Early MotoGP title favourite Maverick Vinales already has a target on his back

MotoGP returns in Qatar this weekend and Maverick Vinales will have a target on his back after impressing in pre-season for Movistar Yamaha.

Marc Marquez returned to form last season to clinch a third MotoGP world championship, but Maverick Vinales has emerged as the man to beat in 2017.

With Jorge Lorenzo departing for Ducati, Vinales has made the switch to Movistar Yamaha to partner the legendary Valentino Rossi.

If pre-season is anything to go by then Spaniard Vinales, who has just one premier class win to his name, will be celebrating a maiden title come November.

But Marquez, champion in a record-breaking year that saw nine different winners, should never be discounted and the Repsol Honda rider is sure to be among the top contenders as he hunts a fourth title in five years.

We take a look at the biggest talking points ahead of the season-opening race in Qatar.

 

VINALES THE MAN TO BEAT

It was little surprise that Yamaha moved for Vinales to replace Lorenzo after his impressive displays at Suzuki, which earned him the Rookie of the Year award in 2015.

Vinales has clocked the fastest time in all of MotoGP's pre-season tests and has adapted to each of the different tracks he has ridden on for Yamaha.

We are now set to learn if Vinales can compete when the pressure is on and he is going for victory in every round.

"I'm very curious to see how the Yamaha will respond at the track during a race and to see if we are going to be as strong during the race as during the test. I'm so excited to start," he said.

MARQUEZ GOING NOWHERE

Anyone discounting Marquez from the equation does so at their peril.

Honda appear better equipped than they did 12 months ago and, given Marquez won the title, that may be a good sign.

But, with Vinales showing great pace, the chances are that Marquez's more cautious approach last season will not be enough to land him the title, and a crash-laden three-day test in Qatar means he has much to ponder before starting the season at the same venue.

"From a technical point of view, we're starting this championship better than the last one, and although that doesn't automatically mean that the results will be better, I think our machine has reached a level to fight for the podium," he said.

CAN ROSSI STILL COMPETE?

With seven world championships to his name, Rossi is one of the greatest riders of all time.

The Italian has placed second in the last two seasons and he will have been frustrated by his failure to match Vinales' pre-season pace, finishing almost a second behind his team-mate at the Phillip Island meet.

But Rossi is known as a man that turns it on when race day comes around and the veteran is confident he can be a challenger.

"We struggled to find the right setting and we have to work and try and improve - but I hope to be strong and competitive," he said.

 

LORENZO PLAYING CATCH UP

Ducati ended a six-year wait for a MotoGP victory at the Austrian Grand Prix last year and much was expected of the Italian constructor following the signing of three-time world champion Lorenzo.

However, while there has been steady improvement throughout pre-season the results are still uninspiring. Starting in Sepang, Lorenzo was a lowly 11th by the end of day three, although he was fourth come the final session in the last test in Qatar.

Gigi Dall'Igna, Ducati's technical chief, has conceded the team are not ready to compete.

"When we signed [Lorenzo], our goal is to fight for the world championship. It's clear that at the moment we are not ready to do it," he said.

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