MotoGP set for closest 'ever' year as season starts in Qatar

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Doha (AFP)

MotoGP returns to action on Sunday with its traditional Qatar season-opening race with top names predicting this season promises to be the most competitive ever.

Doha's night-time desert event will raise the curtain on 19 races in 2018, which takes in Thailand for the first time, and eventually ends in Valencia, Spain in November.

Nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi even claims as many as 10 riders are in with a title chance and said it was the most competitive grid he had seen as he begins his 23rd season.

"I think this season is the most balanced of Moto GP seasons ever," Rossi, 39, who will be the oldest rider this year, told reporters at a joint press conference on Thursday.

"I think minimum all these guys on the table (four-time MotoGP champiom Marc Marquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Maverick Vinales, Johann Zarco and Andrea Iannone) plus Dani Pedrosa, Alex Rins.

"So, I think more or less eight, nine or ten at the minimum."

Marquez will be aiming for a third successive elite class world championship -- and if he wins it will be the eighth time in nine years a Spanish rider has claimed the world crown -- but he is expected to come under increasing pressure in 2018.

These include last year's second placed Dovizioso of Italy and Vinales, another Spaniard, who finished third in 2017, as well as the perennial challenge from Rossi, who on Thursday signed a new two-year contract with Yamaha.

Nine of the 24 riders in MotoGP this year have won races.

Asked for his pre-season prediction, six-time world champion Marquez was reluctant to pick out a challenger.

"It's impossible to say, I don't want to say a name," said the Honda rider.

He added: "We start in a better way than last year, we have a good pace."

- 'Anything can happen' -

Dovizioso was more candid claiming half-a-dozen riders had a chance of claiming the world title.

"We are very close, We are minimum five, six riders able to win the championship," said the Italian. "So, anything can happen."

Vinales, who won three of the first five races last year on the second factory Yamaha, said he was feeling confident about 2018.

"I feel great. This year I feel really good and I am confident we can do things," said Rossi's teammate.

France's Johann Zarco, last year's rookie of the year who exploded onto the scene in Doha by leading after six laps on his MotoGP debut, has also been mentioned as a potential winner.

But on Thursday he tried to downplay his chances.

"I finished sixth last year, so the first wish for me is to finish top five in the championship...but why not top three?" said the Tech3 Yamaha rider.

Qatar has often proved a difficult track for the riders and can also offer few definite pointers for the season ahead.

But testing has gone well so far in Doha for Suzuki's Iannone and Zarco, who nearly broke Jorge Lorenzo's decade-old fastest lap at Losail.