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Carnival time: Will Jerez light the fuse in the title fight?

MotoGP™ ready for the Spanish Cathedral as the European season kicks off with a classic

After three distinct, exciting and nail-biting races to get 2017 in gear, the MotoGP™ paddock now touches down to begin the run of races at the heart of the season: Europe. Classic venues each with inimitable character, the first stop for class of 2017 sees the Circuito de Jerez preparing to host – and it’s hard to think of a better place to begin.

The ‘Cathedral’ of Spanish speed, this season marks 30 years since the first GP was held at the venue and more history seems to be made every year. Packed out and passionate, the roar of the crowd through Nieto and Peluqui preface the approach to one of the most legendary final corners on the calendar, Jorge Lorenzo, and the atmosphere in Jerez is one of pure electricity. The name is correct – here, the grandstands worship racing.

The man at the head of the standings as the faithful prepare for the carnival is Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP). The only man on the rostrum in the first three races, the nine-time World Champion has shown the old adage true and used consistency as its own weapon. Patiently waiting to pass Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) in Argentina and then stalking Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) in Texas, the ‘Doctor’ is now feeling better on the 2017 bike – and knows he can last the distance. From here, the venues read like a greatest hits playlist for the Italian – beginning with one of his recent number ones in Jerez, where he won last year.

The road to glory on ‘enemy’ territory never did run smooth, however. The Spanish are a veritable armada in 2017, with a host of riders ready, willing and able to push the veteran for the win. One man sure to do that is teammate Maverick Viñales, who won the first two races of the season before making his first in-race mistake for over a year. Fastest in testing, fastest in Qatar and fastest in Argentina, the Spanish Yamaha rider may have lost the lead in Texas – but he’ll be gunning to take it back on home turf.

The duel we were promised in Texas between Viñales and reigning Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) never did arrive, as the number 25 slid out of contention early. But the timesheets have built the showdown and sooner or later it will come. Will that be in Jerez? It could be the perfect place in many ways, with a home crowd like no other. Viñales is looking to bounce back, but Marquez already did that at COTA – back on the top step for the first time since Motegi last year and full of confidence. A good record at the track for the number 93 also makes good reading – something shared by his teammate.

Dani Pedrosa’s start at the Circuit of the Americas was one of the most electric moments of the race. Lightning quick off the second row, the ‘Baby Samurai’ shot round the outside to take the lead – and keep it for a good number of laps. Tyre wear in Austin negated a fight against Rossi for second, but Pedrosa took an impressive podium and the result speaks more for his 2017 pace than Qatar and Argentina. A winner previously at the track, Pedrosa could well be a key player.

Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) is another with a winning record in Andalusia. With a strange weekend with the weather in Qatar followed by a crash out on the first lap in Argentina, Texas saw some much more tangible progress for the ‘Spartan’ – graduating to Q2 and starting from the second row, before holding station behind his teammate Andrea Dovizioso for much of the first part of the race. Suffering tyre wear in the latter stages like Pedrosa, Lorenzo was still positive with the steps forward in Texas – and the number 99 has tested the Desmosedici at Jerez. On Thursday, it will be his 30th birthday, and 15 years since his debut in the World Championship. Motivation will be high.

‘DesmoDovi’ will also be pushing for the Borgo Panigale factory, to get back into the higher echelons of the timesheets following his fight for the win in Qatar and subsequent tougher races. Also on Ducati machinery and aiming high will be Pull&Bear Aspar’s Alvaro Bautista, who starts his home race with a top four already under his belt in 2017 – and Reale Avintia Racing’s Hector Barbera will be looking to unlock more of the potential of his GP16 on home turf. Also racing on a form of home turf are EG 0,0 Marc VDS, with Jack Miller looking for another top ten  and local hero Tito Rabat looking for another points finish.

With rookie Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) out through injury, Andrea Iannone will be lining up for the Hamamatsu factory alongside test rider Takuya Tsuda. Rins was top rookie in Qatar but that honour has since moved to Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) in both races ahead of the Spanish GP, and the Frenchman has been nothing short of stunning – two top fives, two top rides and just a few ruffled feathers. Zarco, teammate Jonas Folger and certainly Argentina podium finisher Cal Crutchlow will join Bautista on the hunt for Independent Team glory in Jerez – with competition tighter than ever.

Zarco vs. Rossi: Their version of events

Consistency has been key so far, but the showdown of the century is never far away when the world’s best face down the world’s best venue. Against the backdrop of one of the sporting wonders of the world, MotoGP™ head out in Jerez for FP1 at 9:55 on Friday (GMT +2), and it’s carnival time on Sunday at 14:00.

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