Tight at the top as new MotoGP season fires up

(Reuters) - Valentino Rossi has been around MotoGP longer than any rider and reckons the fans could be in for a thriller in 2018, the 39-year-old Italian’s 23rd racing season and 19th in the top flight.

Yamaha's MotoGP riders Jorge Lorenzo (L), Valentino Rossi (R) and Yamaha MotoGP Team Manager Lin Jarvis pose with the new Yamaha YZR-M1 for the 2016 season in Barcelona, Spain, January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Despite his Yamaha works team having a tricky pre-season, Rossi can still hope to be among the leading pack, though Honda’s defending champion Marc Marquez and Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso remain the men to beat.

The pair took the battle down to the wire last year, with Marquez becoming MotoGP’s youngest four-times champion at the age of 24.

“This season is the most balanced MotoGP season ever,” said Rossi, with a two-year contract extension freshly signed ahead of Sunday’s floodlit opener at Qatar’s Losail circuit.

“I think eight, nine or 10 riders can fight at the beginning. Over time it becomes less and less, but a lot of riders have the chance to win the first race.”

Marquez has won four of the past five titles but Dovizioso pushed him hard and sees no reason why he cannot do better this time around.

“This year I think we have the right situation. We have everything from my side, and from the bike side,” Dovizioso told reporters.

“There’s a minimum five or six guys who can fight for the championship. Anything can happen. Sure, in the last few years Marc has won, but I think it’s completely open.”

Italian Dovizioso’s Spanish team-mate and triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo was fastest in January testing in Malaysia but said after the final test in Qatar that he still didn’t feel the bike suited his style.

Rossi’s team mate Maverick Vinales, third overall last season, won a rain-delayed race at Losail a year ago but could struggle to repeat that with a bike hampered in testing by electronics issues and lacking grip.

Marquez’s Spanish team mate Dani Pedrosa will make his 200th MotoGP start this weekend and expects to be back in the mix as well.

“It looks like this is going to be a very competitive year, with many candidates for the podium,” he said, echoing the general feeling.

Non-works riders with strong pre-season performances behind them include Frenchman Johann Zarco, on the Tech3 Yamaha, and Britain’s Cal Crutchlow, on an LCR Honda.

Malaysia will also have a rider in the top flight, with Hafizh Syahrin at Tech3.

Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London; Editing by David Goodman