Despite dominating the championship so far, Jorge Lorenzo does not get a lot of pole positions. Except at Laguna: though this was only his third of the season, Saturday's pole position was Lorenzo's fourth in a row at the circuit, and he secured it in convincing style. The circuit record tumbled - it had stood since 2008, set by Casey Stoner when he looked on his way to dominating the US GP at Laguna, before his run in with Valentino Rossi. There has been much complaining about the Bridgestone tires of late, yet both Lorenzo and Stoner beat the pole record on the tire they will probably race on, a pole record set on super-soft special qualifiers, which at a track like Laguna Seca you could just about eke two laps out of before they were finished. In reality, there's not so much wrong with these tires.
The pole record could have been beaten by a lot more, but Casey Stoner kept running into traffic each time he went for a fast lap. Up by a tenth or more at each split a number of times, he would suddenly run into a rider cruising, or a CRT machine on a hot lap, and lose out. On his last attempt, he ran into Danilo Petrucci just before the final corner, working his way swiftly past to take pole from Lorenzo with a couple of minutes to go. But Lorenzo would not be denied, pushing hard in the final sector to get pole back from Stoner in the dying moments.
Afterwards, Stoner was annoyed and frustrated, saying that if it hadn't been for the traffic, he could have had pole. He may be right, but it may not matter: Stoner was fast on softs when qualifying, but Lorenzo's race pace is once again utterly oppressive, as it has been all year. The Yamaha man set his fastest lap of the weekend on his third lap out of the pits during qualifying, going on to crack the 1'20 barrier two laps later. His race pace is high 1'20s, low 1'21s, and the only man who can follow him is Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man is very happy with the new chassis he tested at Mugello, based on the version of the bike originally planned to be introduced in 2013, and is fast with the bike. So fast that he will race it on Sunday.
Stoner, on race pace, is a couple of tenths slower than the two Spaniards, but is confident of being competitive. The Australian had spent a lot of time working on the hard tire, the tire that he does not like, and felt that he and his crew had achieved a good pace on it. The soft worked well enough anyway, and so whatever the temperature, he believes he can run with Lorenzo and Pedrosa.
Behind the three front runners, there is a fair gap. Where Lorenzo and Pedrosa are running low 1'21s, with Stoner not that far off, Ben Spies, Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso are running high 1'21s and low 1'22s. Spies has the added handicap of being badly shaken, having sprained his ankle in a monster highside at Turn 3 and suffered a minor concussion. He will be fit to race, but at Laguna's tight and twisty circuit, giving the riders no place to rest, he is in for a very tough afternoon.
The Ducatis are in a bit more trouble. Though Nicky Hayden is not far off the pace of the Yamahas - the second group, not Lorenzo, who is in a world of his own - Valentino Rossi is struggling. The problems are the same, Rossi said: once they put a new soft tire in, they simply cannot find the extra few tenths that would move them up the grid, the extra time that everyone else - including teammate Hayden - seem to find without too much trouble. Bearing this in mind, Rossi spent most of the session working on race pace, which puts him pretty close to the group of Yamahas. Rossi's problem is that he and his crew face a dilemma: the bike is spinning up too much, and so they are moving weight backward to conserve the tire and improve drive. When they do that, Rossi loses front end feel and can't get into the corner fast enough.
Part of the problem is that the parts that were supposed to have helped solve the problem - a revised positioning of the ECU and fuel tank, and parts meant for the inlet tract to help smooth power delivery - have not all be supplied on time and tested. A few parts are being used, but much more is to come "in the second half of the year" according to Vitto Guareschi. But Ducati have been promising this for a while, and each time new parts are promised, they take longer than hoped to arrive. This weekend is a massive weekend for Valentino Rossi, and one which could prove decisive for his future. He is due to meet with Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio to discuss some "details" for next season. One of those details is the basic salary of his contract, with Ducati rumored to be offering the Italian 17 million euros a season to stay at Bologna. The money is likely to be the least important detail - Rossi's base salary forms well under half of his income - the more significant details being what goes on at Ducati Corse, and the influence Audi will bring to bear on that department. His choice will come down to whether he believes Ducati can turn the project around and build a competitive bike. So far, the signs are not good, but walking away risks losing his reputation as a rider who can develop a bike. Whether the fault is his or Ducati's will not be recorded in history, only that the Italian was incapable of making it competitive.
Ducati is already looking to the future. Andrea Iannone and Danilo Petrucci are set to test the Desmosedici at Mugello next week, with rumors that Scott Redding might be at the very same test. Ducati's plans for a junior team - plans confirmed to MotoMatters.com by Ducati team boss Alessandro Cicognani at Mugello - are taking shape, with the full details likely to be settled by the time the paddock lands at Indianapolis. With Nicky Hayden staying on for continuity, Ducati must be hoping that throwing a gaggle of fresh young riders at the problem. They might get lucky like in 2007. Or they might not...