When qualifying practice started at Brno this afternoon, there was never any doubt about the outcome. Casey Stoner had dominated every single session of practice so far, despite finishing behind Sylvain Guintoli in yesterday's second free practice session, and the expectation was that the young Australian would come out on his Ducati and lay waste to the opposition, just as he has done all season. But Stoner's plan started to go awry from his very first lap.
As he rounded the track on his first lap after the practice start, Stoner could be seen shaking his foot and stamping on the peg and rear brake. He headed straight back into the pits, and sat waiting calmly while his team removed and replaced the entire braking circuit. Where others might be tempted to take out their second bikes, and test some tires, so confident was Stoner that he simply sat in the pits for nearly 20 minutes, waiting for the team to finish working on the number 1 bike.
Stoner's absence meant that other names could shine. By the time Stoner re-entered the track, four names had surfaced. John Hopkins continued his strong showing, leading the way and running consistent times in the 1'58s. His team mate Chris Vermeulen was not far behind, and the two Suzukis were joined by Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi. The Repsol Honda team had made some major changes to the world champion's bike, discarding most of the new parts they'd received from HRC since Laguna Seca, and Hayden was starting to look much more like the champion of old, working hard and being fast. Meanwhile, Rossi was back running close to the front, also consistently running 1'58s, and looking stronger than he had done during previous sessions.
Then, with 20 minutes gone, the Ducati team dispelled any hopes which the other teams may have been nursing. First, Loris Capirossi put in the fastest time of the day so far, setting a time of 1'58.074, taking 7/10ths of a second off Hopkins' fastest lap. And to add insult to injury, Casey Stoner, on his first flying lap out of the pits once his brake had been fixed, set the 2nd fastest time, running a set of three laps, all of which were faster than the current leaders. Stoner meant business.
With under 25 minutes to go, things started to hot up. The waiting had been for the first Kawasaki to put in a first lap, continuing their practice of taking an extra qualifier in the hope of achieving a better spot on the grid. But Kawasaki had been struggling here, neither Randy de Puniet nor Ant West able to do much at the track where Kawasaki have always gone poorly, for no clear reason.
Instead, it was the surprise of the weekend who shook things up once again. Sylvain Guintoli put an obviously improving Dunlop qualifier on to his Tech 3 Yamaha, and shot to 2nd spot, with a lap of 1'58.356. His time would not last, but he had already made his mark.
With 18 minutes left in the session, Guintoli was displaced by Chris Vermeulen, getting within 3/10ths of Loris Capirossi's time on the first of his qualifiers. But Guintoli was far from finished. A minute later, the young French rookie flashed across the line to take the provisional pole position with a time of 1'58.044.
By now, the rest of the field had put on their qualifying tires, and were all getting serious about a grid time. John Hopkins was the first rider to beat Guintoli, setting a lap of 1'57.857, but once again, it was Casey Stoner who reasserted his authority on the proceedings. Just seconds after Hopper crossed the line, Stoner shattered Hopkins' best time, setting a time of 1'57.066, nearly 8/10ths faster than the Suzuki man.
No one else would get close. With 4 minutes to go, Stoner cracked the 1'56 barrier, to strengthen the already vice-like grip he had on pole with a time of 1'56.884, a time beyond the reach of the rest. Nicky Hayden came closest, with a time of 1'57.164, taking second ahead of his Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa, just 15 thousandths behind.
John Hopkins, who has been impressive all weekend, will head up the second row, ahead of Randy de Puniet, who got his finaly qualifier to work in the dying seconds of the session, and Valentino Rossi with the 6th time. Loris Capirossi heads up the third row, ahead of Chris Vermeulen on the Suzuki and Colin Edwards on the second Fiat Yamaha, with Sylvain Guintoli finally securing 10th spot on the grid.
Looking beyond qualifying to race times, the picture is pretty clear. The only man capable of staying with the blistering pace set by Casey Stoner is John Hopkins, both men capable of consistently running low 1'58 laps. Nicky Hayden has found a few answers this afternoon, and could stay with the leaders on race day, with Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi not far behind.
But not far behind will not be good enough for The Doctor. Unless Yamaha and Michelin can find something tomorrow morning, Casey Stoner looks all but certain of taking another step closer to the title on Sunday, and Rossi's hopes are starting to fade. If Hopkins can fight with Stoner, and hold him up a little, it should be a classic race. But if Stoner gets away, it could be another massacre. Tomorrow will tell all.