Honda is braced for their biggest battle of the season when they take on the Yamaha of world champion Valentino Rossi in the Japanese Grand Prix at their home circuit of Motegi, in this Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix.

No less than seven Honda riders will line up in the 24-lap race round the 2.983-miles circuit, all hoping to prevent Rossi increasing his 29-point lead in the championship with five rounds remaining.

The 25 year-old Italian has won six of the eleven rounds this season but there are still a maximum of 125 points up for grabs. Spaniard Sete Gibernau, who lies second in the title chase for Telefonica Movistar Honda, knows he must beat Rossi to realistically keep his title chances alive.

Last year Max Biaggi won the race for the Camel Pramac Pons team and the Italian returns to his scene of his triumph third in the championship, despite crashing out on the first lap of the last round at Estoril after clashing with Ducati's Loris Capirossi. Biaggi is now 22 points behind Gibernau and will be looking for a strong finish in the last five race to at least challenge for the runner-up spot.

However, Biaggi's team-mate Makoto Tamada could be the big surprise on Sunday, riding a Camel Honda with Bridgestone tyres. The Japanese rider's in brilliant form, finishing second in Estoril after starting from pole and last year grabbed third place from Gibernau on the last lap, only to be disqualified from the results for what was harshly described as dangerous riding.

Fellow Honda rider Nicky Hayden, who was handed his first ever podium thanks to Tamada's disqualification last year, is back after missing the action in Portugal with a broken collarbone, whilst Shane Byrne has also confirmed he will return to the Aprilia fold after recovering from a broken wrist sustained in a practice crash at Brno four weeks ago.

There is no such good news for Proton Team KR, however, with Kurtis Roberts expected to miss the next two races after undergoing an operation on his own broken wrist.

Meanwhile, Tohru Ukawa will return to MotoGP action for the first time since the end of the 2003 season, riding an updated version of the RC211V as a wild-card entry for Honda. Ukawa will be joined on track by former 250cc World Champion Olivier Jacque, who also departed the MotoGP scene at the end of last season, riding the Moriwaki.

Max Biaggi's aspirations of winning the title virtually ended when he crashed out on the first lap at Portugal. However, the Italian escaped uninjured and is scheduled to make a record 180th consecutive Grand Prix start at Motegi, where he went from pole to victory one year ago. Biaggi's compatriot Marco Melandri also makes a milestone appearance this weekend, clocking up 100 Grand Prix starts since his debut in 1997. The Yamaha rider recorded his best MotoGP finish of last season at Motegi, charging from nineteenth on the first lap to fifth by the end of the race.

Hayden's Repsol Honda team-mate Brazilian Alex Barros should once again be in podium contention this weekend; the veteran finished third at Estoril and won the Motegi race two years ago on his RCV debut for the Honda Pons team.

Gibernau's team-mate - former World Superbike champion Colin Edwards - is desperate to reproduce the second place he secured at the British Grand Prix, while there were some encouraging performances in Estoril to suggest that Honda or Rossi will not have it all their own way: Capirossi was seventh despite being relegated to last place after his first lap tangle with Biaggi, while American John Hopkins was a career best sixth for Suzuki. Hopper's team-mate Kenny Roberts won the race in 1999 and 2000.

Spaniard Carlos Checa was fifth in Portugal and is now sixth in the championship behind Edwards and Barros - but his future at the factory Yamaha team remains unclear and a podium return is long overdue for the #7. Kawasaki star Shinya Nakano won the 250cc race in 1999, while former 250cc world champion Marco Melandri will want to bounce back after his Estoril crash and secure his own MotoGP future.

Dani Pedrosa won the 125cc race from pole position in 2002 and was set for a repeat last year before suffering mechanical problems on the 16th lap. The Spanish youngster will be hoping for a smooth ride this time around after problems with wet weather and a punctured tyre in the last two races have seen his lead at the top of the 250cc world championship shrink to 27 points over Randy de Puniet.

Pedrosa's plight to impress Honda bosses and take another step towards the quarter-litre title will be under threat by factory colleagues this weekend. Toni Elias returned to form with the seventh 250cc victory of his career at Estoril, two of his previous success coming in the past two seasons at Motegi, meaning only Ralf Waldmann has taken more victories in the class without having won the title.

Meanwhile, Hiroshi Aoyama will be looking to challenge for his first victory of the season having impressed as a wild-card rider at Motegi last year, when he finished fifth ahead of Yuki Takahashi, who also races this weekend.

In the current 125cc class, Andrea Dovizioso finished third at Motegi last year, just three tenths of a second behind the victorious Hector Barber?, but is coming under pressure from the Spaniard for the title this time around after failing to finish a race for the first time all season at Portugal.

With Barber? taking his third win of the season in the same race, the Italian's lead at the top of the championship now stands at 20 points.



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