Photography By: Gold & Goose
LOSAIL, QATAR, APRIL 5 - Repsol Honda's Casey Stoner waited until the very end of the session to speed to the top of the lone MotoGP free practice session under the desert lights of the Losail International Circuit in Qatar.
Stoner has an enviable record in Qatar-wins in four of the past five races-and he promised to keep that up by topping the first practice session of the season for the fifth year in a row. The 26-year-old World Champion had been fast throughout testing giving every indication that he'd be the man to beat, and he was.
The Australian was never far from the top before making his definitive move as time was winding down. His fastest lap of 1:56.474 was well off his 2011 pole time of 1:54.137, though the time will certainly drop before Saturday qualifying. A number of riders said the track was dirty, and there was a headwind on the front straight.
"The track tonight wasn't so bad," Stoner said. "I expected the conditions to be much worse, but in general it was okay. We started this evening with huge chatter issues and I was a little afraid we couldn't fix this, but after a few more exits we managed to reduce it to a more comfortable level."
Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo had been on top until the late dislodging by Stoner. He'd finish .174 of a second slower than the Repsol Honda rider at 1:58.097. The Mallorcan was always among the front-runners and set his fast time with just over two minutes to run. But he couldn't improve on it and had to settle for second when Stoner sped past.
Third was the surprising Nicky Hayden. Surprising because the Ducati Marlboro team had struggled during pre-season testing, and teammate Valentino Rossi could do no better than tenth this evening Rossi pointed out that he'd stuck with harder option Bridgestone rear tire throughout, since that was the consensus race tire. Had he gone with the softer option he could've gained a second.
As good as third looked on paper, Hayden wasn't about to start celebrating.
"Things went a little bit better than expected, because when we started, on the out lap, I broke the caliper and I had to come back to the pits and, thought, wow, this is a tough way to start," Hayden said. "But the bike felt quite good. We made a couple of small changes."
Hayden jumped up to second with his fast lap of the day, but fell to third when Stoner went to the top with 95 seconds remaining in the 45-minute session.
"But, you know, we stay calm," Hayden added. "It's only one practice and need to see what's going to happen when the track comes in. But I've certainly had worst first practices here in Qatar. So it's nice to start in a good, positive way. But we stay calm and we wait for qualifying and the race."
Yamaha's Ben Spies finished fourth fastest and only .058 sec. slower than Hayden. The Texan treated the 7:55 p.m. session like a practice run and didn't worry about an outright fast lap time. Like Rossi, he was on race rubber throughout and the strategy paid off. Spies set the fastest time on five different laps, the last one with just over three minutes to go.
"It was nice straight off the bat," Spies said. "The bike seemed to work pretty good. We still definitely have some things we've got to work on. We don't have chatter, per se, with the bike, but when the bike's spinning it's creating chatter. So we gotta, we definitely can make the bike a lot better than where it is now.
"But I'm happy with the way it's working, it's just we gotta knock out some of the problems. But the base of the bike is good. We set...my quickest lap was with a lot of quick laps on the rear tire and towards the end when it would've been almost race distance, so we're happy with that, because I think (Andrea Dovizioso) Dovi went out on the harder and so that was obviously the way to go. And it's going to last a lot longer.
"But for what I can tell I think our bike looks good on the tires. Looks good that it's....it's the first night, so it's really hard to judge really anything, honestly. But we're just happy that we didn't treat it like qualifying, we treated it like a practice session. We were always in the top two, three, right around there, and it was a positive first session for us."
Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa jumped from 11th to sixth in the final two minutes, then to fifth with his final lap. Pedrosa struggled with chatter, "especially in the area where you slide more, but it's like this and we will need to adapt the best we can."
Pedrosa's first run was interrupted by a vibration in the wheels, so he had to pit to change rubber on both ends. That cost him some time, as did running wide twice.
"Tomorrow, with two practice sessions, we will start working more with the chassis and electronics to improve and prepare for the race," he said.
Monster Yamaha Tech 3's Cal Crutchlow was the first satellite team rider in sixth place. Crutchlow had also been on top and was consistently among the fastest Yamahas.
Spaniard Alvaro Bautista was seventh fastest in his first official practice session as a member of the San Carlo Honda Gresini squad. Next came Crutchlow's teammate Dovizioso, then Hector Barbera on the Pramac Racing Team Ducati, and Rossi.
"I mean, no, not bad," Rossi said after finishing more than 1.4 seconds off Stoner's best. "It's the first practice and we are on the way. We start to work. For sure the conditions of the track are still quite bad, quite dirty. And we have a lot of corners where we have to improve, where we have to work. Also about the electronics, we have to improve the settings. But is a good start. We take some data and tomorrow we try to do better."
NGM Mobile Forward Racing's Colin Edwards (BMW-Suter) came within .059 of a second of being the fastest CRT machine. Edwards finished just behind Power Electronics Aspar's Randy de Puniet (Aprilia) in the battle for best of the rest. That de Puniet was only 1.051 seconds slower than the last of the prototypes, the LCR Honda MotoGP RC213V of Stefan Bradl, was seen as encouraging.
MotoGP Practice Results:
1. Casey Stoner (Honda) 1:56.474
2. Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha) 1:56.648
3. Nicky Hayden (Ducati) 1:56.924
4. Ben Spies (Yamaha) 1:56.982
5. Dani Pedrosa (Honda) 1:57.130
6. Cal Crutchlow (Yamaha) 1:57.395
7. Alvaro Bautista (Honda) 1:1:57.130
8. Andrea Dovizioso (Yamaha) 1:57.547
9. Hector Barbera (Ducati) 1:57.912
10. Valentino Rossi (Ducati) 1:57.914
14. Colin Edwards (BMW-Suter) 2:00.044