Valentino Rossi can win the MotoGP World Championship for the third successive season in Malaysia this weekend, provided he finishes ahead of his only remaining challenger, Sete Gibernau, at Sepang.

It would not necessarily be enough for Gibernau to win either, as victory or second place would also guarantee the crown for the 24-year old former 125cc and 250cc world champion, who would become only the eighth rider in the history of the sport to win three or more consecutive titles in the premier class - alongside Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey and Mick Doohan. With three rounds of the 16 scheduled remaining, Rossi leads Gibernau by 58 points and can afford to lose eight points to him at Sepang and still win the title.

Rossi has finished outside the top two just twice this season - in the wet race at Assen and then, two weeks later, at Donington Park, when he was stripped of victory after overtaking under yellow flags. In a Honda-dominated race won by Max Biaggi at Motegi last Sunday, Rossi recovered from a mistake midway through the race - which saw him concede over eight seconds to the leader - before storming back to finish second. It is a foreboding prospect for Gibernau, who has fought bravely for the championship throughout his first season aboard the Honda RC211V.

After dicing with the top three in the championship in Japan, MotoGP rookies Nicky Hayden and Makoto Tamada will be eager to do so once more at a track where they both tested in the preseason. Hayden scored his debut podium on Sunday after Tamada was disqualified for riding in an irresponsible manner, but the American will be keen to stand on the rostrum in his own right after proving he is ready to run consistently at the front over the last few races. Tamada, meanwhile, will be doubly determined to avenge the decision which denied him a second consecutive podium in front of his home fans.

Despite struggling to find a good set-up on uncharted territory last weekend, Ducati also arrive at Sepang with a stack of data gathered during the intense tests there during the winter. At a joint session with HRC back in January, Loris Capirossi and Troy Bayliss gave the first signs of what was to come in a sensational debut MotoGP season for the Italian factory, with a string of impressive lap times and the first glimpses of the awesome acceleration and top speed of the Desmosedici.

It's been a tough couple of races for the team, but they still hold fourth and fifth places respectively in the championship. They are coming under pressure from the Honda of Tohru Ukawa, who is fighting for his MotoGP future and American AMA champion Hayden, who's having a superb first MotoGP season.

For Yamaha, Marco Melandri took the best result of his debut season at Motegi, with a sparkling ride back to fifth place after dropping to 19th on the first lap. The Italian, who endured one of the most difficult moments of his 250cc world championship-winning season when his Aprilia broke down in the early stages of the race last year, will look to carry that form into this weekend, whilst his team-mate Carlos Checa will aim to bounce back from a somewhat less fortunate grand prix.

The Spaniard was taken out at the first corner by John Hopkins who, along with Bayliss and Colin Edwards, also ended up in the gravel. Hopkins was handed a fine and was suspended from this race for his actions, although Suzuki will still have two riders on track as Akira Ryo races as a wildcard for the second successive race after finishing in a creditable tenth place at Motegi.

Brazilian Alex Barros is still fighting to be fully fit, but is only three points behind eighth-placed Checa in the championship, while his Gauloises Yamaha team-mate, former 250cc world champion Olivier Jacque is another fighting for his MotoGP future.

Shinya Nakano won the 250cc race in Sepang three years ago and, together with Rossi, is the only rider to score points at every round of the MotoGP championship this year. He currently holds tenth place in the title chase, riding the d'Antin Yamaha.

It may be a long way from home for the Banbury-based Proton KR team, but the race at Sepang on Sunday will almost be a 'home' grand prix, which is backed by the Malaysian Proton company, and receives massive support from the Malaysian public.

The team arrives having scored its first ever world championship points for the new 990cc four-stroke machine at Motegi, where Nobuatsu Aoki finished 14th. It was not such a good race for 39-year-old Ulsterman Jeremy McWilliams, however, as he crashed at the hairpin because of brake problems. Both riders will be looking for points scoring rides in front of Proton and the Malaysian public on Sunday.

Geordie Chris Burns's run of bad luck must surely come to an end in the final three races of the year, starting in Malaysia. The 23-year-old still has to finish a MotoGP race after being sidelined with a clutch problem with the Harris-WCM machine at Motegi. However his team-mate Spaniard David de Gea did complete a race distance which gave the team encouragement after such a difficult season.

The pursuit of the 250cc world championship continues apace after a fourth victory of the season for Toni Elias in Japan. The youngster moved up to third place in the standings behind Roby Rolfo and series leader Manuel Poggiali, who maintained an 18-point gap over the Italian and a comfortable 30-point cushion to the Spaniard with third place.

Having suffered disappointment with Melandri's breakdown here last season, Poggiali's team will be only too aware that they can take nothing for granted over the final three races, and five riders still have a mathematical chance of winning the title. Both Poggiali and Elias have finished second at Sepang in the past and going one better in the 20-lap race on Sunday could have a massive bearing on the final outcome of the title.

Randy de Puniet lies just four points behind Elias in fourth place, whilst Fonsi Nieto, who re-ignited his title hopes with victory here last season, remains in fifth after a disappointing eighth place at Motegi left him 55 points adrift of Poggiali.

Chaz Davies continued his good 250cc form at Motegi. The 16-year old Welsh rider gains in confidence each race and his eleventh place on the KF Concept Aprilia last Sunday was further proof of that. He is currently 16th in the championship, but only eleven points behind twelfth-placed Joan Olive.

The 250cc field will be joined this weekend by two Chinese wildcard riders, Huang Shi Zhao and He Zi Xian, who make their debuts aboard Yamaha machinery in the d'Antin team.

Dani Pedrosa will lift the 125cc championship on Sunday if he scores eleven points more than closest challenger Stefano Perugini. The 18-year old suffered bitter disappointment at Motegi when a screw came loose in his steering damper, forcing him to relinquish a 4.5secs lead with just six laps to go and consolidate with sixth place.

Victory would most likely have set Pedrosa up for the title with the same result here but, with Perugini taking advantage to pick up fourth, the Spaniard will be hoping the unpredictable and competitive nature of the 125cc class will swing in his favour this weekend.

Victory for Hector Barbera in Japan extended a record run of twenty races in the category without a back-to-back winner - a record the likes of Casey Stoner, Andrea Dovizioso and Alex de Angelis would all like to extend having taken several podium positions this season without winning a race.

The Malaysian Grand Prix found a new home at the brand new Sepang circuit in 1999, having previously been held six times at the run-down Shah Alam circuit, near central Kuala Lumpur, and once in Jahor. The 3.447 mile Sepang track was built near the KLIA airport, 30 miles south of Kuala Lumpur in just 14 months, and has since hosted both MotoGP and Formula One car grands prix since 1999.

It's known throughout the world for its unique doubled sided grandstand on the start and finish straight. The track is very wide and the longest straight just under 1000 meters. There are four slow corners linked by straights with ten right hand corners compared to the five left. The weather is hot and humid at this time of the year, often with the threat of thundery showers.

 

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