Thousands of Spanish fans, and many observers, including your humble reporter, expected the Gran Premi de Catalunya to be a festival of Spanish racing, with Spanish, or rather Catalan, riders starting from the front row of the grid, to take a Catalan win in front of their home crowds. The fact that most of the Catalan riders are on Michelins, the tires which dominated last year's race weekend, only reinforced this expectation. But this evening, the bars of Barcelona will be filled with despairing Spanish fans, wondering what happened to their local heroes. Sometimes, things just don't work out as you expected.
The MotoGP qualifying session began under warm sunny skies, with a hot track. Friday's afternoon session had started with a drying track, but there had been no sign of rain on Saturday, so times were quick right from the off. Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet took turns at the top of the timing charts with local boy Sete Gibernau, fanning the hopes of the local fans. Times were in the low 1:44s, still a long way off the expected qualifying pace, until Suzuki's John Hopkins broke into the mid-1:43s.
After 10 minutes, the Michelin riders reasserted their spot at the top, with first Casey Stoner, then Dani Pedrosa and his Repsol Honda team mate Nicky Hayden setting fastest lap, edging ever closer to a respectable pole time with a 1:43.149 at the 15 minute mark. The Kentucky Kid was in the middle of a longish seven-lap run at the time, running race tires, so race pace looks like being faster than last year.
As if piqued that someone had run faster than his race lap record, Valentino Rossi took back the top spot 3 minutes later, only to run into the gravel at the end of the main straight. This gave Dani Pedrosa a chance to snatch fastest lap back, breaking the 1:43 barrier with a 1:42.926. Rossi equaled this time a lap later, on the same tires he'd run into the gravel on.
By this time, Shinya Nakano had taken another tenth of a second off the fastest time, taking his Kawasaki to a 1:42.806. His time was to stand for a quarter of an hour, as the field were either out trying to find a race setting and a decent tire in the warm weather and hot track conditions, or else were in the pits studying the data gathered so far.
With just under 25 minutes to go, the Kawasaki pair were at it again. Randy de Puniet took fastest lap from his team mate, but he was only to enjoy this position for 15 seconds, as Nakano streaked back across the line with a 1:42.632, just 3 tenths slower than Sete Gibernau's pole record from last year. Five minutes later, John Hopkins made it a provisional Bridgestone front row, setting a time just a couple of hundredths slower than Gibernau's record.
By now, almost everyone was out on their first set of qualifiers, trying to get a fast lap in while there were still occasional clear stretches of track to be found, a commodity which disappears during the manic last 10 minutes of qualifying. With 15 minutes to go, Australian rookie Casey Stoner broke up the Bridgestone love-in, putting his LCR Honda into second place. And a couple of minutes later, Valentino Rossi finally broke Gibernau's lap record, taking provisional pole with a 1:42.264. With 11 minutes left on the clock, Kenny Roberts Junior showed his excellent performance during the free practice sessions was no fluke, taking 4th spot, while local boy Toni Elias moved up to eighth position, after a fairly dismal showing up till that point. He then proceeded to get in John Hopkins' way on his slowdown lap, as Hopper stormed round on what looked like being another fastest lap.
As the clock ticked down, the Honda riders and championship favorites started answering the question of where they had been so far. With 8 minutes to go, Marco Melandri finally put in a fast lap, setting the third fastest time at that point, with Nicky Hayden slipping into second place a couple of minutes later. But by then, The Doctor had reasserted his superiority, setting a new fastest time of 1:41.855, the first rider to break into the 1:41s. And Hayden's stint at second was not to last, as Shinya Nakano took back second spot a minute later.
With less than five minutes to go, the pits became a seething hive of activity, as everyone rushed back to get a new qualifier to shoot for one last quick lap. That some riders were feeling the strain became obvious when Melandri, eager to set a time faster than the 1:42.492 he already had, cracked the throttle a fraction too early and lowsided to spin out into the gravel round the rear of the track. That everyone was pushing was equally obvious as one rider after another set their fastest lap. With a minute to go, John Hopkins took back second spot, becoming the only other rider to crack the 1:41 barrier with a 1:41.984. Nakano bravely tried to parry, taking back third, only to be pushed down by first Kenny Roberts Junior, then Nicky Hayden, Ducati's Loris Capirossi and the other Suzuki rider Chris Vermeulen. After the flag had fallen, Nakano finally managed to take back 5th on his last hot lap.
So after the dust of a hectic and exhilarating session settled, the grid once again defied expectations. Seven-times winner at Catalunya Valentino Rossi sits on pole with a new qualifying record of 1:41.855, nearly half a second faster than Sete Gibernau's previous record from 2005. Nothing unusual in The Doctor on pole, you might say, except this is Rossi's first pole since the British Grand Prix at Donington in July 2005. Behind Rossi sits John Hopkins on the Rizla Suzuki, with Kenny Roberts Junior on his father's Team KR KR211V completing the front row of the grid. In fourth place is Hopkin's team mate Chris Vermeulen, followed by Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano, with championship leader Loris Capirossi in sixth. The man Capirossi shares the lead in the championship with, Nicky Hayden is the first Honda on the grid in 7th, followed by Casey Stoner's LCR Honda, and Marco Melandri's Fortuna Honda completing the all-Honda third row.
Nakano's Kawasaki team mate Randy de Puniet is in a respectable 10th position, in front of a severely disappointed Dani Pedrosa, 11th on the grid not where he wanted to be for his home Grand Prix. The Texas Tornado has blown hot and cold this year, hot during races and cold during qualifying, and Colin Edwards stays true to form with a 12th place in qualifying. Catalan disappointment reigns supreme on row five, Sete Gibernau in 13th on the Ducati, followed by Toni Elias on the other Fortuna Honda. That disappointment will be shared by the man in 15th, Makoto Tamada, who may be riding his last races aboard the Konica Minolta Honda, as the paddock is buzzing with rumors that either Jorge Lorenzo or Andrea Dovizioso may move up from the 250 class to take his place.
The Dunlop riders bring up the rear, as usual, and unfortunately for them. Carlos Checa leads the way, 7/10ths from Makoto Tamada, while Alex Hoffman aboard the Pramac d'Antin Ducati is 17th, a second behind Checa. Checa's Tech 3 Yamaha team mate James Ellison follows in 18th, Jose Luis Cardoso taking the final spot on the grid.
So what are we to make of this qualifying session? First and foremost, we may be seeing the first signs of the end of this year's excitement. Valentino Rossi once again dominated on his Camel Yamaha, not just by putting in the fastest qualifying time, but also by riding consistent low 1:43s and high 1:42s on race tires early on in the session. No one else is as quick on race tires. Dani Pedrosa, Nicky Hayden and Casey Stoner come closest, though they start from a way down the grid. But they may find themselves with a tough fight to get through to chase Rossi, as Hopkins, Kenny Jr, Nakano, de Puniet, Edwards and Gibernau were all consistently running mid- to high 1:43s on race tires, and could end up getting in the way. The other item worth noting is that Carlos Checa opened the session by putting in nearly 18 laps, or 2/3rds race distance, in a single run. Lapping consistently in the low 1:44s and high 1:43s, look to Checa to finish much further forward than he has in previous races. This may be the first sign that Dunlop are making real progress, and could be more competitive later in the season. With four of the first six riders on Bridgestones, and only two Michelin riders, having a third tire manufacturer capable of running at the front is an exciting prospect.
As for the race, if Rossi gets away from the start, it could be all over by the end of the first lap. But there is no reason to despair: the battles for 2nd to 10th place will be fantastic, and with Rossi's recent run of luck, leading the race could be meaningless. If he does lead, you can be sure that there'll be a mass of crossed fingers in the Yamaha garages, right until he crosses the finish line.