The 2007 World Champion Casey Stoner started the Commercial bank Grand Prix of Qatar weekend and the new season ahead of his rivals, in the first MotoGP free practice session of the year at the Losail International Circuit on Friday evening.
Despite running off track at one stage, Stoner was in charge from early in the session with his 1’57.053 best time coming on the 12th of his 17 laps and keeping him 0.386s ahead of second fastest rider Valentino Rossi. Australian Ducati Marlboro rider Stoner was the form man of the 2009 preseason and as the winner of the last two MotoGP races at the Qatari track he will take some beating this weekend.
World Champion Rossi was once more the closest man to his young rival Stoner, the Italian registering his quickest time (1’57.439) towards the end of the session. A race winner previously at the desert circuit, the legendary Fiat Yamaha rider will look to start his title defence with another victory on Sunday.
In the first ever Grand Prix free practice session since the introduction of a single tyre rule, a rider who did not use Bridgestone tyres last year -Monster Yamaha Tech3’s Colin Edwards- was third fastest, courtesy of a best time right at the end of the 45-minute practice. He was, however, some 0.782s off Stoner’s pace.
Another rider new to Bridgestone rubber this year, Fiat Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo surged up the timesheets with his own last gasp hot lap to finish fourth. The young Spaniard undertaking his second season in the MotoGP class will aim to repeat his 2008 Qatar pole position in qualifying on Saturday night.
Like Lorenzo, San Carlo Honda Gresini’s Alex de Angelis embarks on his second MotoGP campaign this year and he started the weekend well on his satellite RC212V, in fifth place as the fastest Honda rider.
Veteran Italian Loris Capirossi -starting his 20th season in the World Championship- placed sixth on the timesheet on the improved and updated Rizla Suzuki GSV-R, nearly a second and a half behind former team-mate Stoner.
An impressive effort from MotoGP rookie Mika Kallio, meanwhile saw him lap seventh quickest as he continued his adaptation to premier class riding with his new team Pramac Racing. Andrea Dovizioso gets his big break with Repsol Honda this season and he started his first GP weekend on factory machinery in eighth place overall. Next on the timesheets were Marco Melandri, on the Ninja ZX-RR in the new Hayate Racing team set-up, and LCR Honda rider Randy de Puniet rounded off the top ten.
James Toseland (Tech 3 Yamaha) just missed out on the top ten as he continued his recovery from some big preseason crashes, whilst 2006 World Champion Nicky Hayden was down in thirteenth place as he commenced his first race weekend with Ducati Marlboro.
Dani Pedrosa was back on track, albeit riding through the pain barrier following knee and wrist injuries. He was returning to action after missing the Jerez Official Test as a result of a heavy crash in testing at Losail just over a month ago. The Repsol Honda rider lapped 4.382s off the pace, completing 17 important laps but ending the session last on the timesheet.
Meanwhile, in the 250cc class, former 125cc World Champion Gabor Talmacsi was the quickest rider in his first ever quarter litre category session. Talmacsi led the way by a small margin (0.041s) from second quickest rider Álvaro Bautista (Mapfre Aspar).
It was a good start to Talmacsi’s 250cc adventure and was good news for the Balaton Racing Team for whom he rides this year, under the Aspar group umbrella.
Expected title candidate Bautista, meanwhile, will also be pleased to have started the weekend in good form as he seeks to take maximum advantage of current World Champion Marco Simoncelli’s weakness due to injury.
Simoncelli himself bravely lapped 16 times, a remarkable achievement even if he was 16th on the timesheet and three seconds off the pace, given the surgery he had on Tuesday on the scaphoid bone in his right wrist – which he injured last weekend when motocross training.
Behind Talmacsi and Bautista, Mattia Pasini (Team Toth Aprilia), Hiroshi Aoyama (Scot Racing Team) and Héctor Barberá (Pepe World Team) were also on the pace, lapping within half a second of the Hungarian.
The top ten also featured Ratthapark Wilairot (Thai Honda PTT SAG), Thomas Luthi (Emmi-Caffe Latte), Jules Cluzel (Matteoni Racing), Lukas Pesek (Auto Kelly – CP) and Héctor Faubel (Honda SAG).
At the start of the evening in the 125cc category new Bancaja Aspar team-mates Julián Simón and Bradley Smith opened the weekend on top in the first practice.
As the only rider going under the 2’08 mark, Simón kept up the good work after an excellent preseason, to go round a second faster than any of his rivals with a best effort of 2’07.791 on the 12th of his 14 laps.
Englishman Smith, like his new colleague Simón recruited by Bancaja Aspar over the winter and starting regular action after a strong preseason, was second quickest with a time of 2’08.823s at a circuit where he took pole position last year.
There was plenty of Aspar representation in the top five as Sergio Gadea lapped fifth quickest, behind Nico Terol (Jack & Jones Team) and Marc Marquez (Red Bull KTM Motorsport). Smith was the only non-Spaniard amongst that leading group.
The top ten was completed by Sandro Cortese (Ajo Interwetten), Andrea Iannone (Ongetta I.S.P.A.), Stefan Bradl (Viessmann Kiefer Racing), Pol Espargaró (Derbi Racing Team) and Jonas Folger (Ongetta I.S.P.A.).
It was an incident-free session with no crashes and Folger was the only rider to run into trouble as he briefly left the track at one stage, only to return quickly without problems.