Valentino Rossi completed what could be his final provisional qualifying session with Honda by taking a 0.3secs advantage over the 23 rider field, on a day when the Italian's Repsol team-mate Nicky Hayden - the class rookie touted to replace Vale as HRC's hope for the future - proved his nearest rival.

Morning practice was led by Marco Melandri's Fortuna Yamaha replacement Norick Abe, by the tune of 2.3secs from outgoing Kawasaki rider Garry McCoy, but the session was practically written off by heavy rain, and few riders completed more than 10laps.

That meant the MotoGP stars came into this afternoon's dry - but cold and windy - hour long session having completed next to no set-up time. They would now need to quickly find a consistent base set-up in the opening 45-minutes, then come in for a qualifying tyre and hope for the best in the final ten minutes.

Max Biaggi had set a 1min 33.2secs pole time (on a Marlboro Yamaha) one year ago, and it would take half the session before that pace was even approached this afternoon, when Rossi set a best lap of 1min 35secs. The Italian leading team-mate Hayden, the fellow Honda of Sete Gibernau and the top Yamaha of Carlos Checa by that point.

Gibernau would take the position back from Rossi ten minutes later, but Vale would frighten the field as the final ten minutes began by immediately grabbing 0.7secs from the Catalan, then improving further to break the 1min 33secs mark one lap later, by a tenth.

The closing stages saw Rossi edge ever further away, but Hayden was keeping his team leader firmly in check - lapping within 0.2secs of pole, with just over a minute to go, as the Kentuckian shone in the gusty conditions.

But ultimately Rossi would stay safe up front as he clipped a further tenth off, and will take a 0.3secs lead into tomorrow's final session, which will start with Gibernau and Biaggi completing an all Honda provisional front row.

Checa rode a solid session to be top Yamaha in fifth, while Abe also performed well for the Fortuna team - finishing eleventh after holding a top ten position for most of the hour.

Capirossi had a quiet, but useful, day for Ducati to claim sixth, but his team-mate Troy Bayliss picked up where he left off in Phillip Island - on the floor.

The Australian fell with six minutes to go after losing the back of his V4 under braking for turn three. Bayliss was then flipped forward as his rear Michelin 'bit', throwing him hard against his Desmosedici's screen, which he smashed before falling off. Troy was fortunately able to walk away this time, and ended day one with ninth.

Bayliss' former WSBK rival Colin Edwards performed well on his Aprilia finale, taking a late overnight twelfth ahead of the ever trying McWilliams and his ever improving KR V5.

Suzuki's Kenny Roberts had been top ten material for most of the hour before losing out in the late shuffle to take fourteenth overnight, two places ahead of team-mate John Hopkins.

Nobuatsu Aoki ran off track early on in the hour, but remained upright to take 18th, while Kawasaki's Andrew Pitt was less lucky - losing the front with 20mins to go and being forced to leave his ZX-RR in the sand.

WCM's local hero David de Gea completed the session ahead of Nori Haga, but team-mate Chris Burns didn't take to the track after his morning fall, which damaged his collar bone once again, and the Brit's frustrating debut GP season has now come to a premature end.

Full times to follow...

1. Rossi
2. Hayden
3. Gibernau
4. Biaggi
5. Checa
6. Capirossi
7. Ukawa
8. Barros
9. Bayliss
10. Tamada
11. Abe
12. Edwards
13. McWilliams
14. Roberts
15. Jacque
16. Hopkins
17. Nakano
18. Aoki
19. McCoy
20. Pitt
21. Kiyonari
22. de Gea
23. Haga



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