of the first round in South Africa on his quarter-litre debut, lies joint third in the championship with Fonsi Nieto and Sebastian Porto. Dani is fit to ride after recovering from hand injuries sustained in a crash at his home race at Jerez, where he swiftly returned to action alongside his factory Honda colleagues during the MotoGP tests last week.

The chase for Pedrosa's vacant 125cc world championship crown continues this weekend with Italian youngster Andrea Dovizioso still in the ascendancy after backing up his opening round victory with fourth place in the wet at Jerez.

It was enough for Dovizioso to extend his advantage to ten points over Roberto Locatelli and Steve Jenkner, who are tied in second place, and Casey Stoner, who lies fourth after missing the chance to take over at the top when he crashed out of a clear lead in the Spanish rain.

Stoner's crash handed a debut victory to Marco Simoncelli, and the Italian teenager will this weekend bid to become the first rider in the class to score consecutive victories since eventual champion Arnaud Vincent during the 2002 season.