The 2016 MotoGP™ world title hits Europe for the first time this weekend at one of the classic grand prix circuits — Jerez.
But, for the moment, even the spectre of hitting the 4.4km track has been overshadowed by the news that Jorge Lorenzo will be defecting from Movistar Yamaha at the end of the season to ride for Ducati in 2017 and 2018.
It was very much an open secret in the paddock, but the announcement on April 18 that the reigning world champion is jumping ship from a highly successful partnership with Yamaha — three world titles and chasing a fourth in 2016 — was still a massive one.
With the switch confirmed, speculation will now focus on who will replace Lorenzo at Yamaha — Maverick Vinales is the bookies' favourite — and how Ducati will shuffle the deck chairs to accommodate a new superstar.
Those permutations will play out over the next few months, but for Lorenzo it's still all about focussing on the current job at hand with Yamaha at a track where he ignited his 2015 campaign in spectacular fashion with victory over Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) and his teammate Valentino Rossi.
And Lorenzo will have to be on the job again, as Marquez takes a 20pt (65 to 45) lead over his countryman into Jerez after being the dominant figure in the first three flyaway races. Rossi sits in third position on 33pts from Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3, 28), Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda, 27) and Hector Barbera (Avintia Racing Ducati, 25).
Marquez and Espargaro are two of just even riders to score points in all three races so far this season.
“We’re very happy to head to Jerez with a small advantage in the championship standings because I think our rivals are going to be very strong there," said Marquez. "I’m also very happy with the work we’re carrying out with Honda and my team because we’ve improved step by step at every race: we found a good base setup in Qatar and we further bettered it slightly in several areas, such as engine braking and electronics, in Argentina and Texas.
"Anyway, there’s still work to do and margin for improvement, especially in acceleration. Besides this, the tracks are different in Europe — narrower, with a different tarmac — so we have to wait and see how we can manage the situation. Of course I love to be back in Spain after three flyaway races. Racing in front of my home crowd and my fan club is always very nice and gives me a special emotion and extra motivation.”
Between them, Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Marquez have won 12 premier class races at Jerez, so the winner is likely to come out of that quartet. You can also add Ducati Team riders Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone into the mix, with Dovizioso surely due for a change of fortune after being caught up as collateral damage in the last two rounds after crashes by Iannone and then Pedrosa.
Dovizioso is languishing equal seventh in the standings with Vinales (Ecstar Suzuki) on 23pts, when the Italian could just as easily been travelling to Jerez second behind Marquez.
Vinales has so far been unable to take maximum advantage of his excellent qualifying performances, but he may just be able to get it all together at Jerez in front of a typically vociferous home crowd — and that also holds for his teammate Aleix Espargaro.
Meanwhile, Cal Crutchlow (CMS LCR Honda) will be looking to finally score some points after crashing out of all three rounds in Qatar, Argentina and America, while Jack Miller (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) will be back on deck after he didn't compete in the American race after a big crash in practice saw him break the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.
In the battle of the Independent Team riders, Pol Espargaro holds the upperhand from Barbera, Eugene Laverty (Aspar Ducati), Scott Redding (Octo Pramac Yakhnich Ducati) and Bradley Smith (Monster Yamaha Tech 3), the latter yet to show his true form in 2016.
The factory Aprilias of Stefan Bradl and Álvaro Bautista also arrive at Jerez with updates in electronics, the chassis and aerodynamics.
Jerez first held a MotoGP round in 1987, and since then has produced some classic battle between riders such as Mick Doohan and Alex Criville, Rossi and Sete Gibernau, and Lorenzo and Pedrosa. Races are won and lost at turn 13, named after Lorenzo and where fans and riders alike hold their breath as they tip in for the last time.
The battle is extremely tight in Moto2, with just 4pts separating leader Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2) from fourth placed Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten).
Luthi, world champion Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) and Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) have all taken victory so far this year, while Lowes has been getting faster all the time. That provides all the ingredients for a Jerez classic, with riders like Franco Morbidelli (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS), Jonas Folger (Dynavolt Intact GP), Dominique Aegerter (CarXpert Interwetten) and Axel Pons (AGR Team) keen to join the action.
Folger won at Jerez last year from Zarco and the now departed Tito Rabat, while Pons topped pre-season testing at the southern Spanish track.
Meanwhile, the first three races of the Moto3 title have produced three different winners in very different races, with Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold Honda), Khairul Idham Pawi (Honda Team Asia) and Romano Fenati (Sky Racing Team VR46 KTM) scooping the honours.
But it's consistent South African Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) who leads on 52pts from Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda, 49) and Fenati (38), with Binder a third place finisher at Jerez in 2015 behind eventual world champion Danny Kent and Miguel Oliveira.
Much like Binder, Navarro is still hunting his first world championship win.
The threeworld championship races at Jerez will be held over the following distances and times:
• MotoGP: 27 laps, 119.4km, starting at 2:00pm local time (10:00pm AEST)
• Moto2: 26 laps, 115km, starting a 12:20pm local time (8:20pm AEST April 11)
• Moto3: 23 laps, 101.7km, starting at 11:00am local time (7:00pm AEST)
Images courtesy of MotoGP.com