DOHA, QATAR, MARCH 17 - Repsol Honda's Casey Stoner kept up the torrid pace he'd set in pre-season testing by setting the fastest time in the first practice session of the 2011 MotoGP World Championship season on a cool night under the desert lights of the Losail International Circuit in Qatar.

Stoner went straight to the top at the start of the extraordinary 45-minute Thursday night session, the first of four nights of practice, qualifying, and racing, and was never seriously challenged. Teammate Dani Pedrosa quickly slotted into second and stayed there for the duration, though the interval grew and shrank. Stoner's last lap of 1:55.752 was his best and lengthened the gap between himself and Pedrosa to .610 of a second. The time was only slightly off the 1:55.681 Stoner had run to claim top honors when the two-day test here in Qatar ended on Monday evening."Yeah, I mean it's only session one, but we've picked up where we left off the last test more or less using the same set-up," he said. "We tried a couple different things tonight. But yeah, in general the bike feels good. The track conditions are quite good, but a little bit too windy. We're going to have to wait for tomorrow night. Hopefully that wind's doing to die down and give us some decent track time. Anyway, the bike seems to be handling those conditions now and we can't ask for more at the moment.As to where he can improve, Stoner said, "Basically we need to improve rear edge grip. We've been struggling a little bit with at this circuit. We improved that a lot in Sepang. But yeah, we're struggling a little bit with the edge grip here. So we've got to try and improve that area and that's going to give us a lot better turning and exits to the corner. So if we can improve that I think the whole package will come out a little bit better."Stoner's superiority was an aberration in an otherwise tight field. From Pedrosa through 13th fastest Loris Capirossi (Pramac Racing Ducati) the difference was a shade over a second. Pedrosa turned in his best effort on the sixth of his 17 laps. His second seemed secure until a fellow Spaniard made a surprising run at him late in the session. But it wasn't world champion Jorge Lorenzo. Instead it was Mapfre Aspar Team MotoGP's Hector Barbera, who used a tow of Nicky Hayden (Ducati Marlboro) to set his fast lap on his 15th of 17. The lap of 1:56.421 put him only .059 of a second  behind Pedrosa and a smaller .020 of a second. up on Marco Simoncelli (San Carlo Honda Gresini) in fourth.

Ducati Marlboro's Valentino Rossi jumped up the order at the end of the session - his penultimate lap was his best - though it left him fifth fastest and .727 of a second off the rider he replaced, Casey Stoner."We modify the settings from the test and maybe after some laps I was able to go in '56 that I was never able during the test and from that moment we can improve another time the bike, so the last round was very positive," Rossi said.  "Already the lap time is quite good. Also the position is not so bad. And I ride the bike in a better way, so was a good start, because we are...Stoner is a bit faster, but we are very close also from Pedrosa that two or three days was more than one second faster than us, so we are good. It's just the beginning. We need to improve. We need to take out another half a second, but we are a lot more positive."Rossi had a meager .014 of a second on Ben Spies, the Texan who finished less than a tenth in front of his teammate Lorenzo. Lorenzo complained of bike troubles in the pre-race press conference and has been vocal about the YZR-M1's lack of top speed."We pretty much got close to the same lap time I think as we did at the test on tires that I couldn't get close to at the test, so I was quite happy," Spies said. "Again, with the front tire that we were using, I usually do three or four laps maximum and take it off because I'm not comfortable. We set our quickest time on that and what we think is not the race rear tire too."Again, it was more of a test session to go through a couple things and just put the tires on that we didn't really particularly like and we hope that they're not the race tires, because if they're not, then we should find some time in the other stuff."Andrea Dovizioso, the third Repsol Honda rider, was eighth fastest in front of the final two Americans, Monster Yamaha Tech 3's Colin Edwards in ninth and Hayden in tenth. Hayden found he was losing most of his time in the last split, "And actually our team, we got a program that prints out your five best splits and I think I was second or third in there through T1, so we know where we're losing it, just got to figure out how to fix it. that's the hard part." What he had to do was just get it to "steer and hold the line in the fast rights, which are the most important part of the track."

Results:

1. Casey Stoner (Honda) 1:55.752

2. Dani Pedrosa (Honda) 1:56.362

3 Hector Barbera (Ducati) 1:56.421

4. Marco Simoncelli (Honda) 1:56.441

5. Ben Spies (Yamaha) 1:56.493

6. Valentino Rossi (Ducati) 1:56.577

7. Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha) 1:56.586

8. Andrea Dovizioso (Honda) 1:56.592

9. Colin Edwards (Yamaha) 1:56.879

10. Nicky Hayden (Ducati) 1:56.910

MotoGP Headlines

Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.

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