By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - The broken leg is mending fast but Honda's Marc Marquez will still be starting his MotoGP title defense on the back foot in Qatar on Sunday.
The 21-year-old Spaniard, who in his rookie season became the youngest ever champion in motorcycling's top category, fractured the fibula in his right leg while dirt-bike riding six weeks ago.
The injury meant he missed two of his team's three pre-season tests in Malaysia and Australia, although the leg was not put in plaster, and has not ridden a MotoGP bike since February 6.
"It was very disappointing for me to miss the two tests but the good news is that I'm getting better and the bone is mending," Marquez said before flying to Doha for Sunday's floodlit night race at the Losail desert circuit.
"I've been exercising more, so I'll have to see how I am in Qatar. I don't expect to be 100 percent, but I will try my hardest.
"The important thing is to take some valuable points and then get up to 100 percent by round two in Austin (Texas)," added the champion.
Marquez was third on his MotoGP debut in Qatar last year after winning the 2012 Moto2 race, and went on to chalk up six wins.
While he has had to put his feet up, team mate and injury-prone compatriot Dani Pedrosa did plenty of laps in testing and has been putting in extra time in the gym to ensure he is in the best shape.
Pedrosa has the fewest worries of Spain's crop of top riders, with Yamaha's double world champion and 2013 runner-up Jorge Lorenzo undergoing three operations in the off-season after breaking his collarbone last year.
"I'm not in shape," he told Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport this month. "I began gym work late and I'm far from last year's condition."
Lorenzo, whose team mate is again 35-year-old Italian great Valentino Rossi, had struggled with Bridgestone's new tires in Malaysia but went on to dominate the test at Australia's Phillip Island.
Moto2 champion Pol Espargaro, the latest Spanish addition to the top category, will be riding with a broken collarbone when he makes his debut on the Tech3 Yamaha.
Espargaro had a titanium plate inserted last week after crashing in the final pre-season test for non-factory teams in Qatar on March 9.
His older brother Aleix will also be on track as the Spaniards become the first siblings to race each other in the top category since Nicky and Lee Hayden at the 2010 U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca.
Britain's Cal Crutchlow, fifth overall last year with Tech3, makes his Ducati debut with the Italian team who have given up Factory status and taken the gamble of switching to the Open class.
That means Ducati will have to use standard control units and software but can use four more liters of fuel per race, softer tires and have a bigger allocation of engines.
"This year we have to keep developing our bikes throughout the season to improve our competitiveness, and the factory option appears to be too restrictive for our needs," said general manager Luigi Dall'Igna.
Britain's Scott Redding, Frenchman Mike Di Meglio and Australian Broc Parks will all make MotoGP debuts.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Justin Palmer)