Dani Pedrosa kept Honda's hopes of scoring a victory at its own Motegi circuit alive by finishing just 0.073secs behind Ducati's Casey Stoner during Friday free practice for the Japanese Grand Prix.
The Spaniard, seeking to justify his recent switch from Michelin to Bridgestone tyres, began his second race weekend on the Japanese rubber - and with the pneumatic-valve RC212V - with a lowly 18th place in the wet morning session.
However, the Repsol Honda rider improved rapidly during the dry afternoon hour and finished 0.3secs ahead of world championship leader Valentino Rossi.
"Track conditions were quite difficult this morning, so I struggled a bit. This afternoon everything improved," he confirmed. "The track dried out, so we were able to start working towards the race, improving our machine set-up and especially trying the different tyres from our allocation.
"We found some good grip out there, but we need some more time to find the ideal combination for this track, because I am still finding the limit of the Bridgestone tyres. I am feeling better and better, and we want to keep working hard to get the best set-up because this is such an important race for us," he admitted.
Pedrosa's Michelin-shod team-mate Nicky Hayden was seventh fastest, having been quickest of all in the wet.
"This year, it wouldn't be a GP weekend without a little bit of rain," began Nicky. "Things felt awesome this morning. The bike set-up was quite similar to what we had at Indy, so the bike, the tyres, everything was working really good. I was quite fast, but it looks like the weather is going to clear up for the rest of the weekend.
"This afternoon things weren't quite as great. The track looked a little patchy, so I just did one lap on intermediates when we went to slicks, the track came in quite quick. The bike felt okay in the dry but not great, though with just a few more tenths I would be quite a lot higher up the order. This track I sometimes struggle a bit in the dry. I'm close on all the splits but I've definitely got some work to do.
"I wasn't completely happy with the set-up, the balance felt wrong, the way it was pitching back and forth into and out of the corners. I'll try to give my guys some good information, so hopefully they can help me out and make it a bit easier tomorrow," added the Kentuckian, who will join Ducati Marlboro for 2009 and be replaced by Andrea Dovizioso.