The Spaniard, who’s ridden in the premier category for the past two years aboard a Suzuki, made the move to Yamaha for this year’s championship, and so far he’s outpaced all rivals, including esteemed team-mate Valentino Rossi, at all four test events held in Sepang, Phillip Island, Valencia and Qatar since last November. Viñales only won one race with his previous team, but looks set to add to his tally on a new YZR-M1 with which he seems to have clicked nicely.
But, even if Maverick has set time sheets alight on test days, it’ll be a different story in elbow-to-elbow races where he’ll have to contend with a host of riders capable of winning on any given weekend - three MotoGP world champions included. Reigning title-holder Marc Marquez was also a strong shower in preseason tests, and the Honda man has scored two podiums and win at Losail over the past four years.
Seven-times champion Rossi has struggled to unlock the Yamaha’s potential on test days, but the Italian is known as a Sunday specialist and certainly can’t be counted out this weekend. He also won in Qatar in 2015.
Jorge Lorenzo has three championships to his name, but could be considered a dark horse this year as he’s on unfamiliar equipment. The Spanish rider has switched to Ducati after nine years with Yamaha, and only managed competitive lap times toward the end of preseason tests. After the banning of winglets, this year’s Desmosedici sports an odd looking front fairing.
Other contenders include Honda’s Dani Pedrosa who was the only other rider apart from Viñales to place in the top five at all test sessions, and Andrea Dovizioso who performs well at Losail historically and has worked hard fine tuning the new Ducati in the off season. Pol Espargaro and Brad Smith could also spring surprises on their new KTMs. This will be the Austrian brand’s first full season in the premier class and it is the only manufacturer to have machines in all categories - MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3.
South African race fans now have riders to watch in both lower tiers, as Moto3 Champion Brad Binder has graduated to the Moto2 class with KTM for 2017, while his brother Darryn Binder will continue to fly the flag in Moto3 aboard another KTM.