Rossi versus Biaggi, Yamaha versus Honda; its all happening at Welkom this weekend as MotoGP thunders through the Free State town at the start of one of the most eagerly-awaited seasons ever.

Rossi versus Biaggi, Yamaha versus Honda; its all happening at Welkom this weekend as MotoGP thunders through the Free State town at the start of one of the most eagerly-awaited seasons ever.

Its not often that local circuits get a piece of international action and the 28-lap jaunt around the 4,242 km circuit at Phakisa Freeway on Sunday will have riders and fans on the edge of their seats. And with Italian sensation Valentino Rossi at a new team, the championship has once again been thrown wide open.

Current World Champion Rossi has his sights set on a podium finish in this the first race of the season but has admitted that he is not expecting it to be easy.

"That is our target (a podium finish); it might not be easy but we will try," Rossi said.

The Doctor, as he is known, will make his debut with Gauloises Yamaha on the YZR-M1, with which he has already scooped up three consecutive titles.

But Rossi has moved on to a new challenge with a team that has not won the challenge for the past 12 years.

"My work with Honda was finished so now with Yamaha we are trying to make another dream, to make a fresh start and to come back to the top," he said.

Expected to struggle early in the season with a team that has not been very competitive recently, Rossi astounded sceptics by setting the fastest time in the final official testing at Catalunya at the end of March.

"Certainly, every test so far has been really important for us because we started from point zero with this bike and are all working to the same goal."

Fellow countryman and bitter rival Max Biaggi was not as happy in the build-up to the race, with last minute changes seriously rubbing him up the wrong way.

"Honda gave us new parts just three weeks before the start of the season," Biaggi lamented. "If they had been good, fine, but they created many more problems!

"It's not a single problem, but three! Vibrations, power transfer and lifting under acceleration. At the limit I could put up with one of those but all three, you can imagine! It's not acceptable to discover these problems just ahead of the start of the Championship, unacceptable for a rider who is trying to win!"

He even went as far as to say, "Honda needs to wake up!" and "the Yamaha is much better", which would not really be what his new team would like to hear ahead of the promising new season...

Of the Honda competitors, Nicky Hayden, Alex Barros, Colin Edwards Sete Gibernau, Max Biaggi and Makoto Tamada, only three have ever won a grand prix and will be doing their utmost to play catch up.

But it's not just Honda squad who will be seeking Rossi's blood; his own Yamaha colleagues, Marco Melandri, Carlos Checa and Norick Abe, will have some performing of their own to do to avoid consistently forming part of the Italian's train.

The Ducati Marlboro Team return for their second season in MotoGP with Loris Capirossi and Troy Bayliss needing to make up for a frustrating pre-season of development with a brand new version of the Desmosedici.

Both Bayliss and Capirossi have suffered from a lack of track time due to adverse weather conditions, whilst watching newcomers Neil Hodgson and Ruben Xaus make swift progress on their old bikes.

The 2003 World Superbike champion, Hodgson steps back into motorcycling elite circle after a record breaking season in which he palmed nine consecutive wins. He has admitted though that it will not be easy having to go from the top rung of the ladder back to terra firma.

"I'm not really looking forward to that, because it's nice to be the top boy," Hodgson said.

"I'd rather be the top boy straight away, but I understand there's a process that I have to go through over the next three years to try and establish myself."

But Hodgson already has his sights on the rider the entire field feels the need to trounce.

"Valentino Rossi is the best," an admiring Hodgson said. "He's the main man. His strengths are his natural ability. He seems to enjoy what he does, which is a strength. A lot of riders don't enjoy it as much as him. And his weaknesses...he doesn't have any. He's just good. He's definitely the man, even though he's on a Yamaha."

Another newcomer, Shane Byrne, will make his first appearance for Aprillia, alongside Jeremy McWilliams, while the Alex Hoffman will make his first appearance for Kawasaki who has seemed impressive on pre-season testing on the greatly improved Ninja ZX-RR.

For Suzuki, former world champion Kenny Roberts has been shockingly quick, putting the new GSV-R, within a fraction of Rossi at the final pre-season test. His teammate John Hopkins, who regularly outpaced him last season, is fighting to be 100 per cent fit with the pair looking capable of taking Suzuki back near the top.