MAX Whitlock returned to his imperious best as he bids to defend his Artistic Gymnastics World Championships title on the pommel horse.

Whitlock travelled to this year’s competition, which is being held in the Qatari capital of Doha, having claimed gold in Montreal 12 months earlier.

And although he was pleased to impress on the pommel horse, the South Essex Gymnastics Club member admitted it was an odd experience not having long-term coach Scott Hann with him at the World Championships.

The Basildon based Whitlock said: “I felt a lot of relief after my pommel routine.

“This year hasn’t gone fully to plan but it’s been about looking at the bigger picture.

“Also, it was the first time since 2013 that Scott hasn’t been on the floor with me.

“It felt weird, strange and gutting, but hopefully from now on we will be able to work together again.”

Whitlock’s impressive pommel performance suggested an unprecedented third consecutive world title is within his grasp.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist comfortably out-stripped his major rivals in qualifying - including Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan, who fell twice - to score a superb 14.966 and indicate he is ready to put a year of relative disappointment behind him.

It was quite a statement from Whitlock, who not only failed to take gold at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships, but had only minutes earlier fallen short again with his floor routine.

Whitlock was also competing for the first time in a major senior competition without his long-time coach and close friend Hann, who had stayed at home for personal reasons.

Victory for Whitlock on Friday, following his previous successes in Glasgow in 2015 and Montreal last year, would make him the first British gymnast to win three back-to-back world crowns.

The 25-year-old’s timely return to form will not have escaped the notice of his rivals, with so many having struggled on the apparatus, including McClenaghan, whose score of 11.066 saw his challenge abruptly end.

The Irishman, who usurped Whitlock at both the Commonwealth Games and European Championships, blamed a shoulder injury for poor preparation.

Solid performances from Whitlock’s team-mates Dominick Cunningham, James Hall, Joe Fraser and the Thundersley based Brinn Bevan saw Great Britain comfortably qualify for today’s men’s team final.

Bevan, a former Deanes School pupil, is also set to compete in the men’s all-around final.