World champion Valentino Rossi expects the 2003 MotoGP season to be a great “battle” after he took victory last season with four rounds to go. The first race is at Suzuka on Sunday.

World champion Valentino Rossi expects the 2003 MotoGP season to be a great “battle” after he took victory last season with four rounds to go. The first race is at Suzuka on Sunday.

Rossi started the season by dominating the first free practice on Friday and taking pole for the first qualifying session. He edged out Max Biaggi during the one-hour session.

A record eight manufacturers – Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, Aprilia, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Proton and Moriwaki – will be participating this season. All of the manufacturers have switched from two-stroke to four-stroke bikes this season, which will make it tougher for the Italian.

"The four-stroke machines are easier to ride than the two-strokes," Rossi said. "In this sense the show is much better, and in the old 500cc class only three or four riders were able to win, now we have at least 10 riders as potential winners.

“I think it will be a great season for everyone who loves racing. Every race will be a battle. I think it will be impossible to win the same number of races as last year," said the Honda rider.

This year’s entry includes 10 world champions: Rossi, former 500 champion Kenny Roberts Junior, World Superbike winners Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss, 250 champions Max Biaggi, Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri, Daijiro Kato and Olivier Jacque and World Supersport winner Andrew Pitt.

Rossi expects Biaggi to be his closest rival. Max has moved from Yamaha to the Camel Pramac Honda Pons team. "Max Biaggi will be my first and strongest rival and it will be fantastic to fight with the same bike," Rossi said.

Another potential hot rival will be Capirossi, who will be racing for the Ducati Marlboro team alongside Bayliss. Ducati has dominated Superbike racing, but it is its first attempt at MotoGP. “Suzuka is a lovely track, one of the best in the world,” said Capirossi. “I think it could be good for our bike because it’s not the kind of circuit where you get a lot of wheelspin. Everyone can see that we’ve got a lot of horsepower, so we are working to reduce wheelspin, and we’re making good progress with different solutions, both on engine and chassis set-up.

“I don’t have any big expectations for the first race. Much will depend on how the pre-race tests go. They will be especially important for us, because unlike the other factories, we haven’t been to Suzuka before. If we can fix the set-up during the tests, I think we can have a good race.”

Capirossi topped the official MotoGP prologue test session at Catalunya in Spain last month. “The bike is already at a very good level, our lap times from winter testing tell us that, but we have a lot more work to do before we can properly claim to have the best bike. Anyway, it’s coming better step by step, and I’m really excited because I think we can fight for some good results from the very first race.”

Meanwhile, Melandri became the first casualty of the season after he broke his right leg in two places during the first free practice session at Suzuka on Friday.

The 250cc world champion was airlifted from the circuit clinic to the local Mie General Medical Centre by helicopter for a full examination and operation, but early indications are that he has an open break on the tibia near his ankle, where the bone joins with the fibula, while the femur bone in the upper part of the leg seems to be a clean fracture.

The Fortuna Yamaha rider had completed just eight laps of the Suzuka circuit when he crashed at the fast right-hander after the hairpin. He is likely to be out for two months.

TV times: 125 cc race will be on Supersport2 at 4am with the MotoGP race starting at 6.30 am.