Rossi returns to top form in Qatar

Valentino Rossi arrived in Doha last night after spending three days celebrating his latest MotoGP World Championship title in his native Italy but showed no signs of a hangover as he bounced back to the top of the time sheets on the opening day of free practice for the Marlboro Grand Prix of Qatar today. In ambient temperatures of 37ºC the Italian left it until his final lap to clock the fastest time of 1'58.714, inside Carlos Checa's pole record from last season and 0.146 seconds quicker than the day's surprise package Toni Elías, who briefly occupied top spot with a record lap of his own until Rossi's late charge.

"For sure myself and the whole team are more relaxed now that we have won the World Championship," said Rossi, who was one of a number of riders to run off track and into the gravel trap as they searched for their bearings at a circuit used for the first time last season. "We have had a lot of problems for the past two races. It has been difficult and we have never found a good setting for the bike but here in the afternoon we found a good way. The track conditions are better than they were last season - they're still not 100% but compared to the first practice last year there is much more grip. As long as there is no wind or rain overnight it should improve a lot more by Saturday."

Nicky Hayden had dominated for much of the session, showing good consistency aboard the Honda before the late push for times. The American eventually set the third fastest time ahead of Ducati riders Loris Capirossi, who is looking for a hat-trick of victories after consecutive wins at Motegi and Sepang, and Carlos Checa. Last year's race winner Sete Gibernau was second quickest in the morning free practice behind Hayden but could only manage the twelfth fastest time in the afternoon.

Olivier Jacque did not take part in this afternoon's session after injuring himself in a crash during the morning. The Frenchman was taken to hospital after hurting his back and his participation in the rest of the event is currently unclear. Alex Barros also crashed in the morning although the Brazilian escaped unhurt.

Jorge Lorenzo made a stylish return from suspension by setting provisional pole position for the 250cc race with a time of 2'03.727. Lorenzo, who was given a one-race ban for his part in a last-lap collision with Alex de Angelis at Motegi two weeks ago, seemed to have benefited from the extra rest as he lapped 0.178 seconds quicker than current series leader Dani Pedrosa. Last year's winner Sebastián Porto and Alex de Angelis complete the provisional front row whilst Casey Stoner, who trails Pedrosa by 38 points in the championship, was fifth fastest in the afternoon after setting the pace in morning free practice.

Marco Simoncelli set the pace in the 125cc class with a time of 2'11.209 after series leader Thomas Lüthi crashed out. Lüthi hit the deck in the opening minutes of the session but was able to return to the track and set the eleventh fastest time in the closing stages. Simoncelli is joined on the provisional front row by former World Champion Manuel Poggiali, Italian rookie Lorenzo Zanetti and his experienced compatriot Fabrizio Lai. Mika Kallio, who trails Lüthi by eight points in the championship, was twelfth fastest.


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