It's here at last. After a painfully long preseason - Qatar's position as the first race of the year, and their insistence on running at night, means that it is unsafe to run it much earlier, due to the danger of dew having disastrous effects on grip levels - the MotoGP paddock is assembled and ready to go racing. While there is always a sense of eagerness ahead of the first race at Qatar, it feels like the anticipation is even greater this year.
Whoever it is you happen to be talking to, the conversation always covers the same topics. Just how good will Marc Marquez be? Can Valentino Rossi really challenge for the championship again now he is back on the Yamaha? With Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa so evenly matched, who is favorite for the title? How quickly can Ducati return to form? And with six, maybe seven candidates for the podium at every race, how good is the racing going to be?
Cal Crutchlow remains sceptical, despite being the name most commonly bandied about for multiple podiums. The pace of Lorenzo and Pedrosa was fast right from the start, something which Crutchlow has so far not been able to match. The first five laps had been crucial, he said, and the time lost there had left him too far back to compete. "With these guys riding 100%, you have to ride 120% to gain a tenth. If you lose a second or two on the first lap, you're never going to get it back," he said.
For him, the title race would be between Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa. The championship was finely balanced, and Crutchlow found a typically pithy way to express the closeness of the race: "The title is Dani's to lose," he told reporters, "but I think Jorge will win it." As good as those two were, however, Crutchlow was most impressed with Marc Marquez. "I think he's probably the best guy in the world at the minute. Is he going to challenge Lorenzo and Pedrosa? I don't think he's going to challenge their consistency and pace every week, but he's as fast as them, if not faster." Marquez himself remained modest in the press conference, stressing only that he needed to be patient and learn. Few believe he will take very long to learn.
That Marquez is a big deal was obvious in the press conference. The key to gauging media interest in a subject is the decibel levels of camera shutters when a rider is speaking. Usually, in any press conference containing Valentino Rossi, there is only one winner in that contest. At the pre-event press conference at Qatar, Rossi was easily outdone by Marquez, the Spaniard's answers to questions generating a deafening clack-clack-clack of camera shutters as the photographers tried to capture a money-making shot.
But Rossi himself was happy enough to be outshone. Back in blue - an image both strangely unfamiliar and shockingly familiar at the same time - the Italian was just happy to be back at Yamaha. He was cautious on his goals for the season, telling reporters he would regard a win as a success, though he added "after that, we will see," hinting that a single win would be likely to whet his appetite.
Whether he could compete with Lorenzo and Pedrosa was open to question, though he was confident he could reach their level. His 2010 season had been deceptive, he said, the shoulder injury he picked up in a training accident early that season causing him enormous problems. The leg he broke at Mugello was not the real issue: "The leg? Fifty days. Pain, scared, but after two or three races, I never think about it," he said. But the shoulder meant he simply could not ride the bike at some tracks, while at others, he could ride around the weakness in his shoulder.
What came across most of all in speaking to Rossi was his delight at being back with Yamaha. "I have a very good feeling with Yamaha," Rossi told reporters. This had been something of a surprise, he explained, as he had expected things to be very different with former MotoGP project leader Masao Furusawa gone, having officially retired at the age of 60. "In 2010 I was very scared, because Furusawa was my man, and Furusawa stopped," Rossi said. "So I was scared about the situation in Yamaha. But this was a mistake, because coming back now, the atmosphere is exactly the same. Even though I went to another factory and I came back, all the people are very motivated to try to stay at the top." Seeing that Yamaha had put equal effort in for both him and teammate Lorenzo had also been reassuring, Rossi said. "Both bikes, the bikes are exactly the same, the level. And also the atmosphere, the effort of Yamaha is exactly the same [for both of us]. This is good."
Just how good Rossi still is - and how good Marquez is, and whether Crutchlow can get on the podium, and whether Lorenzo's preparation can beat Pedrosa's preparation, and how close Stefan Bradl can get to the podium, and whether Ducati can benefit from Qatar being a kind track to them, and a host of other questions - is a question which will be answered in just a few short hours. Testing is over. It is time to go racing.