It was a strange start to qualifying, as Cardoso blew up the engine on his Pramac Ducati during the first out lap, and spewed oil all over the track. Next thing we know, Rossi is crashing out, followed 20 seconds later by the almost comical spectacle of multiple flying motorcycles. Comical to me, at least, as it wasn't my ass sliding over the tarmac as million dollar machines fly overhead. In the end, Elias, both Kawasakis, KRJR and possibly Cardoso ended up together in the gravel trap. The organisers were arguably a little slow, and should probably have red-flagged qualifying after Rossi went down, but as soon as the big group went, qualifying was stopped.
10 minutes or so later, qualifying restarted. The first 30 minutes or so tend to get used to try out race tyres, so times were frankly pretty slow for a while, until Nakano set a pretty fast time, a low 1'40. Then, at the 30 minute mark, out of nowhere Capirossi sets out a 1'39.2, taking advantage of the track having gone quiet.
For the next 20-odd minutes, no one got anywhere near Capirossi's time, and even after all the riders were out on their best qualifying tyres, there were several people who were faster at the first two intermediate timing points, but Capirossi must have been blindingly fast in the third section, as everyone was losing around half a second or more round that part of the track, and where they'd been a tenth, or at least several hundredths of a second faster at intermediate 2, at intermediate 3 they were over half a second behind again. Gibernau was very fast in the first half of the track, but kept losing out in the second half. Eventually, Capirossi put in an astonishingly fast time, just missing out on a 1:38.
Capirossi remains a fantastic rider to watch, always spectacular, taking over Garry McCoy's King of Slide crown. But what is obvious about the Ducati is that it's a real muscle bike: it's incredibly quick, but you have to bully it around the track. This is great for qualifying, but demands a lot from riders during a full race.
First conclusion to draw is that Bridgestone have built a fantastic qualifier, dominating the front row. And I'm really impressed with Nakano, he's certainly living up to my expectations. Of course, the race is yet to come, but things are looking promising. In the post-qualifying interview, Capirossi was confident that the Bridgestone tyres could perform for a full race. Gibernau emphasised that he was still in a learning process, and that he hoped to keep up with the front group tomorrow. But he looked happy and relaxed, and as Sete's performance is so dependent on his mental state, you have to say that's a good omen. I believe that Gibernau's 2005 season ended in the gravel pit at the last corner of the first race (Jerez) last year. Rossi, by dumping Gibernau in the gravel, effectively finished Sete off as a competitive force. So a happy Sete (or an otherwise emotionally motivated Sete) is a force to be reckoned with.
And we have four Hondas from 3rd to 7th on the grid. Nicky saved face by taking top Honda spot, but he didn't look very happy at all. You could see he was struggling with grip at the rear throughout the session. Rossi has said about Hayden that he is a very very fast rider, with great talent, but is not as good at developing a bike. Interesting also to see that Elias finished ahead of team mate Melandri.
Pedrosa was impressive, but you could see that he was occasionally having problems physically managing the bike. His foot slipped off the footrest a couple of times, from sheer exertion, it looked like. But a promising start.
The Yamahas were very disappointing. Randy de Puniet on the Kawasaki probably can't believe the fact that he's ahead of Rossi on the grid, and might be worth a side bet to qualify ahead of Rossi over the next few Grand Prix, if Yamaha keep struggling. What was interesting was to see Rossi spending a lot of time talking to the man from Michelin. Normally, just about the only person you see Rossi talking to in the pits is Jeremy Burgess, but this time, the tyre man was getting a lot of Rossi's time. Colin looked workmanlike, did his job, and qualified very close to Rossi, so there is obviously a problem with the bike. I'm going to say "chatter", just so I sound like I know what I'm on about.
The Suzukis look gorgeous, except for the powder blue paint job, but still don't look like challenging for the podium. Interesting to see that Vermeulen is ahead of Hopper on the grid.
KRJR is in more or less the same position that he would have been last year, only this time on a bike with a tiny budget, as opposed to a full factory Suzuki, so he must be pleased. I reckon the TeamKR bike could have a couple of good showings, maybe even a couple of top 5 places with a bit of luck later in the season. Especially if it rains some place.
A quick word on Makoto Tamada. Tamada was incredibly impressive in 2004, winning a couple of races, but since breaking a bone in his hand early in 2005, he can't seem to find his feet again. Qualifying 16th is pretty disappointing.
What does all this tell us about the race tomorrow? It makes it a fascinating prospect. Rossi is going to have to pull out all the stops to get close to the front. The Ducatis will start quickly, but will they be able to keep up the pace for a full race? Nakano said in the post-qualifying interview that he was pleased with the test results during the winter, but he didn't know how much stock to put in those results. He has reason to be cautiously optimistic, but he will have a horde of Honda riders breathing down his neck tomorrow. And will Yamaha sort their chatter out in the warm up tomorrow, to put Edwards and Rossi in with a chance? And how will Pedrosa handle a full race? It looks like there could be more than just two riders fighting for the win going into the last corner. I can't wait.