Casey Stoner will start his quest for a fourth successive Qatar Grand Prix victory from pole position, after maintaining his place at the top of the timesheets during Saturday night's qualifying session.

Reigning seven time MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi predictably offered the only resistance, taking pole from the Australian just before the halfway mark. However it took Stoner less than ten minutes to not only regain the position, but pull almost half a second clear.

That was with the harder compound Bridgestone rear, which he will use for the race.

Stoner fitted the softer option during the final 15 minutes, but like many others - including Rossi, who almost fell - initially found no time benefit with the 'white line' rubber.

The #27 did eventually trim a few hundredths from his best time with the soft tyre in the closing minutes - and it looked like he needed to as Rossi dipped several tenths under at the start of his final run.

But the lapped slipped away from the Fiat Yamaha rider and Rossi crossed the line 0.355sec from Stoner's best, confirming pole for the Ducati rider on the grand prix debut of the factory's latest 'big bang' engine.

Rossi's team-mate Jorge Lorenzo snatched a late third - 0.513sec from Stoner - but is more worried about set-up issues than the strength in his right hand, which he fractured during the winter.

Top Honda and top satellite rider was Randy de Puniet, who delivered an excellent performance to put his LCR machine 0.8sec from pole and be the only non-factory rider in the top seven.

Behind the Frenchman, Loris Capirossi will start his 300th grand prix from fifth position for Rizla Suzuki after gaining a welcome tow behind Rossi.

Capirossi had fallen on Friday and it was rookie team-mate Alvaro Bautista who pushed a little too hard on Saturday, sending his GSV-R sliding down the asphalt at the end of the session and leaving the Spaniard 13th.

Andrea Dovizioso will be slightly disappointed with sixth, having run fourth in both free practice sessions, but at least remained the top Repsol Honda rider.

Team-mate Dani Pedrosa had made swift initial progress, setting his fastest time of the weekend to lead the timesheets during the opening 15 minutes.

But the Spaniard's stability problems were still an issue and he ran off track at turn one after the back wheel began skipping under braking. Pedrosa will start seventh on the grid.

Monster Yamaha Tech 3's Colin Edwards was the final rider within one-second of Stoner, and just 0.174sec from de Puniet. He will start eighth on the grid, just ahead of fellow American Nicky Hayden (Ducati Marlboro).

The top rookie proved a surprise with Hiroshi Aoyama - last on Friday - claiming tenth position for the new Interwetten Honda team with a best lap time 1.22sec from pole.

Rookie of the Year favourite, Tech 3's Ben Spies, will begin his first full season in MotoGP from eleventh after being left visibly frustrated by a mistake on the soft rear tyre.

Bautista wasn't the only rider to fall, with Marco Simoncelli and Mika Kallio hitting the ground just seconds apart in the opening ten minutes.

Honda Gresini rider Simoncelli will start his first MotoGP race from 15th, while Kallio recovered to twelfth for Pramac Ducati.

Starting in last place will be Gresini's Marco Melandri, whose miserable weekend continued in qualifying and he looks no nearer to understanding the new RCV/Ohlins package.

Qualifying:

1. Stoner
2. Rossi
3. Lorenzo
4. de Puniet
5. Capirossi
6. Dovizioso
7. Pedrosa
8. Edwards
9. Hayden
10. Aoyama
11. Spies
12. Kallio
13. Bautista
14. Espargaro
15. Simoncelli
16. Barbera
17. Melandri