Casey Stoner began what has traditionally been his toughest grand prix weekend with a promising third position in Friday free practice at Jerez, but has plenty of set-up work ahead.

The Ducati Marlboro star started out with the same set-up that took him to the fastest lap at the official pre-season test one month ago, but an issue with front end stability affected his confidence and lap time.

The Australian, winner at Qatar and fourth at Motegi last weekend, finished the session 0.621sec behind Valentino Rossi (Yamaha) and 0.257sec behind former team-mate Loris Capirossi (Suzuki).

"We started with the setting from the test and everything felt quite good. We're struggling with some small issues in a couple of areas but I think it was mainly because the tyre pressure was too high and we just need to drop it down a little," said Stoner, who finished eleventh at Jerez last year and fifth during his title winning 2007 season.

"We tried the second bike but unfortunately had a technical issue so I went back to my first one and tried a few things without improving the set-up a heck of a lot. The bike was turning really well but I lost the front a couple of times and we couldn't really understand why. We tried a setting that helped front stability but the turning was much worse. We need to work on getting it back tomorrow by finding the right balance.

"Anyway it is nice to be back in Europe and working under 'normal' conditions, with this great weather. It felt good to have to use my dark visor again! Hopefully it will stay like this because I'm sure we can make the right changes to the bike tonight and make lots of progress tomorrow," he added.

Team-mate Nicky Hayden spent the session working to adjust his set-up to the harder compound Bridgestone tyre, but he is still feeling the effects of his crash just five days ago at Motegi and could only manage 17th overall.

"It wasn't a particularly great first session for us but it's not as bad as it looks either," claimed the American. "The bike is a little different from how we had it at the test but not hugely so. We didn't have a great set-up at the test so we've made a couple of changes and tried the hard tyre on both bikes just to try and understand it a bit more.

"I've struggled with the harder tyre recently so we just stuck at it today and tried to make the bike work with it. The lap time isn't what we were looking for at this stage but my feeling with the bike was actually okay. I was a bit unsure about how I might feel physically and to be honest I didn't feel great out there but it is possible to ride. We've got a few things to talk about with the team and hopefully tomorrow I can make a big step. I just need to be faster!" he smiled.