Satellite RCV rider Alex de Angelis led the RCV challenge with a shock fifth position during Friday free practice for the Qatar season opener.
The San Marinese - who failed to finish on his MotoGP debut at Losail last year and was only tenth fastest at last month's night test - lapped within 0.2sec of fourth placed Jorge Lorenzo to end the day three positions clear of Repsol Honda's Andrea Dovizioso.
However, lap times from fifth to eighth were incredibly close, with de Angelis, Loris Capirossi (Suzuki), Mika Kallio (Pramac) and Dovizioso all covered by just 0.081sec. Nevertheless, de Angelis was a clear 0.642sec quicker than team-mate Toni Elias, now also using a factory specification Honda.
“It's nice to be the fastest Honda today because we've been a little bit behind the others in testing and this shows that we're working in the right way,” said Alex. “I had a good feeling with the bike as soon as I went on track and this really helped.
“We've still got a few problems to sort out, which is normal when you've only had 45 minutes of set-up time, but that also means we have room for improvement so I'm confident we can keep this up tomorrow. It definitely helps to be starting the season with a year of experience under my belt and I really think I can demonstrate my ability this year.”
Elias, eleventh fastest at the Qatar test and twelfth on Friday, at least felt he made progress in terms of the rear traction problems he has been battling for most of the winter.
“Considering how the test went here a few weeks ago, this isn't a bad start,” he insisted. “At the test we didn't manage to find a set-up that allowed us to use the hard tyre on any of the three days but we've been able to start using it today and the lap times are within what we could expect at this stage of the process.
“We obviously have more to work on in that area tomorrow, as well as working on the electronics. We're not getting maximum potential out of the engine in certain sections of the track, which is a question of the electronics, so we'll try to work that out tonight and make a bigger impact tomorrow,” he added.
“We're happy with this first day, especially with Alex's performance because he was on the pace right from the start,” declared team manager Fausto Gresini. “With Toni we're still working hard on the set-up of the bike to give him better feeling but the lap times are close, there is a big group of riders close together and we're thinking positive.”