NICE TO MEET YOU: Honda star Marc Marquez chats to a fan while showing her his new T-shirt. Image: Facebook.
LONDON, England - Honda was way off the pace on its return to Formula 1 with McLaren but it is sure to be on it in MotoGP when Marc Marquez starts his bid for a third successive crown with Sunday's season-opener in Qatar.
The 22-year-old Spaniard will be favourite again in a gang of four main contenders that includes compatriots Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa as well as 36-year-old Italian great Valentino Rossi.
But the landscape looks different to last year, when Marquez chalked up a record 13 wins for his Repsol Honda team, with the field looking closer and Ducati making a strong comeback.
The top 14 riders were separated by less than a second during the final test at Qatar's floodlit Losail circuit a week ago.
While Lorenzo's Yamaha team is looking to mount more of a challenge, Ducati has impressed with a Desmosedici GP15 bike that looks set to end the Italian manufacturer's five-year winless streak. Because of its lack of recent success, and decision to switch from factory to open category, Ducati has a range of allowances, among them a softer tyre option than the works Honda and Yamaha teams.
However the team will lose those once it has chalked up three wins in a season.
Marquez, 2014 winner in Qatar, told the motogp.com website: "It's clear our rivals for the championship are the Yamaha riders and Dani. At some point the Ducati will be there at the front but it has this 'handicap' of losing some of their advantages if they get good results.
"I know my rivals and who I have to keep a close eye on."
Ducati's Italian rider Andrea Dovizioso and team mate Andrea Iannone reckon they still have the equipment to make life difficult for Marquez. Dovizioso told the Gazzetta dello Sport: "We go to Qatar to get on the podium."
Injury-prone Pedrosa, 29, has been eclipsed by team mate Marquez since the younger Spaniard's sensational debut season and will want to show that Honda was right to renew his contract for two more years.
Double champion Lorenzo has trained hard after a disappointing 2014 and was more comfortable on the Yamaha in testing. "Overall the pre-season was good for us," he said. "We have a good bike, especially compared to 2014 and we gained something with the new gearbox... we think we have a big margin to improve while developing."
Aprilia and Suzuki are back with works teams, the latter after a three-year MotoGP absence with rising Spanish prospect Maverick Vinales making his debut.
Australian Jack Miller, arriving direct from Moto3 and billed as a star of the future, will be a youngster to watch at Honda LCR as he follows the tyre tracks of now-retired champion compatriot Casey Stoner.
While F1 was left with a shrunken grid of 15 cars for its Australian opener two weeks earlier, on Sunday the number of riders entered in the MotoGP class has now risen to 25.
Calendar for the 2015 MotoGP championship
March 29 - Qatar, Losail International Circuit.
April 12 - GP of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
April 19 - Argentina, Termas de Rio Hondo circuit.
May 3 - Spain, Jerez
May 17 - France, Le Mans
May 31 - Italy, Mugello
June 14 - Catalunya, Barcelona
June 27 - Netherlands, Assen
July 12 - Germany, Sachsenring
Aug 9 - Indianapolis GP, Indianapolis.
Aug 16 - Czech Republic, Brno
Aug 30 - Britain, Silverstone
Sept 13 - San Marino, Misano
Sept 27 - Aragon, Motorland Aragon (Spain)
Oct 11 - Japan, Motegi
Oct 18 - Australia, Phillip Island
Oct 25 - Malaysia, Sepang
Nov 8 - Valencia, Spain