After the enigmatic shifts up and down the timesheets between morning and afternoon sessions, this afternoon's qualifying practice session would at least enforce some semblance of order among the riders. And though Dani Pedrosa rode a great lap to take pole position, the semblance of order created was a very fragile thing indeed, with grid positions being won and lost by hundredths, and in a couple of cases, just thousandths of a second.
The first part of the session was spent in the continuing chase of race set up. With the serious temperature differences between the morning and afternoon, the track being up to 40 degrees fahrenheit warmer in the afternoons, several riders, including Valentino Rossi, had complained that the morning sessions were almost useless for testing tire and suspension setups they may use in the race. Casey Stoner led for this part of the session, having put in a decent lap in the mid 1'41s during a set up run.
And the first 40 minutes or so gave us a chance to see who had race pace, a clue to who would be able to run at the front on Sunday. Carlos Checa put in a couple of runs with very consistent, low 1'41 laps, as did Valentino Rossi. Dani Pedrosa was faster, but less consistent, cracking the 1'40 barrier on a couple of laps, but also hitting 1'41.8 repeatedly. The most intriguing part of the afternoon's session was the number of riders seemingly capable of running a 1'41.5 pace almost at will: Colin Edwards, Casey Stoner, Toni Elias, John Hopkins, Marco Melandri, and even Nicky Hayden, the current world champion seeming to be closer to the pace today than yesterday, when he was a worryingly long way down the grid.
Then, with 20 minutes left in the session, Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet drew first blood in the war of the qualifiers, taking over pole from Dani Pedrosa, who had previously set a fast time on race tires. A couple of minutes later, he was joined at the front of the grid by team mate Olivier Jacque. Though few thought de Puniet's time would stand, the young Frenchman had set his time early, and looked like he would repeat his strategy of using 3 qualifying tires, where the consensus among the other teams is only to use 2 qualifiers, preferring not to squander their precious tire allowance on qualifiers, but take an extra race tire.
Six minutes later, the Ducatis disabused the Kawasakis of any notion of holding on to pole. Loris Capirossi started out on pole pace, before losing time in the last section, but Casey Stoner held on to smash the 1'40 barrier, by setting a lap of 1'39.940. The qualifying action then started in earnest, with fast laps coming thick and fast, and pole times being shattered in rapid succession. Stoner's fast lap stood for just 3 minutes, before Valentino Rossi took nearly a tenth off to set pole at 1'39.878. Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team mate Colin Edwards was also quick to get in on the action, as a couple of minutes later, Edwards took another tenth off, setting pole at 1'39.765. Four minutes later, Stoner was back, with another fastest lap of 1'39.524, but this was also to be short-lived. Within 30 seconds, The Doctor was back, taking pole back with a lap of 1'39.453.
But this too, would not be enough. A couple of minutes later, after a barrage of blistering laps, the grid being shook up every time a rider crossed the line, Dani Pedrosa finally settled the pole in his favor, setting a time of 1'39.402, just 5/100ths under Rossi's previous fast time. The Spanish crowd were delirious, having their home favorite starting from the front of the grid tomorrow.
Behind Pedrosa, Rossi hung on to 2nd place, with Carlos Checa, the man who has impressed the crowds all weekend, taking the third and last place on the front row. Checa's lap meant Texas Tornado Colin Edwards was forced back to head up the second row, ahead of Casey Stoner in 5th and another strong showing by John Hopkins. Konica Minolta's Shinya Nakano leads the third row, finally finding some grip from his Michelins, ahead of Hannspree Honda team mates Toni Elias and Marco Melandri. Kenny Roberts Jr steered his KR212V to 10th, with Nicky Hayden forced down to 11th, besides Alex Barros on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati.
But the grid order is almost arbitrary. Less than half a second cover the first 12 riders, and Olivier Jacque is the first rider to be over a second slower than pole sitter Pedrosa down in 16th. And when I say over a second, I mean just three thousandths of a second over a second. That basically means that the first 12 riders are within a half a percent of one another.
How all this plays out remains to be seen. But it's clear that the new tire regulations are obviously beginning to bite. And we have tested at both Qatar and Jerez prior to the season beginning. In a month's time, the MotoGP circus ups sticks to move to Istanbul, a track the riders haven't visited for almost a year. How they will manage with tire selection then will be a real mystery.
But back to tomorrow: with the times so incredibly close, it's hard to make any kind of sensible predictions about Sunday's race. It's clear that Rossi, Checa, and possibly Pedrosa all have genuine race pace, and starting from the front of the grid, must be favorites for the victory. But there will be a veritable horde of riders breathing down their necks, ready to pounce on a single mistake. The racing could be closer than it's been in many, many years. I can't wait.