Jorge Lorenzo, who had to be rescued after jumping into a lake while celebrating his thrilling 2010 Jerez home victory, took the fight to Repsol Honda riders Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa in Saturday's qualifying session for the 2011 event.
Between them, Stoner and Pedrosa have led every grand prix track session in 2011, while Lorenzo had been at least half-a-second from the top during the three free practice sessions prior to qualifying at Jerez.
But when others struggled in the hot and blustery afternoon qualifying conditions, Lorenzo was able to improve his pace and held provisional pole for much of the hour.
Stoner and Pedrosa later edged ahead on soft tyres, but Lorenzo finished just 0.161sec from Stoner and a mere 0.003sec from Pedrosa.
The front row is thus an exact repeat of round one in Qatar, but on that occasion Lorenzo had qualified 0.8sec from Stoner and 0.6sec from Pedrosa.
Lorenzo still finished the Losail race in second place, a closer than expected three-seconds from Stoner and ahead of a fading Pedrosa, and looks in far better shape heading into Sunday's race.
“The bike has improved a lot, especially under braking, and we were one of the few to improve with the tougher conditions when the track was worse," said Lorenzo.
“When we put the soft tyres in we managed to make a 1'38.9 lap which is a good time and we were only some milliseconds from Dani and less than two tenths from Casey.
“We are confident for tomorrow and we are pushing for a podium, if the opportunity arises then we will go for a victory.”
Team-mate Ben Spies had a tough weekend prior to qualifying, but turned it around by claiming fourth on the grid, moments before crashing out.
“That's definitely the best session we've had so far,” said Spies. “I've got to take my hat off to my crew because it has been a hard weekend. Every practice session we've had two different bikes while we've been searching for the right set up. They've been doing an excellent job getting me more comfortable, I wouldn't say I'm 100% there yet but from Friday it's a big improvement.
“In qualifying I had to do my part and step up to get closer to the front on the grid and it all worked out. It's definitely a team effort, I asked a lot from the guys and they came through. I had a small crash, one of those crashes where I knew going into the corner that I'd made a mistake and was trying to slow it down but lost the front.”