Jerez de la Frontera, Spain - Valentino Rossi takes his quest for a long-awaited 10th world championship to the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend when the MotoGP season starts its European swing.
'The Doctor' has made the podium in each of the season's first three races in Qatar, Argentina and the United States to lead the championship standings by six points from Yamaha team-mate Maverick Vinales.
"I would never have expected to come to Jerez as a leader of the championship," said 38-year-old veteran Rossi. "I'm very happy because we managed to solve some of the problems we encountered during the winter tests and we are doing really good races."
Rossi has an incredible record at the Jerez circuit, winning nine times, including in 2016.
"This is the first European race and it‘s a circuit I really enjoy," said Rossi, whose last world title came in 2009. He won the 125cc world crown and 250cc title before stepping up and taking the premier class by storm.
"We have improved a lot in Austin since the first free practice and now it will be important to improve again in Jerez," Rossi added.
Vinales' dream start since replacing Jorge Lorenzo at Yamaha was brought to an abrupt halt as, after winning the first two races of the season, he crashed out at the Grand Prix of the Americas a fortnight ago.
"After the disappointing result in Austin I‘m just happy that I didn‘t sustain any injuries," said the Spaniard. "We also proved that we have the potential to fight for the victory at every race and this motivates me to arrive to Jerez even stronger than I was at the last GP."
Home favourite Marc Marquez is the main threat to the Yamahas and his victory in Austin brought the defending world champion to within 18 points of Rossi and up to third in the championship standings.
"Of course our win in Austin gave the whole team more confidence," said Marquez. "Racing at home and in front of my fan club is always special."
Ducati at a disadvantage
Lorenzo's decision to leave Yamaha for Ducati has backfired massively in the early part of the season as he is languishing down in 13th in the championship and has been outshone by team-mate Andrea Dovizioso.
And despite previous success in Jerez with three wins, neither Lorenzo nor Dovizioso is expecting to compete for the win this weekend.
"Jerez is one of my favourite tracks," said Lorenzo. "I have excellent memories of it, and I’ve scored a number of wins there, but it’s also true to say that it’s not the most favourable track for Ducati."
'Not satisfactory enough'
Dovizioso is fourth in the world championship behind the Yamaha duo and Marquez, having bagged Ducati's only podium so far this season in Qatar.
"Our balance sheet after the first three rounds of the season is not satisfactory enough," he said, "because we thought we would be quicker this year.
"With the exception of the Qatar race it hasn’t been like this so far. Although the Jerez track is one of the toughest for me and Ducati, I will be fighting hard in Spain to try and get back onto the podium."