By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Maverick Vinales was the top gun in testing and Valentino Rossi's new Yamaha team mate will have triple world champion Marc Marquez in his sights when the MotoGP season starts in Qatar this weekend.
Vinales has replaced fellow-Spaniard Jorge Lorenzo alongside Rossi, the Italian great who was runner-up last season and remains a force to be reckoned with as he starts a new campaign at the age of 38.
If nine times world champion Rossi thought old foe Lorenzo's departure for Ducati would make life easier, Vinales's arrival might force a rethink.
The 22-year-old former Suzuki rider was fastest in the tests in Spain, Malaysia, Australia and Qatar and arrives at the floodlit Losail circuit looking like Marquez's biggest challenger.
"After the amazing pre-season, we can't wait finally to start racing," said the Spaniard, a Moto3 champion who took his first MotoGP win last season at Silverstone's British Grand Prix.
"I'm very curious to see how the Yamaha will respond...and to see if we are going to be as strong during the race as during the test."
Rivals have identified Vinales as the man to watch in Sunday's night race: "He's really fast, he's really confident," said Ducati's Italian Andrea Dovizioso, a winner in Malaysia last year.
"Vinales is very strong and I don't think it's just the Yamaha, as he's ahead of the other Yamaha riders," commented Lorenzo, a triple champion with the Japanese marque and last year's winner in Qatar.
While Marquez's Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa is another contender, after a 2016 season that saw a record nine different race winners, the likely battle between the reigning champion and Vinales has been the talk of the off-season.
Marquez crashed five times during the Qatar test as he wrestled with his Honda but said his overall race pace was good.
"Maybe it’s not one of the best tracks for my riding style, but I like it and we have worked very hard during the preseason to find a good rhythm and a good base setup for all circuits," he said.
"From a technical point of view, we’re starting this Championship better than the last one."
Sunday's race also sees the MotoGP debut of the new factory KTM team, with Britain's Bradley Smith and Spaniard Pol Espargaro, and debut of France's Moto2 champion Johann Zarco at Tech3 Yamaha.
Other MotoGP rookies for the 18-race season are Spaniard Alex Rins, with Suzuki, Germany's Jonas Folger at Tech3 and Britain's Sam Lowes on the Aprilia.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)