Only Alex Barros truly threatened Valentino's Rossi's dominance in first practice at le Mans today, briefly dislodging the Honda rider from the top of the time sheets with five minutes remaining only to crash his Yamaha on the very next lap and return to his pit box to see the Italian back in control.

Rossi improved on Barros' time and then lapped another half a second quicker to set a time of 1'35.208, almost a full second within the previous pole record and 0.777 clear of the Brazilian.

Nevertheless, Barros wasn't too worried to lose out on pole, pointing to the positives of the impressive form shown by the Yamahas today, and his own personal fitness.

"I'm pretty happy with how everything went. The Yamaha is good here and the tests we did in Mugello straight after Jerez have clearly paid off. In addition this is the first time since my crash in Suzuka that I feel OK on the bike," said Alex.

"Unfortunately I made a little mistake right at the end of the session, crashed and didn't have time to try the tyre I had intended to use for my qualifying time. Though I reckon I would have been able to go a little quicker I don't think it affected my provisional pole position," he explained. "Apparently they are forecasting rain for tomorrow and if that is what God decides it is OK with me. If however it doesn't rain I reckon I should be able to defend my place."

"It was a good session. Obviously it is a huge pleasure to see Alex up at the front. I think the Yamaha's slight lack of power is less of a handicap here and that combined with Alex's legendary late braking prowess and improved fitness means we should have a good race on Sunday," enthused Gilles Bigot, Barros' Race Engineer.

"It is the first time this year that we have a rider on the front row and after a difficult start to the season it is a great source of satisfaction," said Team manager Herve Poncharal. "I think the improvement in Alex's physical condition and the success of the Mugello tests have played a major role in his increased competitiveness and I am looking forward to a good result from him on Sunday."

Team-mate, and home hero, Olivier Jacque, had another disappointing day, never getting the handling of his M1 as he liked, leaving him 16th and a second behind Barros.

"After this morning's session we modified our set-up to improve corner speed. Unfortunately the changes we made didn't work out and meant that we wasted the first half of the qualifying session," said OJ. "After that we started to improve our time only to put in a tyre in that didn't suit me at all and meant that I wasn't able to 'do a time'. It is extremely frustrating because in Jerez I qualified first Yamaha, while during testing in Mugello we made good progress. We aren't far off, and only need to make a couple of changes to improve, but to do that it has to stay dry tomorrow..."