Practice at Motegi commenced earlier today for the MotoGP series, starting under cool and cloudy conditions. The combination of the cold temperatures and rain expected on Saturday and possible on Sunday meant that most of the teams sent their riders out on the hardest of the compounds that Bridgestone had brought to the track, as this is the tire which is thought will last race distance. The 45 minute session - the proposed return to one hour is yet to be agreed, with lap totals not settled yet - was once again dominated by Casey Stoner from the start, but the Australian Ducati rider didn't have it all his own way.
Throughout the session, Valentino Rossi whittled away at Stoner's lead, taking over top spot after the flag had fallen. But Rossi's margin was only very small, just 0.056 seconds, though it remains to be seen just how sensitive a blow the loss of top spot is to the Australian.
Yamaha and Suzuki were clearly the bikes to have, with Jorge Lorenzo taking 3rd, while Suzuki men Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi took 4th and 6th respectively, sandwiching Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards between them. James Toseland recovered some of his form, ending the day in 10th spot, slowly getting his confidence back.
Marco Melandri was once again the surprise package, setting the 8th fastest time on the Hayate / Kawasaki. If the purpose of the Hayate's form is to impress upon the Kawasaki bosses the magnitude of their mistake in pulling out of MotoGP, then Melandri's performance so far has to be rated a success.
The biggest loser of the day must be the Motegi track owners, Honda. Andrea Dovizioso was the best of the Honda's taking 7th in the standings, but with Toni Elias in 9th, Dani Pedrosa in 11th, while Yuki Takahashi and Alex de Angelis are just inside the top 15, it is clear that HRC are in trouble. The RC212V is still not coping with the Bridgestone tires, and are in need of some improvement. Dani Pedrosa revealed that he would not be testing new parts in Japan, as he didn't feel he was sufficiently fit to push hard enough to get any usable data.
Only Ducati is doing worse than Honda, though they have the consolation that Casey Stoner is still the second fastest man of the day. Stoner's team mate Nicky Hayden is way down in 12th, while Pramac men Mika Kallio and Niccolo Canepa are down in 17th and 18th place respectively. The Ducati remains a treacherous beast to tame.
In the 250 class, Marco Simoncelli had little difficulty with his recently operated on scaphoid, dominating the 250 practice by over 6/10ths. Hiro Aoyama gave Honda some comfort by taking 2nd spot, ahead of Simoncelli's arch rival Alvaro Bautista. Whether Simoncelli's wrist will last all race is open to question, the Italian only running relatively short sessions during practice, but Simoncelli badly needs to claw back some points after missing the first race at Qatar.
In the 125s, Andrea Iannone took the top spot from the man who looked like dominating the season during the winter, Julian Simon. The Bancaja Aspar rider was under 2/10ths behind Iannone, but could not get close enough to beat the Spaniard. Third place man was the German Stefan Bradl, who refound some of his form. Simon's British team mate Bradley Smith could only manage the 7th fastest time, while fellow Britons Danny Webb and Scott Redding finished down in 13th and 16th respectively. American Cameron Beaubier was 23rd fastest.
The difficult circumstances took their toll on the smaller classes, with large numbers not making qualification. In the 125cc class, Britain's Matt Hoyle was the unlucky one, while five riders failed to make it under the 107% limit.