It should come as no surprise that the Italians are highly motivated at Mugello this weekend. Valentino Rossi had already jumped up the qualifying rankings at Le Mans, after setting some very poor practice times in earlier races, and had dominated both Free Practice sessions on Friday. Not to be outdone, Ducati's Loris Capirossi had set the fastest time in Saturday morning's free practice session, slashing a second off Rossi's time. The only Italian missing from the party was Marco Melandri, who seemed to settle for running around 7th or 8th place.. So all eyes were on the Italians before qualifying, with much pressure on them to get a pole in front of their home crowd.
As qualifying opened, just about everyone took to the track to try and set a semi-respectable time, yesterday's semi-wet FP2 session still fresh in their memories. The weather seems destined to be a factor this season, and with this in mind, no one was taking any chances. It was clear that the Italian riders were serious right from the start, with Loris Capirossi setting the weekend's fastest time so far at 1:50.133 with over 53 minutes of the session left. Four minutes later, Capirossi broke into the 1:49s, setting a 1:49.819. Most riders having set a time they were comfortable with, the session quietened down, riders concentrating on finding tires and a bike setting to last the distance of tomorrow's race.
With 37 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi took over provisional pole from his compatriot, taking a tenth of a second off of Capirex' time, but Ducati were not content to let this stand. Some four minutes later, Sete Gibernau took 3/10ths off Rossi's time, getting within 2/10ths of Rossi's pole record from last year. With over half an hour left in the session, it was only a matter of time before that record would go, and by how much. It only took another 7 minutes before Loris Capirossi to answer that question, taking provisional pole back from team mate Gibernau with a new record 1:49.058. With over 25 minutes left in the session, it was obvious that this time had been set on race tires, and if this was possible on race tires, then the 1:49 barrier seemed sure to crumble.
As the session progressed, this time began to look more and more impressive. No one seemed capable of breaking it, even after the first sets of qualifiers started to appear with around 20 minutes to go. What was becoming clear was that Bridgestone had some great tires for the sweeping Mugello circuit, with both Hopkins and Nakano setting very impressive qualifying times, with Rossi, Hayden and Melandri the only Michelin riders capable of following.
With just two minutes to go, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived: a Ducati broke into the 1:48s at Mugello. To the slight disappointment of the crowd, it was not Loris Capirossi, but team mate Sete Gibernau who took the new pole record, with a 1:48.969. Although there was plenty of time left for others to try to improve on that time, no one was able to beat it. Despite several riders putting in fast times in the first part of the circuit, they couldn't maintain the momentum, coming up short in the fight for pole.
As the checkered flag fell for the end of the session, the two Ducatis stand at the head of the grid, to the delight of the Italian fans. Their delight is only slightly tempered by the man on pole being Sete Gibernau, but with Capirossi in 2nd, and Valentino Rossi in 3rd, they still have plenty to celebrate. Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden put in a fine display to take fourth on the grid, with Shinya Nakano once again demonstrating his excellent qualifying form in fifth. The third Italian on the grid is Marco Melandri on the Fortuna Honda in 6th, which will be a mild disappointment to him, though he has improved his position during each qualifying session.
Yet another Bridgestone-shod bike heads up the third row, John Hopkins putting in another solid performance to take seventh, with Dani Pedrosa, the man who took pole in the last two rounds, down in a disappointing 8th position, followed by fellow 250cc-graduate rookie Casey Stoner. Makoto Tamada holds onto his improved form to take 10th, with Kenny Roberts Junior showing similar steady progress in 11th. Rossi's team mate Colin Edwards is obviously still struggling, after having decided to stick with the old chassis for his Yamaha, finishing a disappointing 14th place, behind a fine showing by Carlos Checa, riding the Tech 3 Yamaha on the underperforming Dunlop tires, and ahead of Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, on his first visit to the Mugello track.
The big question of this afternoon's qualifying is whether Sete Gibernau's pole position marks a true return to form for the Spaniard, who has not had the blistering season he must surely have hoped for after moving to Ducati at the beginning of the year. Gibernau looked relieved and delighted at the post-practice press conference, describing taking pole as "a victory", and confirmation that he made the right decision to switch to Ducati and Bridgestone. With Sete being a rider whose performance is extremely dependent on his psychological state, taking pole here will be a big boost, and make him a force to be reckoned with. Unless of course something happens to deflate his confidence again, which would mean all bets are off again.
But anyone looking for a potential winner tomorrow need look no further than third spot on the grid. This is the first time so far this year that Rossi has started from the front row, and without the necessity of fighting his way past 10 riders before reaching the front, he can concentrate on getting away from the start and trying to take the lead. After being robbed of a good result two races in a row by mechanical problems, he will be desperate to replace the -43 on the tail of his bike with a smaller negative number. He needs a win to get his championship bid back on track, and to make his points deficit more manageable. The biggest threat to this plan is the man ahead of him on the grid. Capirossi will be dead set on taking a win this weekend. For an Italian rider, to win the Italian Grand Prix riding an Italian motorcycle is the highest achievement, besides taking the title. And with Ducati having launched their Desmosedici race replica road bike earlier this week, you can bet that Ducati will be doing everything they can to make this happen.