- New Moto GP season around corner
- First race begins in Doha on March 10
- Marc Marquez reigning champion
(CNN)The beasts of MotoGP growl back onto the floodlit curves of Qatar's Losail circuit this week, ready to begin another season in motorcycle racing's elite class.
After a closely fought 2017 contest, last year's championship was something of a procession -- albeit an entertaining one, for a dominant Marc Marquez.
This term, however, promises rather more suspense thanks to some intriguing off-season plot twists.
These began with a bizarre incident at last year's Japanese Grand Prix just as Marquez clinched his fifth MotoGP crown.
On his victory lap at Motegi, the Catalan dislocated his shoulder thanks to an over-enthusiastic congratulatory bear-hug from British rider Scott Redding.
This was followed a month later by not one but two further dislocations of the same shoulder in qualifying at the season-ender in Valencia, one after a particularly terrifying crash.
Marquez and his Repsol Honda team decided to have the troublesome joint operated on over the winter, but his recovery has been slow and restrictive.
At the end of January, during the Honda factory team launch, Marquez told reporters that it was still problematic, but by the Qatar test things appeared much improved.
Ominously, while Losail isn't generally a happy hunting ground for Honda, he was satisfied with his bike: "Qatar is a track where normally we struggle, he said, "but at this test we are there with everyone else."
Of course testing is one thing, racing is another, and even a small question mark over his ability to hit the ground running will provide succor to this formidable champion's rivals.
"Very Stupid crash"
One who would have been perfectly placed to take advantage of Marquez's slightly reduced capacity is his new team mate, Jorge Lorenzo, joining this season after mixed fortunes with Ducati. But Honda's debutant is considerably further from fitness than his compatriot.
In January, the Majorcan star broke the scaphoid bone in his wrist after -- in his words -- a "very stupid crash" while riding a dirt bike in training. He missed the Sepang test in early February and only barely recovered for Qatar.
Nevertheless, there is justifiable excitement at the prospect of the three-time world champion on a Honda. Smaller and nimbler than the Ducati, the bike undoubtedly suits him. Lorenzo says he is studying Marquez closely
"He knows how to ride this bike and he rides it very well," Lorenzo told reporters in Qatar. "For the moment, I am worse in almost everything, so little by little I will get closer."
Aesthetically at least, Ducati's factory bike this year is one of its best looking in years. The likelihood is that theme will continue under its skin. The Bologna outfit has been steadily building a package to challenge for the title since the arrival of Team Principal Gigi Dall'Igna at the end of 2013.
And in Andrea Dovizioso and new rider Danilo Petrucci, they have a compelling one-two punch. After a strong test in Sepang, however, the Italians struggled in somewhat capricious conditions at the Qatar test, finishing 15th and 10th respectively.
Petrucci, a dynamic and direct rider with four seasons' experience on a satellite Ducati, looks to be bedding in nicely with his new factory bike.
However, Dovizioso, who finished a close second in the 2017 title race, has yet to find his rhythm.
"Honestly, I can't say I'm completely satisfied, but I'm also convinced we have strong potential and I'm confident we can have a strong race," Dovizioso told reporters after the Qatar test. "We collected plenty of interesting data and it will be important to make the most of it to make sure we're as ready and competitive as possible."
Yamaha has endured an extraordinarily barren spell in MotoGP. The once dominant outfit went 25 races without a win, finally breaking its streak in Australia last October.
This year, along with a new sponsor and a sleek black livery, their bike appears transformed. Maverick Vinales, still seen as a potential future world champion, led the pack in the Qatar test, with the legendary Valentino Rossi behind him in a tidy fourth.
While satisfied, Vinales still says work is needed on his Yamaha. "We need to improve," he told reporters. "I don't have really good grip on the edge, so we need to keep working, especially in that area."
Rossi turned 40 last month, and while his career is undoubtedly nearing its end, his hunger appears undiminished after an incredible 23 seasons of racing.
The eight-times world champion still believes he can win not one, but two more titles: "(it) is a dream that I still believe a lot in, but it's also a big regret, because I deserved it," he told Gazetto dello Sport recently.
Contracted to Yamaha for another two seasons, he a