Rossi and Stoner resume battle on two wheels

On the eve of the Qatar Grand Prix, the start of the 2010 MotoGP season, Matt Majendie talks to the two main title challengers.

When glued to his bike, Valentino Rossi is the consummate professional. He barely gives an inch to on-track rivals and "The Doctor" is also renowned for repeatedly winning mind games with his teammates and rivals. Whatever the secret, his nine world titles would suggest he is doing something right. Off the bike, though, Rossi could not look or act less like the model professional.

Renowned for his goofy behaviour and madcap antics, the 31-year-old has spent the winter having fun. Snowboarding trips in Italy and a visit to India, not to mention a Formula One test for Ferrari, are listed among his holiday highlights. The Italian, who begins the defence of his MotoGP title in Qatar tomorrow, admits the time off was much needed after a tight season-long battle against Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo.

"It was good to have a good break, to go snowboarding with my friends and just spend some time at home," said Rossi. "I got to go to India for a Yamaha trip but otherwise the winter's been quite quiet." But Rossi has clearly been itching to quench his competitive edge for much of the winter. As well as the F1 test, he has had other motoring forays during the off-season. "I've done some motocross and supermotard and of course had another chance to test the Ferrari, which was great fun," he said.

As usual, though, any time he is spotted in the red overalls of the Maranello outfit, rumours start of a switch from two wheels to four. And he shakes his head and laughs off the idea of a move to Ferrari or any other F1 team any time soon. "I'm very lucky to get the chance to try some other sports like F1, rally, etc," he added. "I have had some chances to move, but at the moment I'm happy where I am on two wheels. Once I decide to stop, depending on how old I am, then I will decide if I want to do something else."

His preseason testing form would suggest that is unlikely to be any time soon. During his four days of track testing in Sepang, Malaysia, in February, he topped the time sheets every day and managed to break his own lap record in the process. It led fellow Yamaha rider Colin Edwards to state that Rossi was "not just the runaway favourite but virtually unbeatable right now". A useful indication of the pace of Rossi and his Yamaha M1 will be how man and machine fare at the season-opening race in Losail.

The track has been one where Rossi has habitually struggled for outright race pace. Last year, he was second, but a whopping eight seconds behind race winner Casey Stoner. The year before he stuttered to a lowly fifth leading to pundits to write off - wrongly as it turned out - his world championship credentials. Victory in tomorrow's race would fire out an ominous warning to Stoner, likely to be his major title rival, and teammate Jorge Lorenzo.

There is clearly no love lost between Lorenzo and Rossi. There are rumours from the Yamaha garage that Rossi has every intention of walking away from the team at the end of the season following their decision to offer his arch rival a contract extension. Already a wall is in place to separate the pair in their garage at race weekends - at the insistence of Rossi himself. And this season the pair will no longer share data, in effect running as separate teams throughout the 18-race calendar.

But as for his future at the team, publicly at least, Rossi hints he will be staying put. "During next summer I will have more clear ideas about my future, about 2011 and 2012. I am very happy at Yamaha - it's a good fit - so I will talk to them first and it remains my first choice to stay with them. Then we will see." As for his major rivals, Rossi predicted the same top four in 2010 as last year with Stoner, Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa and, potentially, Ben Spies, who joins the MotoGP ranks from the World Superbike Championship. "It looks like a year where we will have to work harder than ever to win," added Rossi, the winner of 103 career grands prix. "Sadly, it never gets any easier." Whatever the actions of his rivals, Rossi remains the clear rider to beat, not least of all because his Yamaha appears to be the best bike on the grid. "I don't feel pressure because I trust in my team and my bike," he said. "I know that my rivals this year will be tough to beat as always but I am always confident in myself and my team. I have great confidence in Yamaha, who have built another great M1. I'm looking forward to properly getting back to work." The M1 appears to have an improved engine and much better rear grip than in 2009. The only slight glitch is the electronics, which can be easily remedied. And the prospect of more wins means that, more than likely, Rossi will once again be on the MotoGP grid in 2011 in Yamaha colours. "I still love racing and winning and this is what keeps me going," he admitted. "There is a great atmosphere inside our garage and it makes working together great fun. While I still enjoy racing, I don't find it hard to continue. When I don't enjoy it anymore, then I will stop." Tomorrow, Casey Stoner will line up on the grid for the Qatar Grand Prix and the Australian plans to grab the opportunity with both hands. The 24-year-old has admitted there were times last season when he thought his career was over and the chance of adding to his 2007 world title was an absolute impossibility. In short, he was considering a life away from all he has ever known - front-line racing.

Signs that all was not well with Stoner first appeared at the Catalunya Grand Prix, race six on the calendar. Complaining of major fatigue throughout race weekends, he revealed it was a struggle just to finish races on his Ducati Desmosedici, let alone think about winning races. Doctors were baffled - clueless at forming a diagnosis for his mystery illness. For four races he continued racing but the results worsened. Just one podium, two fourth places and an unthinkable 14th followed before Stoner made the painful decision to take a complete break from MotoGP. Resting up back at home in Australia hardly improved things. In all, he saw eight different doctors in his quest for a diagnosis before finally visiting a nutritionist, who revealed he was lactose intolerant in the week building up to the Portuguese Grand Prix. Looking back, Stoner admitted he thought his career was at an end. He recalled: "Last year, when I got sick and things were starting to get dangerous on the bike, was the real lowpoint. I was starting to really fatigue so badly, I was becoming dangerous to the other riders and, to be honest, I thought I was finished. "I was really starting to get worried because no one could figure it out. But luckily we are out of it now." The uncertainty over the then-mystery ailment was arguably the most frightening aspect for Stoner, who admitted it was a major relief when he was finally diagnosed, even if he was sceptical about the diagnosis initially. "There were just so many medical examinations," he said. "I went and saw a heart specialist only a few days before getting back to Europe and the races. I did an exercise test to see my heart and my heart was fine. "But after just a few minutes on a walking machine I was finished. I mean I was worse than an old man, and it was embarrassing. And we were coming back to Portugal and we still hadn't figured this out. "After seven or eight doctors I think I saw, I think around the same amount of blood tests, no one found anything. But finally one doctor from a local town of mine, basically a nutritionist, started looking at things a lot more seriously. He thought of lactose intolerance and it was the solution." Once Stoner removed lactose and dairy from his diet, he gradually started feeling the benefits. "By the time I got to Europe by the Wednesday before the race I was feeling a little fresher, a little better. By Thursday I was a little bit better, more improved come Friday and as the weekend went on I just got better and better again. And since I've been off the lactose I haven't had a problem." Clear of his health problems, Stoner had a stunning finish to the season. In Portugal, he finished second behind Jorge Lorenzo before winning the subsequent races in Australia and Malaysia, as well as qualifying on pole for the season-ending grand prix in Valencia. In the end, he was forced to miss the race after crashing in the warm-up, but Stoner was finally back. And ominously for his rivals, he believes he is fitter and faster than at the end of the 2009 season. "Honestly I'm feeling better than I've felt in the last three years," is Stoner's assessment of his own form and fitness. "So, my training level has increased automatically, my fitness is going a lot higher than it has ever gone before and at a much easier level. "My expectation for 2010 is to be far more competitive than last season. My feelings going into the season are better than ever before." Pre-season testing would suggest that it is Rossi versus Lorenzo once more. However, suggest that to the Australian and you are met with a polite rebuke. "In 2007, nobody expected me, so, you know, several riders could cause a surprise," said Stoner. "We just have to wait and see who's going to be really competitive this year." Stoner himself has spent the winter getting as much rest as possible - including a first visit to the Northern Territory in his native Australia followed by an intense preseason training programme. However, by the time it came to his first test, he was itching to get back racing with the new engine on his Ducati, known as "Big Bang". Talking about his bike for 2010, he said, "I immediately really loved it. The feedback is more smooth and we found more traction in the corner exit and more acceleration. "The bike's very different from 2009, so we've had to do a lot of work between that first test in order to find a good base set-up. We still need to improve a few things but I believe the new engine will help us to be more competitive in the circuits where we struggled in the past." With Stoner back to his best at a circuit where he won last year, fatigue is the furthest thing from his mind.