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Italian MotoGP preview

MotoGP
Friday, May 30, 2008

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Last year's podium at Mugello
You can never write off a champion and certainly can never write off a man who has been world champion five times in the premier class. After two years without a world title, Valentino Rossi looks poised to make 2008 his great comeback year and there may be very little his rivals can do about it.

A quick look at the honor role for the Italian MotoGP and one name leaps out at you - Rossi. Given he has dominated the past six editions of this race and has a three-point lead in this year's championship, you'd expect 'The Doctor' to be still on top come Sunday night.

His dominance of this race is stunning and his passion for his Italian fans has been significant in that dominance. Rossi is always at his best at Mugello and every rider on the grid knows he is the man to beat this year.

So what has been the key to Rossi's resurgence this year? Well, the FIAT Yamaha has clearly taken a huge step forward and at this stage of the season, is the best performed bike in the paddock having won three of the five GPs to date.

However, you cannot underestimate the importance of Jorge Lorenzo in this resurgence. Rossi is a competitor and having his team-mate on his back wheel every race, something he hasn't experienced for quite a few years, has pushed him back to the top of his game. Both riders have been on the podium on three occasions this year, including a one-two in the previous race at Le Mans.

Lorenzo's effort just to complete the previous two races with two broken ankles has been amazing, but the young prodigy has not only just got around the track, he has finished fourth and second. It means he is just three points off the lead, level with Honda's Dani Pedrosa.

Significantly, Yamaha took its first podium clean sweep in seven years, which while it was great for Colin Edwards, who took third in his Tech 3, it signaled to Honda and Ducati that the guard is changing.

Pedrosa relinquished his championship lead with his fourth in the wet in Le Mans. The 2007 runner-up has now gone three races without a win and is starting to fall into the pattern which cost him last year. While he is consistent, he struggles to win. He has now had 40 MotoGP starts for five wins, but 15 other podiums. Add to that another nine fourths and you start to see a pattern of a rider who while he is often in contention, rarely salutes.

To be fair to Pedrosa, he has suffered similar issues to the ones that Rossi had in that he hasn't had a consistently performing team-mate. It's been a stunning fall from grace for Nicky Hayden, who won the 2006 title by being the most consistent rider on the grid. Since that time, Hayden has managed just three podiums in 23 races. His inability to contest regularly at the front of the pack has made Pedrosa's job all the more difficult.

Casey Stoner is suffering a similar 'championship hangover' to Hayden last year and it seems the Ducati is not the all-powerful machine it was 12 months ago. Stoner's championship defense hangs by a thread as he faces a 41-point gap to Rossi after five races. His 16th at Le Mans, which came courtesy of a mechanical failure late in the race, was his worst effort since 2005 and he needs to turn things around fast. But Mugello hasn't been a happy hunting ground for the Australian with his best effort second here in the 125cc race on a KTM in 2004.

His team-mate Marco Melandri has really struggled to adapt to his new team and has just one top 10 finish this season, which is not a good return from a bike which won a world championship last year.

Things are looking up for Stoner's countryman, Chris Vermeulen, who had his best finish for the year, fifth, at Le Mans. Much like last year, the Suzuki looks to be improving as the year goes on with veteran team-mate Loris Capirossi also finding consistency.

The Italian MotoGP is the first of four in five weeks for the riders in what looms as the most vital part of the season. Rossi will be out to make a statement this weekend and lay the foundations for a massive June where he could take a stranglehold on his sixth world title in the premier class.  Motogp.au

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