This afternoon's qualifying at Laguna Seca turned out to be a very strange affair. Despite the appearance of normality, with Casey Stoner taking the top spot almost from the very first lap the riders made of the Laguna Circuit, after just 10 minutes, the session was red-flagged after Marco Melandri had a very nasty-looking accident, clipping a slow Kurtis Roberts while Melandri was going very fast, running wide into Turn 4 and being unable to stay on the bike, tumbling in the dirt before getting up very shaken.
Melandri's crash, and the aftermath, shed a rather poor light on the Laguna Seca circuit, both in terms of safety and facilities. The run-off area outside Turn 4 is hard-packed dirt, rather than the gravel that you might find at a more modern track, meaning that when you hit the ground here, it hurts pretty good. Then, the fact that the session had to be red-flagged doesn't speak well for the track either: Some air fencing had to be reinflated, and the access for the medical vehicles couldn't be provided via access roads, but had to be done in front of the crash barriers, making it too dangerous to race. The corner workers and staff were all extremely professional, and acted very quickly, but the fact that a practice session has to be red-flagged because of a relatively run-of-the-mill crash is very bad for a track. Laguna struggles with room, of course, the magnificent rolling nature of the landscape which gives the track its character also making it difficult, and very expensive, to create facilities such as deep gravel beds and access roads, but these aspects will have to be examined if Laguna wants to stay on the MotoGP calendar indefinitely.
Once the session resumed, it was Casey Stoner ruling the roost once again. With 18 minutes gone, Stoner cracked the 1'23 barrier, setting a time of 1'22.964. A minute later, Dani Pedrosa moved up to 2nd with a time just under 2/10ths quicker, with Loris Capirossi, who'd been struggling in earlier sessions, popping up into 3rd. Capirossi was not to enjoy his provisional place on the front row for long though, as within a minute, Valentino Rossi had pushed the Ducati man down a place.
For the next 6 minutes, no one looked capable of getting anywhere near Casey Stoner's times, although there were one or two surprises further down the field. Roger Lee Hayden, taking a wildcard ride on the Kawasaki, shot up into 6th spot for a while, but this was not to last. Then, just as Valentino Rossi looked like setting a very fast lap, he was balked by John Hopkins, thwarting his run.
With just over half an hour to go, Chris Vermeulen started setting a quick series of laps. The Rizla Suzuki man loves Laguna Seca, and it showed, as he climbed up the provisional grid lap by lap, taking 4th, then 2nd, and then the provisional pole, with a lap of 1'22.906. Next lap out, he surprised everyone, taking over 3/10ths of a second off his provisional pole time, to claim a new pole record of 1'22.590, under Nicky Hayden's 2005 pole record by nearly 1/10th of a second. The most shocking thing about this is that he set that new pole record not on sticky qualifying tires, but on ordinary, partly worn race tires, a signal of just how fast Vermeulen is around here.
The waiting was now on for the first set of qualifiers to come on. Normally, Randy de Puniet can be relied upon to take a set shortly after the halfway mark, but here in the US, we waited in vain. To relieve the tension of the Q-tire wait, and much to the relief of the watching crowd, Marco Melandri returned to action, obviously banged up and stiff from his crash, but not seriously injured. He took 4 laps to get to speed, but he was soon back running 1'23s with the rest of the field.
The first rider who looked like he was on a qualifier was quite a surprise. Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha's Makoto Tamada was running exceptionally well, taking 5th spot halfway through the session, and continually looking like threatening, a real first for the Dunlops. But the first big movement came from the only man to win here at Laguna Seca: With just under a quarter of an hour to go, Nicky Hayden jumped up to 2nd spot, with a fast lap of 1'22.883, on his third lap with that particular tire. Was it a qualifier? No one was sure, but as he came in, it was clear that the next tire on would be, the Repsol Honda mechanics waiting with a brand new set of tires for the Kentucky Kid.
Now, the hot laps started coming thick and fast. Rossi moved up to 4th, while Hopkins improved his standing to 8th, still rather disappointing for the rider most local to the track. With 8 minutes to go Casey Stoner looked like snatching back pole, but the Australian ran wide at Turn 6, heading into the dirt up the hill and losing a lot of time. Instead of coming in for fresh rubber, though, Stoner continued on, and on his next lap, still managed to get close to his own best time, only coming up short after being running up behind Alex Barros going into the final Turn 11.
Where Casey Stoner failed, Dani Pedrosa succeeded, as with 5 minutes left in the session, the Repsol Honda prodigy blew over the line with a time of 1'22.501, snatching the pole from Vermeulen. It was clear that things were getting serious now, and everyone who was out, was fast. John Hopkins running wide was a measure of just how serious it was getting.
With 2 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi took the 3rd fastest time, getting on to the front row, a crucial factor here at the narrow and twisty Laguna Seca track. Then, just as John Hopkins looked like setting another fast time, he ran into a cruising Carlos Checa, motoring around on his out lap before getting his head down for a qualifying lap. Hopkins was furious, and lashed out at Checa, gesticulating wildly and trying to kick the Spaniard as they ran up the hill. And moments later, Valentino Rossi saw his front row spot taken away from him, as Nicky Hayden grabbed 3rd spot from The Doctor.
With less than a minute left on the clock, the pole was starting to look safely in Dani Pedrosa's hands, but that was reckoning without Casey Stoner. On his penultimate lap, just before the checkered flag was waved, the Australian championship leader beat Pedrosa's time by 0.14 seconds, setting a new pole record with a time of 1'22.361. But his pole record was not to last long, as on Stoner's next lap, he improved on his own pole time, setting a new pole record of 1'22.292.
With the exception of Stoner, the field is pretty close, with just over half a second separating Vermeulen in 2nd from a much improved Shinya Nakano in 9th. One second covers the first 15 riders, and that's including the 2/10ths advantage which Stoner has over the rest. But the qualifying times don't quite tell the whole story.
Looking at the full lap times, one name jumps out at you. Where Stoner, Pedrosa, Hayden, Rossi, Capirossi and the rest of the field all set their fastest laps on qualifying tires, Chris Vermeulen, the man in 3rd place on the grid, set his fastest lap on race tires, during a run of 5 fast laps. 2 of those laps were low 1'23s, and the other two were 1'22s, and that kind of pace looks pretty much effortless to the Australian Suzuki rider. Where race pace looks likely to be in the low 1'23s, Vermeulen's race pace seems to be about 2/10ths faster. We could be in for a repeat of last year, where Chris Vermeulen walked away from the rest of the field, with the exception of Nicky Hayden, until his engine developed fuel problems in the heat. It's not forecast to be as hot tomorrow as it was last year, and so there could be no stopping Vermeulen. Tomorrow will tell us all we need to know.