All seven Honda RC211V riders contesting the 2003 MotoGP World Championship were present at Sepang today for the first test of the year.

Fastest of all was Daijiro Kato, 0.7secs ahead of next quickest man Valentino Rossi, and - fortunately for HRC - 0.3secs faster than Loris Capirossi who impressed on Ducati's debut at the circuit today [see separate story], beating all but the Gresini rider on the first of the three days.

Kato concentrated his efforts on suspension work, an area the diminutive, lightweight, Japanese feels vital to his success in 2003.

"I feel refreshed after the short winter break, but I picked up a bit of a stomach upset yesterday, and I still feel a little under the weather today, so that didn't help me, even though I set a good lap time," said Daijiro.

The Japanese also revealed that he set his lap time without any new parts on his V5.

"We are working mainly on the suspension settings for the bike, which is where I need to focus most. We do not have the new parts for this season to test yet - they will arrive in February at the next session," declared Kato. "I'm looking forward to 2003 now, and although it rained here this afternoon I decided against going out, because I got lots of rain laps in during the test we did in Jerez."

World Champ Rossi was evaluating the machine under braking, a problem that cost him several race wins last season, but wasn't too pleased at having just one bike available.

"Today we did only 23 laps. We only have one bike and started with the set up we had at the GP in Sepang last year. We concentrated on braking today and the transmission performance while under braking," said Vale.

"But if I need adjustments made it's difficult with only one bike, I have to wait while the mechanics get it ready. This afternoon when we came in to make changes it was dry, when the bike was ready it was raining. So we decided to stop," explained the Italian. "This is just the first day and we hope for a full days testing tomorrow."

Rossi long time rival Max Biaggi completed 27 laps today, in just his second ever RCV outing, where he tried various adjustments to the seating position, footrests, and the controls, in a bid to find the most comfortable riding position.

"Today was the first time I sat on a motorcycle for over two months," began Biaggi. "We were working on the electronics today and we needed some help form the Japanese technicians. They had many riders to look after so it took time. We also spent time on my seating position on the bike, footpegs, levers, I have yet to feel comfortable on the bike. The important thing now is for me to understand the strong and weak points of the motorcycle."

The Roman Emperor, sporting an 'M' shaped 3 on his number plate, set the third fastest lap today, 0.25secs behind Rossi.

"Right now I feel the strong point is the power and the delivery, the weak point is the clutch," said Max of the RCV.

Third place finisher in the MotoGP Championship last season - and Biaggi's new team-mate - Tohru Ukawa, completed 56 laps aboard the Pons RCV and exactly matched Biaggi's time.

"Everything is going okay here in Sepang, where we are currently working mainly on both the front and rear suspension settings," said Tohru. "We have already improved it considerably and will be working on it more tomorrow. This afternoon I was going to dedicate to tyre testing, but then the rain came, so I couldn't do any of that, hopefully the rain will stay away for the next two days.

"We are still using the same machine as last year, testing some of the new parts added whilst they construct a whole new bike in Japan. Overall though, I am happy with how everything is going with my new team, communication is good and we work well together," added the Japanese.

New boy to the RCV camp, Sete Gibernau, who had only once briefly tested the RCV prior today, spent the opening day of the test finding a base set up to work from and getting himself back up to speed after a long break.

"This is my first full test on board the Honda RC211V, and obviously it will take time to adapt to the new machine, but there is no rush," declared Sete. "There are a few little things, mainly electronics, that need setting up to suit me, but little by little it will come.

"Also, after a break such as the one I've just had, you need to get back into the mindframe of racing once again, to pick up the rhythm where you left off," explained the Spaniard. "This is obviously harder when you have to get used to a new bike too, but for an initial test, I'm very satisfied indeed. The team is very good and very supportive, and I'm excited about the year ahead, and about fighting for the top positions once again."

Tyre manufacturer Bridgestone, who will have a full season RCV entry with Tamada and Pramac, recruited the services of former grand prix rider Shinichi Itoh to assist with their winter testing programme.

Itoh, now an HRC test rider, has been working on various Bridgestone testing projects in recent years and his vast knowledge of grand prix racing and Bridgestone tyres will be invaluable to new boy Tamada as he approaches the most important season of his young career.

"I hadn't ridden at Sepang for a year - and last time I was using tyres from a different manufacturer," said sixth fastest Itoh. "I noticed the difference, and after trying out a few solutions we drew up the work programme for the coming days. It's going to be pretty intense but I'm not worried about the quantity of work as I'm sure we'll be able to achieve some excellent results."

New Repsol rider Nicky Hayden, the AMA SBK champ, spent the day learning the Sepang circuit and was seventh fastest of the Honda riders. Of Hayden's 58 laps, his best was a 2mins 7.76secs and he'll be hoping to get closer to his team-mate in the coming days on a circuit he enjoys.

"This is another good chance for me to get in some training on the bike. This is my first time at Sepang and I like it, it's a real GP circuit, fast and safe," said Nicky. "I didn't push so hard today I just concentrated on finding a set up for the circuit and trying to find a good rhythm out there. I need the experience."

Rounding out the field was Makoto Tamada, due to make his MotoGP debut this year, riding the second Pramac liveried RCV. Tamada completed 56 laps of the track today.

"The first day of testing was, as always, dedicated to the set-up of the bike, partly because it's the first time I've ever been to Sepang and I need to understand and interpret the circuit," explained the WSBK race winner. "I'm pleased with the way things went today, as I've been able to prepare well for the days ahead. There's plenty of room for improvement, and we'll be carrying on with the test programme tomorrow."

Honda Sepang test - day 1:

1. Daijiro Kato JPN Telefonica MoviStar Honda 2mins 05.02secs
2. Valentino Rossi ITA Repsol Honda 2mins 05.76secs
3. Max Biaggi ITA Pramac Honda Team 2mins 06.0secs.
4. Tohru Ukawa JPN Honda Pons 2mins 06.0secs
5. Sete Gibernau SPA Telefonica MoviStar Honda 2mins 06.6secs
6. Shinichi Itoh JPN HRC Honda 2mins 07.5secs
7. Nicky Hayden USA Repsol Honda 2mins 07.76secs
8. Makoto Tamada JPN Pramac Honda Team 2mins 09.2secs
Ducati Sepang test - day 1:

1. Loris Capirossi ITA Ducati Marlboro 2mins 5.3secs
2. Troy Bayliss AUS Ducati Marlboro 2mins 6.5secs

Comparative lap times - 2002 Malaysian Grand Prix:
Pole Position: Alex Barros West Honda Pons 2mins 4.487secs

Fastest lap: Max Biaggi Marlboro Yamaha 2mins 4.925secs