Nicky Hayden was the top non-Honda rider on Friday at Le Mans, the American putting his factory Ducati into a promising fourth place during the afternoon session.
Hayden may have been 0.870sec behind Honda's Casey Stoner, but he was still five places clear of team-mate Valentino Rossi - and in front of Yamaha's world champion and 2011 points' leader Jorge Lorenzo.
“Today was certainly better than the last few Fridays, by quite a long way,” said Hayden. “It's still early, and it's just one day, but the bike felt quite good here straight away. The Portugal test was very useful for me and the team. We thought we made a little step there, and it seems like we confirmed that here.
“Overall, the bike definitely seems a little bit better, but we've still got a long way to go to be that fast consistently. Also, the gap to the very front is still out there quite a ways.
“Le Mans is difficult because it's not a real grippy track, but we know our bike is really good on hard braking, and as I expected, that's helping us here. Anyway, hopefully this will give us a little bit of momentum, and we'll keep rolling tomorrow.”
Rossi had high hopes that a new chassis, which he was impressed with at the recent Estoril test, would solve the GP11's understeer and front-end vagueness - but was to be left bitterly disappointed.
The seven time MotoGP champion claimed sixth in FP1 on Friday (+1.2sec) and only ninth in FP2 (+1.1sec).
“For sure I hoped today would go better than that," he said. "We had a few problems trying to find the right setting, so we're too far back today. We're struggling somewhat on corner exits. The bike moves a lot under acceleration, and we're trying to understand if it's a question of setup, or one of electronics, because at the moment, I'm having a hard time riding.
“In the end, we found an interesting change for the rear, but there were just a few minutes left in the session. I only had time for a couple of laps, during which I more or less matched my best time.
“Maybe with a little more time, I could have dropped another tenth and made up some positions, but tomorrow we definitely have to do much better when we try that setup with more time.”