Laguna Seca has thrown up a host of surprises during Saturday's Qualifiying Practice session. Many observers were expecting to see Nicky Hayden attempt to repeat last year's performance, taking pole position in an attempt to lead the race from the off, but that plan fell through. Early in qualifying, it was Casey Stoner who topped the timesheets, setting the fastest time 10 minutes into the session, then improving on the time 8 minutes later, cracking the 1:23 barrier and setting a time that was to stand for nearly two thirds of the session. Behind Stoner, Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen was quick, constantly threatening to take provisional pole from Stoner. With 24 minutes to go, Stoner lead Vermeulen, ahead of Vermeulen's team mate John Hopkins, Colin Edwards, Nicky Hayden and Kenny Roberts Jr.
With 21 minutes to go, Chris Vermeulen finally made good on his threats, taking pole from Stoner with a time 3/10ths quicker, at 1:23.650. Stoner immediately tried to counter, but came up just 1/1000th short, running a 1:23.651. It was obvious that the qualifiers had come out, and times were now being set in anger, as a bunch of riders started setting 1:23s, Nakano moving to 3rd place, before being bumped by last year's pole sitter and winner Nicky Hayden. Then, with 16 minutes left in the session, Vermeulen consolidated his grip on pole position, setting a lap of 1:23.168. A couple of minutes later, Stoner moved back into 2nd, only to be bumped from that spot by Nicky Hayden shortly afterwards.
The last 10 minutes saw a flurry of fast laps. With 6 minutes left, Carlos Checa performed the remarkable feat of being fastest Yamaha, moving into 6th place, ahead of Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi. Edwards had been doing well in the session, but Rossi was struggling, being very fast round the first two sections, but losing a lot of time down the Corkscrew, fighting against the incredibly bumpy nature of the track down that section. With less than 6 minutes to go, Rossi was down in 13th, and sliding down the grid as riders set faster times. He finally moved out of the tail of the field with 1 minute to go, setting a 6th time, but he was not to hold on to that for long. Hopkins, Edwards, Roberts and Pedrosa were just some of the riders to put in a final fast lap before the session was finalized. Though all were fast, none could improve on Vermeulen's time, leaving the young Australian on his second pole of the season, after taking pole during the downpour at Istanbul.
So, Chris Vermeulen heads up the first row on the Rizla Suzuki, contrary to all the expectations of an American rider taking pole at a track which favors home riders. But Vermeulen has plenty of experience here, taking a double win at the World Superbike round here 2 years ago. Behind Vermeulen sits Colin Edwards, with Kenny Roberts Jr in 3rd, taking the final spot on the front row. Dani Pedrosa starts the 2nd row, with beside him Vermeulen's team mate John Hopkins, and Nicky Hayden a disappointing 6th. Casey Stoner is first on the 3rd row, followed by Shinya Nakano and Marco Melandri. Valentino Rossi is down in 10th, and will be worried to be starting from the 4th row at a track which is notoriously difficult to pass at. Besides Rossi sits Carlos Checa, with Toni Elias finishing up the 4th row. Loris Capirossi is the first Ducati rider in 13th, with Makoto Tamada and Randy de Puniet beside him. Sete Gibernau sits behind his Ducati team mate down in 16th, followed by Hofmann, Ellison and Cardoso.
So, qualifying threw up a whole mess of surprises. No one would have guessed that an Australian would take pole, and Hayden's 6th spot must be a worry for the man who seemed so close to the title just a couple of weeks ago. Valentino Rossi will be disappointed, but not all that surprised to be down the grid, but so far this year he has always managed to run better in the race than during qualifying. What is perhaps even more surprising are the slow times: Vermeulen's pole is half a second down on Hayden's time last year, and slower than this morning's free practice session. Most of that is to do with the temperature, with track temperatures over 135 degrees Fahrenheit this afternoon. But the bumpiness of the track has to take some of the blame: it was obvious that a lot of riders were having real problems down the Corkscrew, Rossi being thrown almost out of the saddle at one point. It's going to make for an interesting race.