Ben Spies has been doing his best to try and play down expectations ahead of his first full MotoGP season - the only 'problem' is that his on-track results keep getting better and better.

Spies left the first test of the year, at Sepang, in seventh overall and 1.3sec from Rossi, then closed the gap to the Italian down to 0.743sec at the second Sepang test, where he was fifth fastest.

The third and final pre-season test, which began at Qatar on Thursday, should have been a tougher prospect given that Spies had never ridden an M1 at the track before and that the test, like the season-opening race, is held at night.

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But against a full field of 17 riders - Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team-mate Jorge Lorenzo having returned from a hand injury - Spies concluded the opening night at the Losail circuit in an excellent third position for the satellite Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team.

The Texan was just 0.552sec behind reigning seven time MotoGP champion Rossi and 0.237sec from Ducati's Casey Stoner, winner of the Qatar Grand Prix for the past three seasons. All other riders were at least one second behind Rossi's factory Yamaha.

Spies had even topped the timesheets for a brief period in the six-hour session, which ran from 6pm to midnight, and the only 'dent' on his Thursday performance was a crash at the second corner in the final hour, while using a hard compound Bridgestone front tyre.

"I know this track from [WSBK] last year but riding under the floodlights is definitely a bit different and nothing I've experienced before," said Spies after his first night ride. "The perception of speed is much faster with it being at night but I'm having a lot of fun. It's really well lit up but there are a couple of darker spots on the track that you have to get used to but I've not done too bad in adjusting to the lights.

"I know the track but any track I go to on a MotoGP bike makes it definitely different because of the lines you take. Some of the lines I'd take on the Superbike just don't work but I felt like it was coming together good and following a couple of people it felt like I was doing more of the right things than I was in Malaysia.

"Obviously it is great for me to be high up the timesheets but I'm still taking baby steps to improve and not getting carried away. The crash was nothing too serious. I was running the hard front and I wasn't getting a good feeling from it. We changed the pressure to try and help for my second run but I just lost the front at the second corner.

"But to be third is fantastic for my guys at Monster Yamaha Tech 3. They have been giving me great support," Spies concluded.

Spies did one lap in the 1min 55sec, his best, compared with two for Rossi and four for Stoner. All other riders set a best lap time of 1min 56sec or above.

Team-mate and fellow Texan Colin Edwards, the top 2009 satellite rider, finished one place behind Spies - but was a sizeable 0.586sec slower than the reigning World Superbike champion.

Edwards continued to fine-tune the race-set-up of his YZR-M1 machine, working on Yamaha's new swingarm and Bridgestone's new hard compound front tyre.

"It was a good night. It didn't start off too great and it took me a while to get into the groove," confessed Edwards. "We played around with the set-up using some of the new parts I'd liked in Sepang and also running some of last year's pieces to get some good information.

"The lap time was about the same so around this track the new parts aren't making the difference like they did in Malaysia. I did a long run on the hard front and I like it. I did race distance on it and it felt really good.

"I ended up doing 27-laps on it, which is five more than race distance, and it still felt really good. I'm getting the feedback I need at full lean angle and it holds the turn much better," he revealed.