Casey Stoner's first MotoGP qualifying session since July ended with the 2007 world champion a close third on the grid behind the title leading Fiat Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.

The Ducati Marlboro star, who had missed the last three rounds to try and recover from mystery fatigue problems, was at his aggressive best from the start of the Estoril hour - setting four provisional pole laps before finishing just 0.054sec from Rossi and 0.314sec behind Lorenzo.

Stoner then used the post-qualifying press conference to have a light-hearted dig at his critics, as well as the rumours that had been circulating in some parts of the media while he was absent.

"A big thanks to my team and everybody that has supported me through all this," said Stoner. "I've had a lot of critics and dramas through this period. A lot of people saying I was never going to come back, never going to be fast and all this. It's just been enjoyable to read in the press really.

"I've been very happy to make this comeback the way I have in the last two days. Tomorrow is the race, the important one, and we'll see how that goes. A big thank-you to everyone that has supported me and we obviously made the right decision to take that bit of time off."

Reflecting on the past two days, the Australian admitted that he hadn't expected to be in pole contention after finishing a sore fourth fastest in Friday practice.

"After Friday practice I definitely didn't think I had a shot at pole," he said. "I was feeling a little sore and tired - nothing to do with the symptoms I've been suffering, just because I've been off the bike for so long. But this morning we came out and everything felt good and this afternoon was the same."

Stoner also revealed that he had been hampered by problems with some of his soft tyres that stopped him lapping at his full potential in qualifying.

"We were the fastest on the race tyre, the hardest tyre, but when we went to put the soft tyre on, we weren't generating any grip on the right hand side with two of the tyres," he explained. "I don't know if we had faults in our batch, or if we just got unlucky or what. It was only the second tyre that generated any grip and I didn't use it to its potential basically.

"Anyway, we had the opportunity to fight for pole, which was much better than I expected and on race tyres we're very happy. We'll just see if we can stay up with these guys [Lorenzo and Rossi] and give them a bit of a fight and maybe mix it up a bit in the championship.

"I've been nervous all weekend. It feels like a lifetime away. These past nine weeks I've done nothing, haven't been near a motorbike. Just complete rest to try and figure out what the problem is - a lot of doctor appointments.

"Considering I haven't trained for five months, my condition is already better than it was in the previous races. We've got to be happy with that and now we'll just see what happens tomorrow - and enjoy it."

Despite surrendering a potential 75 points during his absence, Stoner starts Sunday's race just seven points behind fourth in the championship Dani Pedrosa, who will start fourth on the grid.

The next best Ducati rider after Stoner was factory team-mate Nicky Hayden, who was 1.126sec slower in ninth.


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