6th September, Sepang -
The MotoGP World Championship reaches a crucial stage this weekend, with the teams and riders heading to Sepang for the first in a run of three Grands Prix in as many weekends; the Marlboro Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix.
A strong showing in the Malaysian, Australian and Japanese races could see the overall classification turned on its head, and whoever finishes the triple flyaway in the driving seat will be a clear favourite to take the title. Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden is the current leader, having taken two victories and shown tremendous consistency thusfar this season. However, the Kentucky Kid will be eager to bounce back from a disappointing ninth place at Brno, his lowest finish in 2006, and further extend his advantage at the top of the leaderboard.
His closest challenge is found on the other side of the garage, with team-mate Dani Pedrosa lying 25 points behind the American as he continues his incredible adaptation to the premier class. Pedrosa has been playing down his title chances, but if he continues his podium-placing form demonstrated so far this season, then nobody can afford to overlook the 20 year-old rookie.
Although 38 points behind Hayden and plagued by bad luck in 2006, Valentino Rossi can never be written off. Camel Yamaha's Italian star is a big fan of the Sepang circuit, a track where a second place finish in 2005 handed him the title. The Italian will need to put in a big performance over the next three races to make up ground on Hayden, but will thrive on the challenge.
Marco Melandri finds himself in much the same position as his countryman, and last season's World Championship runner-up approaches the flyaway races in peak condition. Having battled through pain at various points this season, a fully fit Melandri could yet challenge the favourites for the top positions.
The last time the championship experienced three races in succession, Loris Capirossi started as joint leader. However, a huge crash and subsequent injuries in Catalunya derailed his season and he has dropped down the standings as a result of the after-effects. Having dominated in the Czech Republic, and this week confirmed for a seat on Ducat's new GP7 project for next season, Capirossi is still on course for his most successful season in MotoGP. Even more importantly, Capirossi won this race last year on board the Italian machine, and fresh from the win in Brno, the 50 points gap to leader Hayden could yet still be breached.
The remainder of the top ten are some way off the leading spots. Casey Stoner, impressive in the early part of the season before a series of crashes, is still experiencing a fantastic start to his premier class career, whilst a resurgent Kenny Roberts Jr leads a pack of three Americans, the others being Colin Edwards and John Hopkins. Shinya Nakano completes the top ten for Kawasaki.
Sete Gibernau will return for Ducat Marlboro after sitting out the Brno date as he recovered from a second shoulder operation. With the Spaniard back with the team, temporary replacement Alex Hofmann rejoins Pramac d'Antin for the Asian race.
In 250cc, the two-horse race for the title between Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso continues. Lorenzo has won six races already this season, and in Brno announced that he would continue with Aprilia in the category next year. Dovizioso has been the season's consistent performer, with only one win to his name but a bag of podium positions which keep him in title contention. Behind them, Yuki Takahashi, Hiroshi Aoyama, Alex de Angelis and Roberto Locatelli are fighting amongst themselves in an incredibly tight battle for what seems an inevitable third place in the standings.
Alvaro Bautista is the runaway leader in 125cc, 69 points ahead of nearest rival Mika Kallio. The Master MVA Aspar Team have another three riders; Mattia Pasini, Sergio Gadea and Hector Faubel, in the top six, ahead of Derbi's Lukas Pesek.
Repsol Honda's Bradley Smith is a big doubt for the Malaysian race, with all signs pointing to a replacement from the Red Bull MotoGP Academy occupying his spot whilst he recovers from a fractured wrist.
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