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Wednesday, 5th March 2008

Casey Stoner will step into the spotlight and start the defence of his first world championship crown during the inaugural MotoGP night race, in Qatar, on Sunday.

The 22-year-old Ducati Marlboro star began last season's day time Losail event without a single premier-class win under his belt, but 22 laps later and the young Australian was standing on the top step of the podium - on his first ever Desmosedici ride - between shell-shocked rivals Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa.

Stoner and Ducati remained unstoppable for most of last season, and the new #1 continued that superb form during winter testing - despite a shoulder injury at the end of 2007. Nevertheless, most expect Stoner to face a much stiffer challenge in 2008.

Leading the charge will once again be seven times world champion Rossi, who will face Stoner with the same brand of tyres this season after a switch to Bridgestone rubber on his Fiat Yamaha. After two consecutive title defeats, 2008 could be make-or-break for the Rossi/Yamaha partnership, which began with such success in 2004.

Rossi was pushed back to third in the 2007 standings after a technical failure in the Valencia season finale, but Dani Pedrosa - who took the position from him - heads to Qatar vastly under-prepared after fracturing his hand in the very first test of 2008.

Much of the Repsol Honda team winter testing has thus been left to 2006 world champion Nicky Hayden, who has shown blistering pace on qualifying tyres, despite having to develop two different machine specifications.

The first 'full' version, consisting of the '08 chassis and '08 pneumatic-valve engine, won't be ready for the opening rounds, leaving Hayden and Pedrosa to run the new 2008 chassis with last year's spring-valve engine this weekend.

Repsol Honda is the only team to field the same riders as last season, with John Hopkins and Marco Melandri the leading riders to switch machinery for 2008.

After taking his first MotoGP podiums at Suzuki last year, and a best yet fourth in the championship, Hopper will begin a new challenge with Kawasaki at Qatar this weekend - but, like Pedrosa, will be riding through the pain this weekend after damaging his groin in a testing accident at Phillip Island. Anthony West joins Hopkins in green, for his first full season on a ZX-RR.

Melandri was fifth in the 2007 standings and gets his 'big chance' as team-mate to Stoner this season. The Italian has suffered a tough time during winter testing, but heads to the first race optimistic.

Stoner's former team-mate, Loris Capirossi, has replaced Hopkins at Suzuki - where he is determined to rebuild his reputation after being overshadowed by Casey last season. Unfortunately, Capirossi and Suzuki regular Chris Vermeulen have experienced mixed fortunes during the winter, and were still searching for a set-up breakthrough during last week's final test.

Last season saw just one rookie, Sylvain Guintoli, enter the full world championship - but this year there will be four rising stars battling to be the best newcomer. Two of those, reigning double 250cc world champion Jorge Lorenzo and reigning double World Superbike champion James Toseland were a head-turning first and second at the end of the final test.

Unlike team-mate Rossi, Lorenzo will ride with Michelin tyres this season, as will Toseland, who has marched steadily towards the front on his satellite-spec Tech 3 YZR-M1. Toseland will be joined by fellow former WSBK star Colin Edwards, who has looked revitalised after three years in Rossi's shadow.

The two other rookies are Lorenzo's former 250GP rivals Andrea Dovizioso and Alex de Angelis. Dovizioso, second to Lorenzo for the past two seasons, has been rewarded for his Honda loyalty with an RCV ride - at JiR Team Scot - and 'expects' to be racing towards the front after a very strong winter programme.

de Angelis joins veteran Shinya Nakano at a new look Gresini Honda team, the only Honda outfit using Bridgestone tyres, and appears to have carried his raw 250 speed straight over to the 800cc four-stroke.

Former Gresini race winner Toni Elias takes his aggressive riding style to the Alice Team in 2008, alongside Guintoli, while surprise of the season could be Randy de Puniet - whose switch from a factory Kawasaki to satellite LCR Honda has seen the Frenchman regularly propelled to the top of the testing timesheets.

Whilst the premier MotoGP class, and Qatar's brand-new million dollar lighting system, will be the main focus of public attention this weekend, there will also be considerable interest in the ever-thrilling lower cylinder categories.

The ultra competitive 250cc class is wide open after the departure of the leading riders to MotoGP, leaving KTM's Mika Kallio to emerge as one of the pre-season favourites during winter testing.

Kallio clocked fast times at a number of visits to Jerez and Valencia, was the winner of the final round of 2007, and his maiden appearance in 250cc at Qatar last year could have seen him on the rostrum were it not for some untimely mechanical problems.

Kallio's team-mate Hiroshi Aoyama has also had his fair share of misfortune in Qatar. The Japanese rider had been expected to star at the race last year after recording KTM's then-best ever dry result of fifth in 2006, but crashed out on lap two and suffered a nasty finger injury. He will be one of the expected title contenders this year as the Austrian factory's machines look stronger than ever.

Heading the Aprilia charge is Mapfre Aspar rider Alvaro Bautista, already a proven race-winner in the 250cc class. The Spaniard is joined in the garage this year by countryman Hector Faubel, one of a cluster of debutants that also includes 125cc success stories Lukas Pesek and Mattia Pasini.

Also on top of the range Aprilia machinery in 2008 are Emmi Caffe Latte's Thomas Luthi, who came so close to a podium finish in his maiden 250cc race at Losail last year, Lotus Aprilia's returning Alex Debon, and Hector Barbera, with all three expected to push for success in Qatar.

Hungarian world champion Gabor Talmacsi has remained to defend his 125cc crown but will have a real fight on his hands against a bevy of young and old pretenders including Britain's Bradley Smith, Pol Espargaro, grand prix winners Sergio Gadea, and Tomoyoshi Koyama.
 

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