The rain that has been threatening Shanghai all weekend stayed away on Saturday, the day getting brighter and warmer, and the haze that obscured the view down the long back straight gradually drawing up its veil on a fascinating's day of practice. The morning's free practice session saw times improved by nearly 3/4 of a second, and set a benchmark for the kind of pace that will be necessary to win a race, with John Hopkins and Casey Stoner running consistent laps in the high 2:00 mark.
So an expectant, and thankfully, clearer air hung over the afternoon's qualifying practice session. From the start, the surprise of Shanghai continued at the front, John Hopkins quickly setting the fastest lap time on his Rizla Suzuki, and improving on it over the course of his first very long run of 15 laps, nearly 3/4 race distance. Hopkins held the advantage until 5 minutes before the halfway mark, when the odds-on favorite to win Sunday's race put in a very quick lap of 2'00.311 to set the fastest time of the weekend so far, during a sequence of laps in the mid 2'00 bracket.
Stoner's lead was not to be long-lived however, as within a couple of minutes, Frenchman Randy de Puniet had put on his usual set of early qualifiers to become the first rider to crack the 1'59 mark, setting a lap of 1'59.985. The conventional approach to tires is to only take 2 qualifiers, now that new regulations restrict the number of tires taken, but ever since the first race in Qatar, de Puniet has ignored such thinking, taking an extra rear qualifier in the hope of improving his grid position. Other riders are now cottoning on to the young Kawasaki rider's trick, and with 25 minutes to go, Alex Hofmann of the Pramac d'Antin Ducati team roared across the line to set the second fastest time on a qualifier.
All eyes were now on the works Ducati team, and their young rider Casey Stoner, the man leading the world championship and winner of 2 of the 3 races run so far this year. The Ducati's speed down the back straight was not in question, Alex Barros having been clocked at 332 km/h, or around 208 mph. Surely Stoner would wrest back the pole position, the only question being by how much. But the next time we saw Casey Stoner it was not the sight of the young Australian flashing across the finish line having set a new pole time. Instead, it was Stoner sitting up rapidly going into Turn 1, the clutch pulled in, and the engine of his Ducati Desmosedici GP07 seized solid, judging by the way his rear wheel skidded as Stoner tentatively released the clutch to see if the bike would start. No official word has yet been released about the cause of Stoner's pull-up, but although Turn 1 is at the end of the shorter of the two long straights, the suspicion must be that the stresses of those straights are taking their toll on the engines, especially one as highly strung as the Ducati. The bikes spend 9 seconds at full throttle in top gear down the back straight, 3 seconds longer than last year, and a very long time for an engine turning at over 19,000 rpm. Stoner's engine blow up could well be an omen of things to come on Sunday, especially if the weather is hotter than it was during Qualifying. It will be interesting to see if the Ducati's top speed is diminished during the warm up on Sunday morning, a sure sign that the Ducati engineers have decided it to play it safe and turn the engine down a few notches, from what is reputed to be its highest setting of "11".
With 15 minutes to go, the dogs of war were unleashed, as ever they are at this point in qualifying, and the timing screens were awash with red and blue of riders setting fast times. Shinya Nakano, who has done so poorly so far this season, stormed to 4th spot; Nicky Hayden blew through into 2nd, only to have Yamaha's Colin Edwards take 2nd from him a minute later, with a time just 2/1000ths shy of the 2'00 mark. A couple of moments later, John Hopkins flew through into 3rd place, pushing Hayden down the standings, and behind Hopkins, Randy de Puniet came close to improving his time, but fell just a few thousandths short of improving his own best time.
But behind them all, The Doctor was coming. His intermediate times had been astonishing, and as he crossed the line, those watching fell speechless. Valentino Rossi, on a bike with 190 cc less displacement and significantly less power than last year, on the track with the longest straights and the highest top speeds, destroyed last year's pole record time by nearly 9/10ths of a second, setting a fastest lap of 1'58.424. A time 1.5 seconds faster than de Puniet's previous fastest lap. Rossi rode what is surely as close to a perfect lap as it is possible to come, Michelin's front qualifying tire allowing Rossi to brake deeper and harder into turns, and maintain more corner speed than ever before.
Behind Rossi, Marco Melandri's 2nd place-setting time went almost unnoticed, despite being faster than previous pole sitter Randy de Puniet's. But Melandri's time, as good as it was, was still some 1.4 seconds slower. The question was, with 8 minutes left in the session, could anybody beat it?
The answer took until the end of the session to come. Many tried, and many improved their times, some of them trying by hanging onto the tail of the Ducati to do so, much to the annoyance of Casey Stoner, but the only man to even get close was The Doctor himself, Valentino Rossi demonstrating that his pole time was no fluke, setting a second lap in the mid-1'58s, just a tenth short of his amazing record lap.
As the clock finally ticked down, Rossi sat regally on pole, with a handsome margin of nearly 0.9 seconds back to second place man John Hopkins, the only other man to break Dani Pedrosa's pole record. Hopkins has been very impressive indeed all weekend, and anyone looking at the lap times Hopkins can run during his long practice session can do nothing but conclude that Hopper has an outstanding chance of taking his first podium on Sunday. Hopkins ended as the filling in a Fiat Yamaha sandwich, with Colin Edwards returning to Texas Tornado form to take 3rd. Edwards was fast on a qualifying tire, but there are doubts about his race pace. Edwards can hit low 2'01s all day, but it looks like it will need 2'00s to win this race.
In 4th spot, at the front of the second row, sits Casey Stoner on the Marlboro Ducati. Stoner is having his toughest weekend of the season so far, with pressure mounting as they young Australian leads the championship. Added to this pressure is his anger at several riders, and Toni Elias in particular, who have spent the practice sessions hanging around at the start of the back straight waiting for the Ducati to pass, both to grab a tow and improve their times, but also to see how much they are losing down the straight, and how much they can gain on the brakes going into the slow hairpin at the end. The Ducati's blown engine, if that's what it was, has piled on even more worries. Stoner will face his first real test of character on Sunday, and if his bike holds together, we will now what he is made of. The young Aussie has race pace, but he have race toughness?
In 5th spot sits last year's pole sitter and race winner, Dani Pedrosa. The Spanish prodigy is facing his longest winless spell ever, and is quickly coming up on a year since his last victory. Pedrosa simply dominated here in 2006, and though he is clearly the best of the Hondas, he starts from a much weaker position than last year. Pedrosa seems to have found the necessary pace on race settings during qualifying, and was the only bike gatecrashing the Ducati party in the top speed charts, but he will have to stay with the leading pack to stand a chance of a repeat.
Where the gaps between 2nd to 5th spot are negligible, Gresini Honda man Marco Melandri sits in 6th place on the grid, a quarter of a second behind Pedrosa, and is just off the pace in terms of race pace. 7th place man Randy de Puniet, who held the fastest lap time for a large part of the session, seems to be closer to having race pace, and with the extra horses that Kawasaki have found helping him stay with the Ducatis down the back straight, could be the surprise package on Sunday.
Pramac d'Antin's Alex Barros put the fastest Ducati down the back straight into 8th spot, ahead of reigning world champion Nicky Hayden. The Kentucky Kid has had more new parts for his Honda RC212V, and as each session progresses, seems to be coming to terms with the new bike more and more. Though he is still a little short of pace for Sunday, with every race, Hayden gets closer to putting up the kind of title defense he believes is worthy of world champion. Shinya Nakano rounds out the top 10 on the Konica Minolta Honda, another rider who is slowly getting to grips with the new bike, and in Super Shinya's case, the new tires. Nakano is clearly stronger on qualifiers, but is still a second down on the times needed to run at the front during the race.
So, despite all the speculation before the start of the weekend, the Ducatis have so far failed to dominate anything but the speed charts. Loris Capirossi, Stoner's veteran team mate, is languishing way down in 14th spot on the grid, not where you would expect him to be after his podium spot at Istanbul 2 weeks ago. In fact, if you had predicted the Ducatis would be 4th, 8th, 11th and 14th on the grid, you would have been laughed out of the room. But that is exactly where they stand. Capirex can take some small comfort from finishing ahead of Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, who continues to put in poor qualifying performances. But his grid position may once again turn out to be deceptive, as he is much closer to the necessary race pace than his lowly 15th spot suggests. That Capirossi and Vermeulen should be together on the grid is somehow very apt, as both men came together and crashed while they were trying to set fast laps. Fortunately, neither rider was hurt, but Capirossi's leathers tore open on his upper arm, probably as a result of being trapped by the bike, a rather worrying development after something similar happened to Olivier Jacque, where the Frenchman suffered a very serious gash to his upper arm during practice yesterday.
All in all, it looks like being a fascinating race on Sunday, pitting Stoner's and Pedrosa's flat out top speed against Rossi's and Hopkins' agility and strength in braking. All the signs are that we could have a repeat of Qatar on our hands, with three nationalities on four makes of bike dueling it out for the top honors. On paper, if Stoner still has company on the final lap, you would still have to say that Stoner should win it, by powering away from everyone down the back straight. But that means he will have to stay with Rossi and Hopkins till the end. All will be revealed on Sunday.