LONDON (Reuters) - Honda were way off the pace on their return to Formula One with McLaren but they are 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 favorite 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.
At last week’s final test at Qatar’s floodlit Losail circuit, the top 14 riders were separated by less than one second.
While Lorenzo’s Yamaha team are looking to mount more of a challenge, Ducati have impressed with a Desmosedici GP15 bike that looks set to end the Italian manufacturer’s five-year winless streak.
Because of their lack of recent success, and decision to switch from factory to open category, Ducati have a range of allowances including a softer tire option than the works Honda and Yamaha teams.
However they will lose those once they have chalked up three wins in a season.
“At the end of the day, it’s clear that our rivals are the Yamaha riders and Dani -- they are our rivals for the championship,” Marquez, last year’s winner in Qatar, told the motogp.com website.
“At some specific point, the Ducati will be there at the front but they have this ‘handicap’ of losing some of their advantages if they get good results. So I know who my rivals are and who I have to keep a close eye on.”
Ducati’s Italian Andrea Dovizioso and team mate Andrea Iannone reckon they still have the equipment to make life difficult for Marquez.
“We go to Qatar to get on the podium,” Dovizioso told the Gazzetta dello Sport.
Injury-prone Pedrosa, 29, has been eclipsed by team mate Marquez since the younger Spaniard’s sensational debut and will want to show that Honda were 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 last year and we gained something with the new gearbox... we think we have a big margin to improve while developing.”
Aprilia and Suzuki, the latter returning after a three-year MotoGP absence with rising Spanish prospect Maverick Vinales making his debut, are back with works teams.
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 in the tracks of now-retired champion compatriot Casey Stoner.
While Formula One was left with a shrunken starting grid of 15 cars at its Australian opener two weeks ago, the number of riders entered in the MotoGP class has now risen to 25.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris