Valentino Rossi © Getty Images
Valentino Rossi will rev up for a 10th world title tilt amid a field of young rivals including new Yahama teammate Maverick Vinales as the 2017 MotoGP season roars into action in Qatar this weekend.
The floodlit Losail Circuit in Doha will host the only night race on the 18-stop world championship calendar on Sunday.
The sandy, windswept track on the outskirts of Doha is one which the 38-year-old Italian superstar knows well, having won on four occasions in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2015.
But the veteran Yahama rider – winner of seven MotoGP world titles and two in 125cc and 250cc – finished off the podium last year in Doha with former teammate Jorge Lorenzo taking top spot.
Rossi's glittering 20-year career has been tempered by frustration in recent years and he has not won a world championship title since 2009.
He finished runner-up for the past three years amid a tense rivalry with Lorenzo, 29, with Rossi even accusing current world champion Marc Marquez of conspiring to help Lorenzo win the title in 2015.
Lorenzo has since moved to Ducati, leading to rising star Vinales joining Rossi at Yamaha, while Andrea Iannone made way at Ducati to move to Suzuki.
Vinales proved he could be a challenger to the veteran maestro as he outshone Rossi in winter testing at Sepang, Phillip Island and Qatar earlier this month.
"I'm still not very fast I have to work," said Rossi.
But Vinales was delighted with how he handled the Yahama M1.
"If we do the same in the first GP as we did in the test, we can fight for the victory," warned 22-year-old Vinales, who finished fourth in his second season in the top category in 2016.
A record nine drivers won a grand prix in 2016 and Rossi expects an open championship.
"I think at minimum six riders can win this year," predicted Rossi.
"It will be very interesting this season because three top riders change bike."
Marquez – a five-time world champion with three in MotoGP – fared less well falling of his Honda three times in Qatar practice.
"The first race of the season is always a special one because you're a bit more nervous than usual," said the 24-year-old Marquez.
"One of the main things to consider is the sand, which can make the surface quite slippery as soon as you get out of the best line."
Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa – a former world champion in 125cc and 250cc – has had six MotoGP podiums but none since 2013.
"The track is very dusty and the place is quite windy, so the grip is generally not very very good," said Pedrosa, who had his worst season in 2016 in a decade competing in the top class.
"There's a long long straight where we typically have a headwind and therefore you need a strong engine."