The knife-edge tension of this morning's free practice session was continued this afternoon, as the riders set out on the qualifying practice for tomorrow's Portuguese Grand Prix. Spectators were not to be disappointed.
The session started with a very fast lap by Casey Stoner, and though many tried, the young Australian sat on top of the timesheets for a very long time, while most riders were out tweaking race set-ups and selecting race tires. Behind Stoner, it was Valentino Rossi who seemed to have gained the first advantage, close to matching Stoner's times, and never dropping out of the top 3.
As the 20 minutes to go mark approached, the traditional rush for the pole commenced. It was Casey Stoner who opened, with a lap just outside the fastest times of this morning, with a 1:37.066. Carlos Checa, Shinya Nakano, and Valentino Rossi got close to Stoner, but none could beat him, until Nicky Hayden edged Stoner by the narrowest of margins, setting a time one thousandth of a second faster.
A couple of minutes later, Dani Pedrosa looked like he was on his way to oust his team mate from the pole, when his flying lap was ruined by a huge slide exiting the slow chicane in the final section. Minutes later, Marco Melandri showed Pedrosa the correct way to slide the rear, smoking the rear tire round and out of the right-handed chicane exit. Spectacular it surely was, but it did Melandri little good in the standings.
With 10 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi showed everyone the kind of times it was going to take if you wanted to hold on to the pole. In an outstanding display of riding, Rossi weaved his way through heavy traffic to set the fastest time of the day so far, with a 1:36.627, 2/10ths faster than Hayden's time in FP3. The Kentucky Kid was suddenly under real pressure, and while attempting to respond, ran wide, and into the gravel.
Hayden's team mate did respond, however, taking the provisional pole with a time nearly 1/10th faster than Rossi's time. Behind Pedrosa, a legion of riders were out setting fast laps, and within a couple of minutes, Hayden had slipped from 3rd all the way down to 7th. John Hopkins kept getting close to taking the pole, setting the fastest times in the first 3 sections, before always losing out in the last part out onto the final straight. And behind Hopper, Colin Edwards was putting up his best fight of the season, in 5th place with 5 minutes left to go.
But with 4 minutes left to go, The Doctor moved to settle this thing in his favor, setting an astonishing 1:36.200 lap of the Estoril circuit. Feeling that his lead was virtually unassailable, Rossi meandered back into the pits, to take his number 2 bike out to get a feel for it. 2 minutes later, Rossi's lead was looking more fragile than before, as Hayden started on a blistering lap. It was fast, but not fast enough, ending up in 2nd spot, 3/10ths behind Rossi.
As Hayden slowed to come in, team mate Dani Pedrosa was out on a charge, threatening to take Hayden's spot at the least, and get close to Rossi. But as he rounded a right-hander round the rear of the track, he ran into Casey Stoner, slowing inexplicably on the inside racing line of the turn, his foot out, as if ready to perform a test start. Pedrosa was fuming, and rode out the rest of the lap cursing into his helmet and shaking his fist. The whole incident had shades of Assen last year, when Max Biaggi stopped to take a practice start before the session had been flagged as finished, nearly knocking Marco Melandri, who was on a fast lap, off his bike. Biaggi was fined a total of $6000 for the incident, so it will be interesting to see how the FIM responds to Stoner's lapse of judgement. To his credit, Casey Stoner immediately entered Pedrosa's pit after qualifying was finished, and apologized fully to Dani, and the pair settled it with a handshake.
Back on the track, the front row looked settled, a repeat of the morning's practice session with Rossi and Hayden, their roles reversed. But there were still riders out there on fast laps. As the flag fell, Colin Edwards rounded the track in an outstanding 1:36.478, snatching 2nd place from Hayden, the Texan finally showing he could once again be the Tornado at windy Estoril.
So, tomorrow's grid is a fascinating prospect. Two team mates, Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards, sit in the first 2 places, with two other team mates, Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa, in 3rd and 4th. Beside Pedrosa sits Casey Stoner, followed by John Hopkins. Shinya Nakano heads up the 3rd row of the grid in 7th, with Sete Gibernau and Carlos Checa beside him. Loris Capirossi will be disappointed to have set only the 10th fastest time, while Marco Melandri sits down in 15th. Kenny Roberts Jr, who had been so fast earlier this weekend, sits in a lowly 13th spot.
With the two Camel Yamaha bikes ahead of him, Nicky Hayden has a tough nut to crack tomorrow. Repsol Honda may not have team orders, but you can bet your bottom Euro that Camel Yamaha do. And with Hayden having trouble off the line caused by his clutch at the last few races, if he can't get ahead of Edwards from the start, he may have a problem getting ahead of Valentino Rossi. Rossi, for his part, needs to get a good start, and he could be another step closer to snatching back the title from Hayden. Whatever happens, it's going to be epic.