MOTOGP ON THE STARTING BLOCKS

Melbourne has the privilege in F1, and in MotoGP it's Qatar. Yep, this weekend is a massive one in international motorsport as the two- and four-wheel titans begin their respective championships on very different circuits: the streets of Albert Park in Melbourne for F1 and the Losail desert layout for MotoGP.

It's been a long winter break in MotoGP but finally all the hard grind of testing is giving way to the opening round under lights, as one of the most impressive fields in MotoGP history – 10 world champions with 29 world titles between them -- get down to business around the 5.4km circuit.

If the pre-season is a guide of things to come, Movistar Yamaha's new signing Maverick Vinales will be looking forward to the real stuff after coming out on top in every test session, easily out-pointing his illustrious teammate Valentino Rossi and the 20 other riders.

The Spaniard is now in the top rung of championship favourites alongside reigning No. 1 Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda), who went on a crash fest during the final pre-season test at Qatar two weeks ago but still remains the benchmark for everyone to beat.

Scarily, Vinales says he has still not reached the Yamaha's limit.

"We can still push a little bit more," says Vinales. "If we do the same in the first GP as we did in the Qatar test, we can fight for the victory. We have a really good package and I feel good on the bike. I have a great fitness now, so I feel comfortable."

The biggest X factor will be how Vinales copes with the constant pressure of being a legitimate championship contender, as Marquez – as well as Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) and even Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) – absorb and deal with pressure in the only way champions can. It is what has set them apart from the others during long and stressful seasons.

Vinales is already a GP winner, clinching the British GP at Silverstone in 2016.  He was one of nine riders to win a MotoGP race last year, alongside Marquez, Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team), Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), Aussie Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc  VDS Honda) and Andrea Iannone (then Ducati Team, now Ecstar Suzuki).

As Marquez found out first-hand in testing, the Losail circuit is very unforgiving and pushing to the limit can be very difficult over 22 laps, but the world champion is confident he can begin the championship on strong terms. He said: “The first race of the season is always a special one because you’re a bit more nervous than usual.

"Qatar is also one of the most special circuits on the calendar and one of the main things to consider is the sand, which can make the surface quite slippery as soon as you get out of the best line.

"There are three very strong braking points and you need good front stability. 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.

"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. We’ll try to manage well from the beginning on Thursday.”

Meanwhile, Ducati has always been a strong performer in Qatar, which begs the question: could Lorenzo make the most emphatic statement of all by winning first time out on the Ducati?

Lorenzo won on the Movistar Yamaha in Qatar last year, ahead of Dovizioso, Marquez and Rossi – his third in the desert, and he also holds the lap record and best lap around the layout as well.

For Miller, it's an important year as he plays out the final season of a three-year contract with Honda Racing Corporation. Now fully fit, the Queenslander says he's "now in charge of his bike" and not the other way around. Like all the other Honda punters, he has an updated engine on his RC213V for 2017.

"It's been a long winter break, and I'm really looking forward to getting back into the racing again," said Miller. "We've had a really positive preseason, with three good tests in Sepang, Phillip Island and Qatar, so we're in a strong position going into the first race.

"It's not going to be easy this weekend. As we saw at the last test, Qatar isn't a track that particularly suits the characteristics of our bike and the long straight isn't ideal, but we'll give it everything like always and push for a good result.

"We need to keep working because I think when we get to Argentina and then Texas we'll really start to benefit from the performance of the new bike."

With rain forecast over the four days of round one, Miller will be ready to pounce if the championship top brass struggle – just like he did in  his brilliant race win at Assen in 2016.

And when it rains, riders can only use wet (or slick) tyres in 2017, as intermediates have been banned. The loss of intermediates has been compensated by a bigger choice of slick tyres, including a new front.

The other major technical change in 2017 is that winglets are now banned, with "aero" fairings now joining the fray – including the "hammerhead" which Ducati unveiled at the last Qatar test.

The 2017 rookies are Jonas Folger, Johann Zarco (both Monster Yamaha Tech 3), Alex Rins (Ecstar Suzuki) and Sam Lowes (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini), while the new team is KTM with experienced pair Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro at the helm.

 

Moto2

Aussie Remy Gardner (Tech 3 Racing) will make his full-time debut in Moto2 this year, with a huge amount of competition ready to hit the gas in Qatar. Last year’s title contenders like Tom Lüthi (CarXpert Interwetten) and Franco Morbidelli (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) are back for more, as are Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia), Lorenzo Baldassarri (Forward Team) and 2014 Moto3 world champion Alex Marquez (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS).

Rookies include reigning Moto3 world champion Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) – who's coming back from a broken arm – alongside his old lightweight class rivals Jorge Navarro (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2), Fabio Quartararo (Pons HP 40) and Francesco Bagnaia (Sky Racing Team VR46).

The new chassis for Red Bull KTM Ajo sees the Austrian manufacturer now have a presence in each class – and Miguel Oliveira has been impressive in testing, with the bike shaping to be a real contender.

Luthi won in Qatar last year.

Moto3
With Binder having departed, there will be a new champion in the lightweight class in 2017 – most likely from Joan Mir (Leopard Racing), Nicolo Bulega (Sky Racing Team VR46), Bo Bendsneyder (Red Bull KTM Ajo), Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0), Fabio Di Giannantonio (Del Conca Gresini Moto3), 2016 Qatar winner Niccolo Antonelli (Red Bull KTM Ajo), Enea Bastianini (Estrella Galicia 0,0) or the returning Romano Fenati (Marinelli Rivacold Snipers)

Jorge Martin (Del Conca Gresini Moto3), John McPhee (British Talent Team), Gabriel Rodrigo and Juanfran Guevara (RBA Racing Team) could also be forces to be reckoned with.
 
The three world championship races at Losail will be held over the following distances and times:

•          MotoGP: 22 laps, 118.4km, starting at 9:00pm local time (5:00am AEST March 27)

•          Moto2: 20 laps, 107.6km, starting a 7:20pm local time (3:20am AEST March 27)

•          Moto3: 18 laps, 96.8km, starting at 6:00pm local time (2:00am AEST March 27)

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