Casey Stoner took his winter domination into the new MotoGP world championship campaign tonight, the Aussie topping the timesheets in the first practice session of 2009 in Qatar.
A late attack by reigning world champion Valentino Rossi at least kept the times relatively close as Stoner had looked like inflicting another humbling defeat on his rivals.
Stoner needed only two laps to jump over 1.6s clear of the field in windy but warm conditions in the Middle East. Track temperatures were ten degrees hotter than at last month’s night test, and Stoner was untouchable after he jumped to the top of the timesheets after just six minutes.
A best lap of 1.57.053 left him 0.386s clear of Rossi at the end of the shortened 45-minute session, though it wasn’t a perfect start as he did run off track on his factory Ducati with 11 minutes elapsed.
The windy conditions too blew dust onto the track which had a big impact on lap times, with Stoner’s best just under two seconds off his own lap record.
Rossi’s best time of 1.57.439 at least got him to within striking distance of his big title rival, though it did take the Italian until the final seven minutes before he could lap inside of a second of Stoner’s Ducati GP9.
Rossi said: “This evening I am quite happy because at the test we were one second from Casey but now the gap is much less. We had some ideas after the test to improve our pace and I am happy to say that they all seemed to have worked. I am fast, I have a good pace and I am happy with this opening session. We can still improve; the track was quite dirty tonight so I think that tomorrow we will be able to push a bit harder. It’s much warmer than at the test and this is helping us too, I am more confident and I can ride my M1 how I want to. It’s strange only having 45 minutes in a session and you have to be quite well organised and plan more in advance, but on the whole it doesn’t seem so bad to me.
It was a good start for Yamaha though as three of its YZR-M1 quartet ended up in the top four.
Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rider Colin Edwards was third fastest with a best time of 1.57.835. He clocked his fastest time on his last lap though he had held second place for long periods behind Stoner.
Edwards was 0.782s behind Stoner and the last of the field to lap within a second of the dominant 2007 world champion as he concentrated mainly on solving a front-end issue that plagued him during the final winter test in Jerez last month.
Jorge Lorenzo was fourth but 1.2s off the pace on the track where he claimed a stunning debut pole position on 13 months ago. He complained of issues in the hard braking areas with Bridgestone’s front tyre.
British rider James Toseland had a morale boosting opening night as he finished in 11th, but until the final stages he was running in sixth. It was a welcome boost for the 28-year-old after a nightmare winter campaign that saw him suffer massive high-side crashes in Sepang and Jerez.
Best Honda was Alex de Angelis in fifth with Dani Pedrosa’s return from injury a painful and slow exercise.
The Spaniard, who suffered arm and leg injuries in a testing crash in Qatar last month, was last in 18th position as he clocked a best time of 2.01.435. That was nearly 4.5s off Stoner’s pace and a massive 0.8s off Ducati rookie Niccolo Canepa in 17th.
American Nicky Hayden also had a torrid Ducati debut, finishing 13th after a catalogue of problems with his GP9. A sensor failure cut short his time on his favoured bike and he was 2.1s behind Stoner at the finish.
1 C. STONER AUS Ducati Marlboro Team 1'57.053
2 V. ROSSI ITA Fiat Yamaha Team + 0.386
3 C. EDWARDS USA Monster Yamaha Tech 3 + 0.782
4 J. LORENZO SPA Fiat Yamaha Team + 1.219
5 A. DE ANGELIS RSM San Carlo Honda Gresini + 1.399
6 L. CAPIROSSI ITA Rizla Suzuki MotoGP + 1.415
7 M. KALLIO FIN Pramac Racing + 1.446
8 A. DOVIZIOSO ITA Repsol Honda Team + 1.453
9 M. MELANDRI ITA Hayate Racing Team + 1.704
10 R. DE PUNIET FRA LCR Honda MotoGP + 1.718
11 J. TOSELAND GBR Monster Yamaha Tech 3 + 1.797
12 T. ELIAS SPA San Carlo Honda Gresini + 2.041
13 N. HAYDEN USA Ducati Marlboro Team + 2.105
14 C. VERMEULEN AUS Rizla Suzuki MotoGP + 2.295
15 Y. TAKAHASHI JPN Scot Racing Team MotoGP + 2.384
16 S. GIBERNAU SPA Grupo Francisco Hernando + 3.542
17 N. CANEPA ITA Pramac Racing + 3.544
18 D. PEDROSA SPA Repsol Honda Team + 4.382