Movistar Yamaha's Valentino Rossi has declared Open class sensation Aleix Espargaro as the race favourite for Sunday's first round of the MotoGP World Championship in Qatar.

Espargaro has headed the times under the floodlights in all three free practice sessions on the new Forward Yamaha and Rossi believes the Spaniard - whose highest MotoGP finish to date is eighth - will remain the man to beat.

"The favourite for victory will be Espargaro because he is the only one able to go fast, also with the hard tyre, that is the same as our soft. I think everybody will race with that same [medium compound] tyre, Open and Factory," said Rossi.

"Espargaro is very impressive. He rides very well, he is in a great shape, he's very confident and maybe the 24 litres of race fuel is not just a big help on the straight but also in the corner with engine braking and opening the throttle."

Rossi added: "After Espargaro, Dovizioso and Iannone are very fast with the soft tyre, but on our [medium] tyre there are eight or nine riders that have exactly the same pace and can all fight for the podium."

Rossi was ninth fastest in FP3 on the factory YZR-M1, 0.929s behind Espargaro, and faced a nervous wait before sealing the final top ten place on the combined times to progress straight to Saturday's Qualifying 2.

"What I am not happy about today is Lorenzo is better than me with the new tyre and he was two tenths faster and for tomorrow that could be crucial."

Team-mate Jorge Lorenzo feels the Open class has too much advantage, with Rossi particularly concerned by the one-litre reduction in Factory race fuel - as well as the new heat resistant rear tyres.

"It looks like they modified the rules and it's created more problems for the factory Yamaha and Honda!

"We are in trouble, we suffered a lot with the new tyre from Bridgestone because for us the grip on the edge is not enough and the bike becomes difficult to ride.

"With 20 litres the bike is very slow. On the straight nothing happens and this is a bad feeling. I am worried about this for the race because for fuel consumption we are very on the limit."

The lower fuel limit has obviously placed a much greater emphasis on consumption, resulting in a change in the engine braking for the Yamaha as well as far less punch during acceleration.

"On this track I have a bad feeling from the bike. The bike is very slow and very difficult to ride with the engine braking and acceleration. But especially with the longer gear the bike doesn't push. It is a long, long time since I tried a bike that is so slow in MotoGP. Now with 20 litres the engine goes like it is running on air."



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