The waiting really is over for MotoGP fans, as the MotoGP bikes finally took to the track at Qatar to compete in earnest. First blood in the 2009 campaign went to Casey Stoner on the Marlboro (and at Qatar, it really is a Marlboro) Ducati, a fact that shocked absolutely nobody. As ever, Stoner was fast from the moment he rolled out onto the track, getting down into 1'57 territory within ten minutes, and slashing a further 0.8 seconds off his time with 12 minutes of the session left.
For a long time, Stoner's advantage seemed insurmountable, but in his final run, Valentino Rossi closed the gap from a second to get to within 0.4 of a second, with the potential for more if he hadn't run into traffic on a very fast lap. Though four tenths is a sizable gap, Rossi will feel he is at least in touch with Stoner, and with two more sessions to go, and no qualifying tires to distort the grid, the reigning world champion will be confident of staying with Stoner away from the line.
Third fastest man in the opening session of 2009 was Colin Edwards, the only other rider capable of getting within a second of Stoner, and looking as strong here as he looked last year during practice. Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team mate Jorge Lorenzo makes it three Yamahas in the top four, Lorenzo 1.2 seconds behind but with more likely to come.
The session threw up plenty of surprises. Such as Alex de Angelis in 5th, for example, but de Angelis also showed his Mr Hyde by running wide into the gravel during the session, a harbinger of what is to come, perhaps. An even bigger suprise was Mika Kallio finishing 7th, after having been as high as 5th earlier in the session. Though we've only had one 45 minute session of practice to judge him by, Kallio's single fast lap at the IRTA test at Jerez could possible be the rule rather than the exception.
Marco Melandri was another turn up for the books, the Italian finishing 9th fastest at the first time of asking. After the teams tested here just over a month ago, the Hai Karate bike was expected to be 9 places further back. And on his personal website, Melandri explained that he is realistically optimistic about the season so far, saying "I don't feel in any way related to the Marco of '08, but that's a debate I don't want to get into." If Melandri's happy, he'll punch above his weight.
Apart from Stoner, and the remarkable Kallio, the rest of the Ducatis are at the back of the field, as was to have been expected. Stoner's factory team mate Nicky Hayden is 13th fastest, over two seconds behind the Australian, and with plenty to do. While Sete Gibernau and Niccolo Canepa would be propping up the timesheet, if it weren't for the badly injured Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa put in two longish runs on Friday, presumably to test his fitness. He withstood them rather well, but is over four seconds off the pace. If he doesn't find a couple of seconds on Saturday, he may well choose not to risk racing on Sunday.
Overall, the times were slow, a couple of seconds off Stoner's lap record from last year, and 1.5 seconds slower than the times set here during testing in early March. Air and track temperatures were favorable, but the teams need a little time to get up to speed. The times tomorrow should be significantly quicker.
In the 250 class, another injury distorted the results, Marco Simoncelli's newly operated scaphoid leaving him down in 16th on the grid. But his arch rival Alvaro Bautista failed to capitalize on Simoncelli's misfortune, only managing to set the second fastest time, behind the Aspar-backed Gabor Talmasci. The 250 rookie and former 125cc World Champion was fast throughout the session, and finished ahead of semi team mate Bautista and Mattia Pasini on the Team Toth Aprilia.
A couple of Hondas were surprisingly close to the top three Aprilias, with Japanese veteran Hiroshi Aoyama finishing 4th, and Thai rider Ratthapark Wilairot taking 6th. Wilairot has come along very well since last year, and is looking an increasingly serious challenger.
Meanwhile, reigning 125cc Champion Mike di Meglio got off to a less auspicious start, finishing the first day down in 11th spot.
The 125cc class result was as predictable as the MotoGP class. Julian Simon, the man who has swept all before him during testing, took the top time in the first free practice session of the 2009 season by just over a second, ahead of his team mate Bradley Smith. The lead of over a third of a second Smith had over the third man, Nico Terol, would have been small comfort for the British rider, who has set his sights on his the 125cc title this season.
The flyweight Marc Marquez came in 4th, the KTM still clearly competitive, while his American team mate and class rookie Cameron Beaubier could only manage the 22nd fastest time, 4 seconds behind Marquez. British GP winner Scott Redding finished in 11th, while German GP victor Stefan Bradl could manage only 8th. The other British rider, Danny Webb, finished down in 19th, struggling to get to grips with a new front fork for his RSA Aprilia.
Practice continues tomorrow.