Valentino Rossi may not have put Casey Stoner under significant pressure during Friday free practice at Qatar, but the reigning six-time world champion got close enough to indicate he can battle the Australian in Sunday night's MotoGP season opener.
Stoner, the 2007 world champion and 2008 runner-up, has a superb record at Losail - winning the two previous events and leading last month's pre-season test by almost one second.
Fiat Yamaha rider Rossi, fifth on his Bridgestone race debut at Qatar last season, was only third fastest during the March test - and 1.228sec behind Stoner - but sliced that margin down to a far more manageable 0.386sec during the lone 45-minute Friday free practice session.
“This evening I am quite happy because at the test we were one second from Casey but now the gap is much less,” confirmed Rossi. “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,” he concluded.
“It was a good practice tonight because we've taken what we learnt here during the test and at Jerez and made some good improvements to our base setting,” stated team manager Davide Brivio.
Rossi's team-mate Jorge Lorenzo was fourth fastest, just behind Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards.
“We had a few problems, mainly in the hard braking areas where I didn't have such a great feeling with the front tyre, but apart from that it's been ok,” said Lorenzo, who took pole and a podium on his MotoGP debut at Qatar last season. “The track was quite dirty so it was difficult to go at 100%, and I think tomorrow it will be much better.
“At the end today we made a big improvement and my last lap was much better, so I am not worried and I think tomorrow, with more time on track, we can improve,” added the #99.