After months of anticipation, the 2009 World Superbike Championship has begun in earnest with Ben Spies launching his rookie campaign perfectly by claiming quickest time during first free practice at Phillip Island.

The American headed up an unusual timesheet, with many of the more fancied runners, including Jonathan Rea, Shane Byrne and Carlos Checa featuring further down the field than expected. By contrast, Leon Haslam, Regis Laconi and Shinya Nakano starred.

The first clue as to who will be amongst the front runners this weekend, the top ten saw a mixture of factory and privateer riders, with Yamaha's Spies leading the way over Suzuki's Max Neukirchner and Stiggy Honda's Haslam.

Spies was the comfortable pace setter, leaping to the front at around the half way mark with a best lap of 1min 32.752secs. Although a good second off the lap record, his time stood until the end of the session and was enough to see off a late charge by both Neukirchner and Haslam.

Haslam had gone second quickest in the final minute, but Neukirchner's last effort put him within a tenth of a second off Spies. It was a good session all round for Suzuki, with Neukirchner's team-mate Yukio Kagayama fourth quickest having featured in the leading positions throughout the hour.

Indeed, the Japanese rider was amongst the front runners during the first half hour of the session, although it was Laconi on the DFX Ducati that stood at the top for much of the time. Although the Frenchman never improved on his strong initial effort, it was still enough for him to be classified a fine fifth quickest and as the fastest Ducati representative.

Noriyuki Haga was a solid sixth best for Xerox Ducati, just ahead of countryman Shinya Nakano, who was an excellent seventh quickest on the Aprilia after lapping as high as fifth in the latter stages.

Roberto Rolfo and Broc Parkes also made surprise appearances inside the top ten, not least because it meant they were quicker than Ryuichi Kiyonari - who fell in the closing stages - in 11th, Rea in 12th, Tom Sykes in 13th, Max Biaggi in 17th, Shane Byrne in 18th and Carlos Checa in 19th.

BMW also endured a tough first session, with Troy Corser and Ruben Xaus classified 20th and 21st respectively.

Still, with just 1.3secs covering the first 19 riders, which also included Tommy Hill in a fine 15th, the order remains particularly close.

Provisional qualifying takes place later today to throw further light on how the weekend is due to pan out...