The 11th round of the 2023 season marks the beginning of a frantic run in to the end of the year over the next 10 events, with the Catalan GP the first of a back-to-back with Misano.
Espargaro – who last year lost a podium after miscounting how many laps he had remaining, and who is now wearing a special helmet referencing this – kicked off proceedings fastest of all with a 1m39.809s set on fresh soft rubber at the end of FP1.
This put him 0.264s clear of long-time session leader Maverick Vinales on the other side of the factory Aprilia garage, with Pramac’s Jorge Martin third.
Predicting a difficult weekend, Honda’s Marc Marquez was 1.6s off the pace down in second-to-last after suffering a crash at Turn 5 in the final five minutes of running.
The 45-minute session got under way with Martin setting the initial pace at a 1m41.873s on the low-grip Barcelona track, before Vinales took over with a 1m41.336s.
Vinales then improved to a 1m40.878s just over five minutes in, before Espargaro shot to the top of the order for the first time on the sister RS-GP 23 with a 1m40.497s.
Team-mate Vinales would depose him upon switching to a fresh medium rear tyre with just over 20 minutes to go, the Spaniard producing a 1m40.073s.
This would stand as the benchmark until the closing three minutes, when Espargaro – fitted with a fresh soft front and rear set of Michelins – fired in a 1m39.809s to see out FP1 on top.
MotoGP Catalan GP - FP1 results