After this morning's cold, damp and crash-ridden practice session, this afternoon saw better weather, a completely dry track, and a warning. The warning was aimed at the entire MotoGP field, the issuer was Ducati, and the message was that if they were scared by the Ducatis at Qatar, they should be terrified here. For perched atop the timesheets are the Marlboro Ducati team mates Casey Stoner and Loris Capirossi.
Stoner was fast almost from the start, setting the fastest time with 40 minutes of the session to go, and never relinquished the top spot, setting a succession of fast laps, culminating in a final sequence of laps inside the 1'54 bracket, the only man to do this. He topped the whole performance off with a fastest time of 1'54.2, nearly 8/10ths faster than second place man Loris Capirossi. Stoner has already won here in 250s, and on present form, he has to be the man to watch.
Loris Capirossi seems to have recovered from the shock of becoming a father, as the only other rider to have cracked the 1'54s, if only just. But he won't be satisfied with just the single fast lap he put in, as his lap times for the rest of the session were mostly worryingly low 1'56s. He could have found some speed at the end of the session, so we'll just have to see if he can build on it tomorrow.
In third place is John Hopkins on the Rizla Suzuki, less than a tenth behind Capirossi. Hopper is looking very strong this year, and his string of 1'55s suggests he could be on the pace, though not quite Stoner pace, for the race on Sunday. He could find himself in very good company indeed, as Valentino Rossi, who set the 4th fastest time, was running a similar pace throughout the session. Surprisingly, Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team mate Colin Edwards is running nowhere near as well, languishing down in 15th, 2 seconds off Stoner's time, and a second behind the fastest of the mere mortals. They obviously have some work to do in the Yamaha garage overnight.
The first RC212V on the sheet is Toni Elias' Hannspree Honda, Fat Toni setting the 5th fastest time, a fraction behind Rossi. But what is deeply worrying for Honda is the fact that Elias is the only Honda in the top 8, the next Honda man being Dani Pedrosa down in 9th. All of the Hondas had a very torrid day today, with the lack of front end feel which Nicky Hayden is complaining about increasingly loudly being graphically demonstrated by Marco Melandri and Shinya Nakano, who both fell losing the front, Melandri at the treacherous Turn 1, a downhill left-hander which really tests the front. World Champion Nicky Hayden is way down in 14th, his only consolation that he is keeping the man who was on the podium at Jerez three weeks ago behind him.
The two big surprises at the front are Kawasaki's Olivier Jacque in 6th and Pramac d'Antin Ducati's Alex Hofmann in 8th. Hofmann is making the most of his Ducati's speed, and could well have a very decent finish on Sunday, the hard work put in by the Pramac team finally starting to come off. But OJ's performance is a bit of a shocker. The French veteran has been pretty much the back marker for the first two races, totally outclassed by his team mate Randy de Puniet and the rest of the field, bar the Dunlop-shod Yamahas. But OJ's final run of decent 1'55 laps showed that he really does have the pace to run at the front on Sunday.
Providing the filling for the Surprise Sandwich was Chris Vermeulen, setting the 7th fastest time on his Rizla Suzuki. Vermeulen is showing solid progression, after falling some way behind his team mate in the first two races, despite being fast during winter testing.
Practice continues on Saturday morning, with Qualifying taking place on Saturday afternoon. The morning session is likely to be a bit of a washout again, with temperatures too cool to provide meaningful data, but come the afternoon, it all gets very, very serious. Pole position is at stake, and the final chance to find the setup needed for race day.