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Alstare To MotoGP, With Schwantz, Biaggi and Spies?

With silly season now in full swing, the latest news comes from Alstare Suzuki, a World Superbike team. It seems that according to Eurosport, Francis Batta, Alstare's team boss, is leaning towards a move to MotoGP, as reported earlier. The surprising news, though, are the names being mentioned in Batta's statement. Obviously, the Belgian team's long association with Suzuki would continue, with Batta claiming that Suzuki has reached agreement with Dorna on running two extra bikes in MotoGP next year, but along with Suzuki comes another big name: The team would be run by Kevin Schwantz, former world champion and long time Suzuki associate. Obviously, Batta would bring his star rider, Max Biaggi from Superbikes, but in order to strengthen his sponsorship appeal, the team would also like to bring in Ben Spies, current AMA superbike champion, and currently tied for points in this year's championship.

Although the prospect of Alstare in MotoGP is a fascinating one, there are several reasons why the story should be taken with a pinch of salt. Batta is currently engaged in a war of words with Ducati and FGSport, the organizers of the World Superbike championship, about Ducati's desire to see the rules changed for twins, allowing manufacturers to homologate 1200 cc two cylinder bikes. Batta has already threatened to leave WSBK if Ducati gets its way, fearing the four cylinder bikes will be totally outclassed by the larger capacity twins, despite both running the same state of tune. This announcement fits perfectly in Batta's strategy of attempting to get his own way.

Then there's the riders. Max Biaggi can barely contain his delight at the World Superbike paddock, fitting in much better in the less formal, more family atmosphere of WSBK. Whether he would give this up to go back racing in MotoGP is unclear. Then there's Ben Spies. The American has made no secret of his interest in MotoGP, but his interest was thought to have waned after he signed a 3 year contract with Yoshimura Suzuki to race in the AMA. What's more, Ben Spies is thought to be 4 inches too tall and 40 pounds too heavy to ride a MotoGP bike, and a far cry from pint-sized jockey build believed to be ideal for the premier class.

And besides the riders, there's the bikes. It seems clear that Suzuki will bring at least one more bike to MotoGP next year, but rumors have centered so far on Jorge Aspar, who has stated his intention to enter a one-man team in MotoGP, probably with the current 250 rider Alex de Angelis.

Whether Batta is genuine about his intention to move to MotoGP, or is just using this as a way of putting pressure on FGSport, we shall have to see. In the Eurosport story, Batta says his chances are "60% MotoGP, 40% WSBK". We should know come November.

~~~ UPDATE ~~~

It seems that there is more information over at Superbikeplanet.com. The King of Soup, Dean Adams, describes the story as being "pulled from a folder labeled: "WHAT I WROTE ON MY LAST ACID TRIP", and frankly, he may not be far from the mark.

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Pedrosa Holding Fire On HRC Renewal

Dani Pedrosa is keeping his options for 2008 open, it seems. The young Spaniard, who was widely expected to be the main challenger to Valentino Rossi for the title this season, has had an offer to renew his contract with Repsol Honda for the past month, but he and his management have put a decision on the contract on hold. Pedrosa has been a loyal Honda rider since he first entered GPs in 2001, riding 3 seasons in the 125 class, 2 in 250s, and now into his second season on board a MotoGP bike.

Logic dictates that Pedrosa will eventually sign on once again with Honda for the next two years. After all, there are many rides as good as the Repsol Honda in the MotoGP paddock. But one seat may become vacant next year, a seat which is look particularly attractive just at the moment. Loris Capirossi has made no secret of his displeasure with Ducati, after seeing his young team mate come into the Ducati garage, win 3 of the 5 races so far, and garner all of the attention, and presumably support, of the Ducati team. Capirossi, who has been with the Bologna-based factory since Ducati's return to MotoGP, feels rather betrayed by the lack of support he has received, blaming this for his relatively poor results so far this season. As a consequence, the chances are high that Capirossi could leave the Italian team at the end of the year, either to retire, or, it is whispered, to go and join Kawasaki, who have made major steps forward since the start of the season. Kawasaki are known to be looking for big name riders, to try and attract sponsorship, and regain a spot at the front of the field, and Capirossi could be just what they're looking for.

The one thing standing in the way of Pedrosa joining Ducati is the question of whether the Italian factory want to have an Italian rider in the team. With Casey Stoner in with a very real chance at the title this year, his position is virtually unassailable, which would mean that any vacancy created by the departure of Capirossi would see Italian riders getting preferential treatment. The options for Ducati would seem to be Marco Melandri, or possibly either Andrea Dovizioso or Alex de Angelis, if they move up from 250s, leaving Dani Pedrosa out in the cold.

The source of this story is fairly circumlocutory: It came here via the Spanish daily sports paper AS.com's website, which quotes the Spanish magazine Solo Moto, which is known to have outstanding contacts inside the MotoGP padddoc.

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Aprilia "May Return To MotoGP"

Despite the worries about shrinking grids, a lack of sponsors and disappearing manufacturers, as the ultimate prize in motorcycle racing, MotoGP remains a tempting prospect for manufacturers. Today, another manufacturer shocked the racing world, as Roberto Colaninno, CEO of the Piaggio Group, announced that Aprilia could return to MotoGP in the next 3 years. Speaking at the introduction of the Aprilia Shiver, a 750 cc road bike, Colaninno first made public what the racing community had suspected for some time, that Aprilia will return to World Superbikes in 2009. No mention was made of which model would be raced, but there has been much talk of a new Aprilia V4 to be introduced at the Milan show in November. But the big surprise was the announcement that Aprilia were also seriously considering a return to MotoGP. MotoGrandPrix.it quoted Colaninno as saying:

"We will be returning to Superbikes, and we will have to see about MotoGP. MotoGP is a natural development of Aprilia's racing program, so I cannot exclude the possibility that we will return to the premier class in the next 3 years."

Earlier rumors had Aprilia making a return running Ilmor X3's with Aprilia stickers on the tank, much as Derbi runs in the 125 class, but Ilmor's precipitate withdrawal from MotoGP earlier this year put an end to any such plans which may have existed. But the rumor raised the worrying specter that Aprilia had learned nothing from their earlier foray into MotoGP with the RS3 Cube, which was powered by another Formula 1-inspired engine, a triple built by Cosworth. Apart from being the most fantastic sounding MotoGP bike so far, the Cube had a fearsome reputation for vicious power delivery and engine management problems. The bike made huge amounts of power from its very introduction, and may have been the most powerful bike on the grid, but the electronics were flaky, often flinging Colin Edwards, Nori Haga, Jeremy McWilliams and Shane Byrne off into the gravel.

Another remarkable thing about this announcement is that Aprilia have also threatened to pull out of the 125 and 250 classes, if Dorna and the FIM change the rules to ban two strokes, and switch to a four stroke formula. Aprilia currently dominates both classes, and supplies the majority of the grid with bikes, so an Aprilia withdrawal would virtually wipe out the class, especially as KTM has announced its intention to do likewise. So an entry into MotoGP, more or less at the same time that Aprilia are withdrawing from the smaller classes, seems a very odd thing to do.

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2007 MotoGP Championship Standings

Final MotoGP World Championship Standings After Round 18, Valencia, Spain:

                      
1 STONER Casey AUS 367 2007 World Champion
2 PEDROSA Dani SPA 242 -125
3 ROSSI Valentino ITA 241 -126
4 HOPKINS John USA 189 -178
5 MELANDRI Marco ITA 187 -180
6 VERMEULEN Chris AUS 179 -188
7 CAPIROSSI Loris ITA 166 -201
8 HAYDEN Nicky USA 127 -240
9 EDWARDS Colin USA 124 -243
10 BARROS Alex BRA 115 -252
11 DE PUNIET Randy FRA 108 -259
12 ELIAS Toni SPA 104 -263
13 HOFMANN Alex GER 65 -302
14 CHECA Carlos SPA 65 -302
15 WEST Anthony AUS 59 -308
16 GUINTOLI Sylvain FRA 50 -317
17 NAKANO Shinya JPN 47 -320
18 TAMADA Makoto JPN 38 -329
19 ROBERTS Kurtis USA 10 -357
20 HAYDEN Roger Lee USA 6 -361
21 FABRIZIO Michel ITA 6 -361
22 NIETO Fonsi SPA 5 -362
23 JACQUE Olivier FRA 4 -363
24 ROBERTS JR Kenny USA 4 -363
25 AOKI Nobuatsu JPN 3 -364
26 ITO Shinichi JPN 1 -366

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Le Mans Post Race MotoGP Test - Day 2

Intermittent rain once again made testing difficult on the second and last day of the Le Mans post-race test. The difficult conditions made several teams decide to skip the test and go home early. This didn't stop times from being fast though, as several teams ran a series of race simulations. Valentino Rossi was fastest, and spent time testing revised chassis parts, as well as new engine parts, presumably in an attempt to increase the top end which Yamaha so sorely lacks. Dani Pedrosa was 2nd fastest, ahead of Toni Elias. The next time the riders meet on track is at Mugello in a week and a half.

1 Valentino Rossi Fiat Yamaha Team 1'34.61
2 Dani Pedrosa Repsol Honda Team 1'34.63
3 Toni Elias Honda Gresini 1'34.81
4 Nicky Hayden Repsol Honda Team 1'34.86
5 Marco Melandri Honda Gresini 1'35.13
6 Colin Edwards Fiat Yamaha Team 1'35.52
7 Makoto Tamada Dunlop Yamaha Tech 3 1'36.11

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Hopkins To Kawasaki For 2008?

Toby Moody over on Autosport.com has revealed that John Hopkins is currently in talks with Kawasaki for the 2008 season. The American, currently with Suzuki, has, like many other riders, been impressed with the progress of the Kawasaki since the beginning of the season. The linkup also makes promotional sense, as Hopkins' personal sponsor, Monster Energy, currently supports the factory Kawasaki effort in the AMA, and the brand's logo is green, making for a very nice tie in with Kawasaki's corporate colors. Talks between Kawasaki and Hopkins' management are expected to take place at Mugello, although an announcement is unlikely to be made much before the end of the season.

Other riders are also said to be interested, the name being mentioned most frequently being that of Loris Capirossi, who has struggled to get to grips with the Ducati GP7 so far. Although the 2008 season is still a long way off, the silly season is already in full swing.

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Team KR To Get Help - Kurtis To Join Kenny JR At Mugello And Barcelona

After Kenny Roberts Jr's strong showing in the latter half of the 2006 season, hopes were high that Team KR could be podium regulars in 2007, opening up a cheaper way for private teams to compete in MotoGP. But 2007 has not gotten off to the start which the team had hoped. To a large extent, this is unsurprising, as when Honda decided to change engine layout from a V5 to a V4, this affected not just HRC themselves, but also Team KR, who use the Honda powerplant as the basis of their KR212V bike. As consequence, Team KR are suffering similar problems to the other Honda teams, with the Honda RC212V so far being a great deal less competitive than everyone expected. But where Honda is the largest and richest motorcycle manufacturer involved in MotoGP, and can afford to throw money and engineers at a problem in order to solve it, Team KR is a small private operation with limited resources. Though they may be able to solve a number of problems with ingenuity, they lack the funds to be able to put in the long hours of testing which developing a racing motorcycle demands.

Last year, Team KR received some help from Honda, who gave some advice about the chassis, which helped transform the KR211V into a competitive package. This year, however, HRC have too many problems of their own. And so the team has had to look elsewhere for assistance. That assistance will once again come from inside the Roberts family: Kurtis Roberts, who left the NFS Racing team in AMA just a couple of weeks ago, looks likely to be drafted in to help develop the KR212V alongside his brother Kenny Jr in his father's team. Team manager Chuck Acksland confirmed to this website that Team KR is likely to have Kurtis ride for them at Mugello and Barcelona, and possibly for several more rounds. Kurtis Roberts is no stranger to the team, having ridden the Proton KR during 2004, and substituting in 2005 at Valencia. He is a talented rider, winning 3 AMA championships in 1999 and 2000, but has been criticized for his lack of focus. But as a development rider within his father's team, he could have a valuable contribution to make.

The fly in Team KR's ointment is that the will not get an extra allocation of engines from Honda to help them out. Team KR currently have 5 engines, which would allow the team to run two bikes for each rider, and still have a spare engine. Unfortunately, the Honda is rather fragile so far this season, as the hole in Kenny Roberts Jr's crankcase which caused him to retire on the last couple of laps of the Le Mans race can testify. So if anything goes wrong, or bikes are destroyed as a result of a crash, the team could quickly run out of engines.

But developing a racing motorcycle is a difficult process, and Kurtis joining the team could be the development boost which the team needs. Both Kenny Sr and Kenny Jr have complained that running just a single rider has limited their ability to get the bike to the state it needs to be to run with the leaders, so Kurtis may help alleviate that problem.

Kurtis Roberts may not be the only rider to join Team KR. Aksland also admitted that the team has discussed adding a British rider to the team for the British Grand Prix at Donington, which, despite the large American component of the team, is their home race, being run just a few miles from the team's Northamptonshire base. No details on who is being considered for the ride have been forthcoming, though the name of Neil Hodgson is sure to come up in this context.

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Le Mans Post Race MotoGP Test - Day 1

Despite putting in a hard day's work yesterday, the MotoGP teams were out testing at Le Mans today. The track was damp, making testing difficult and leaving a lot of riders in the garage, especially after a shower made conditions worse. The weather finally got to playing ball, and by 4:30 the sun was out and the track began to properly dry.

There was far from a full complement of riders though: Guintoli skipped the test, after hurting his elbows and legs in a vicious highside during the rain-sodden race, and the session started without Nicky Hayden, resting the ribs he damaged in the big crash at the Esses. Hayden was able to join in the afternoon.

The times were comparable to those set during the qualifying practice, if set under less favorable conditions. Dani Pedrosa was fastest, ahead of John Hopkins and Championship leader Casey Stoner.

~~~ UPDATED ~~~

Suzuki had already announced that they would be testing a new engine, which would be "something special", according to whispers coming out of Hamamatsu. Now it seems that MotoGrandPrix.it is reporting that due to a mix up with the timing gear, the time reported for Hopkins was very conservative, and that the American actually lapped half a second quicker. This would make Hopkins the fastest man on race tires by a long way, and promises to mess with Ducati's plans at Mugello. We will keep our ears to the ground for more news.

Times:

1 Dani Pedrosa Repsol Honda Team 1'35.0s 70
2 John Hopkins Rizla Suzuki MotoGP 1'35.0s
3 Casey Stoner Ducati Marlboro Team 1'35.0s 44
4 Toni Elias Honda Gresini 1'35.1s 58
5 Valentino Rossi Fiat Yamaha Team 1'35.3s 66
6 Loris Capirossi Ducati Marlboro Team 1'35.4s 50
7 Carlos Checa LCR Honda 1'35.4s 76
8 Colin Edwards Fiat Yamaha Team 1'35.6s 59
9 Marco Melandri Honda Gresini 1'35.7 66
10 Nicky Hayden Repsol Honda Team 1'35.9s 40
11 Makoto Tamada Tech 3 Yamaha 1'36.6s
12 Chris Vermeulen Rizla Suzuki MotoGP No time given

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2007 Le Mans MotoGP Qualifying Practice Report - Day 2 - The Tornado Touches Down

Fate must be having a crackdown on hubris. Just as in Shanghai, where the predicted Ducati domination failed to materialize, Le Mans has once again proven the pundits to be quite wrong. Those who are supposed to know about these things had forecast that in France, the roles would be reversed, and the Yamahas would make all the running, with the Ducatis desperately trying to keep up, and not lose too much ground, and the Hondas struggling at the back. I was one of those voices, but today's thrilling qualifying has proved us all comprehensively wrong.

The session started fairly sunny and warm, and though there were worries that clouds, and maybe even some light rain, might spoil play, the weather cooperated, leaving us to enjoy a fascination session. From the outset, John Hopkins set out to prove that the fastest time he set in this morning's session was no fluke, and Hopper's Suzuki and Casey Stoner's Ducati contested the top spot for the first 10 minutes or so, the American and the Australian pushing each other further into the 1'35 bracket. After less than 10 minutes, Stoner set the fastest time of the weekend, with a 1'35.109, but he did not have to wait long for a response. Three minutes later, the Anglo-American became the first rider to crack into the 1'34s, with a lap of 1'34.963.

Stoner and Edwards were joined at the top of the lap charts by the American veteran Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado became the second rider to crack the 1'34 barrier, taking 2nd spot ahead of Stoner. Behind Stoner, Dani Pedrosa headed up Marco Melandri, with Alex Barros sitting around 6th spot on the Pramac Ducati.

While the rest of the field seemed to be concentrating on testing race tires and finding a setup for Sunday, Kawasaki struck. With just over a third of the session gone, Randy de Puniet put on his first qualifying tire, an event which, like Christmas, just seems to keep getting earlier. The young Frenchman was obviously hoping to take advantage of a lull in activity on the track to secure a strong starting position for his home Grand Prix, and though he set the fastest time of the session so far, with a 1'34.837, it was obvious even at this stage that this was going to be a long way short of the what it would take to clinch pole.

Behind de Puniet, reigning world champion Nicky Hayden was improving, climbing from 8th place to temporarily take the 5th fastest time. While Hayden had been expected to struggle, and was doing better than anticipated, the opposite was true of Valentino Rossi. The Doctor had come to Le Mans hoping to expunge the memory of last year's disastrous race, where he dropped out with mechanical problems while charging through the field on his way to the front, but he has struggled to find pace in almost every session so far. Just before the halfway mark, Rossi climbed up from 9th to 7th, but still a long way behind where he would need to start from on Sunday. Where team mate Edwards has found a good setup almost from the off, The Doctor just can't seem to get his Fiat Yamaha set up to his liking.

As the clock ticked down to the 20 minute to go mark, the first batch of (non-Kawasaki) qualifiers came out, and times began to tumble. First Melandri improved his time, then Alex Barros, then with 22 minutes left, Shinya Nakano came out with the first of his qualifiers to take 2nd spot, after good for the fastest time for much of the lap. But Nakano's time at the top of the lap charts was to be short lived.

3 minutes later, Casey Stoner was out on a fast lap. To see Stoner setting fast section times was much as we expected, but trailing in Stoner's wake was the surprise of the session so far: French Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha rider Sylvain Guintoli was flying, tracking Stoner as the Australian chased towards the fastest time. Stoner flashed across the finish line to set provisional pole, but his time was to last for less than half a second. For in Stoner's slipstream came Guintoli, delighting the Le Mans crowd and the Dunlop garage with a highly respectable 1'34.716. Still a long way off what would be needed to secure pole, but a great result for Dunlop, and proof that the British tire maker is rapidly closing on the two big names in MotoGP.

Guintoli could savor his position for a full five minutes before reality set in, in the shape of Carlos Checa. With a quarter of an hour to go, the Spaniard, whose LCR Honda team is at the very bottom of the HRC food chain when it comes to getting new parts to help with the fraught RC212V, came within spitting distance of the 1'33 barrier, setting a time of 1'34.038, 5/100ths of a second off Dani Pedrosa's pole time from last year. Checa has been surprisingly strong all weekend, his fastest time of the session so far confirming his form.

The track was now virtually deserted, as the pits became a hive of activity, tires and wheels littering the garage fronts. With 11 minutes to, John Hopkins climbed to 2nd position, still shy of the 1'33 marker, while the track filled up with riders. The times started coming thick and fast, the timing screens awash with red and blue helmets. Rossi, Hayden and Stoner all vied for 3rd in the 9th minute, while one minute later, Carlos Checa strengthened his grip on pole, smashing the 1'33 barrier with a time of 1'33.859, taking over a tenth of a second of Dani Pedrosa's existing pole record. Behind Checa, Colin Edwards confirmed his form, taking 2nd with a time just shy of the 1'33s.

With 2 minutes to, the riders were out putting in their last gasp attempts at taking pole. Hopkins and Elias came up short, but the Wizard of Oz did not: Casey Stoner looked like having wrapped up pole position with time to spare, smashing Checa's time by over a tenth, with a lap of 1'33.710. Valentino Rossi looked like stealing Stoner's thunder, but came up just short, while Nicky Hayden climbed once again into 5th.

The pole seemed settled, with everyone out setting fast laps, but all looked out of contention with Stoner. The only man with a shot was Colin Edwards. But Edwards was 0.2 seconds down at the first intermediate timing section, losing a fraction more in the second section, and clawing back a fraction in the third section. Then, the Texas Tornado touched down, and laid waste to everything in his path: Through the final section, Edwards not only made good the 0.2 seconds he was down, he took off another tenth in a convincing display of all-out riding, to clinch the first MotoGP pole of his career. He had fallen heavily in the morning session, and walked way unhurt, and having decided that "the ground doesn't hurt that bad," he risked everything to take a deserved pole.

Edwards' fantastic first pole rather overshadowed Casey Stoner's great 2nd position. Ducati had been expected to struggle here, but if this is what Stoner looks like when he's struggling, then both Nicky Hayden's title defense and Valentino Rossi's title challenge are starting to look in real trouble. Carlos Checa takes the 3rd, and the final spot on the front of the grid, another rider who was not expected to do well at Le Mans, despite his previous strong showings here.

Checa's strong performance, and his team mate's incredible pole, pushed Valentino Rossi down to 4th. Starting from the 2nd row of the grid will not be what The Doctor ordered, especially as he is having so much trouble with his race set up. Far from being his to lose, the Le Mans race looks like being another incredibly tough fight for Rossi. And besides him, sits another man who can get in his way: John Hopkins has looked very strong all weekend, and will be out to improve on his podium from last week. He has the pace, and the Suzuki's new engine has given him just a little bit more of an edge. And to add to Rossi's troubles, the Wild Man of MotoGP, Terrible Toni Elias is with him on the second row, taking 6th spot on the grid. With Le Mans' first chicane being a notorious first-lap trouble spot, having Toni The Torpedo putting on a repeat of Shanghai is the last thing Rossi will want.

Behind Elias, Nicky Hayden is the first of the Repsol Hondas in 7th. The Kentucky Kid is slowly returning to form, and the stop-and-go nature of Le Mans is merciful indeed to the Honda's weaknesses. Although Hayden is 3rd Honda on the grid, he will be glad to be not too far off the front, and ahead of his team mate. Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet will have hoped for a better starting position for his home Grand Prix, but the young Frenchman's policy of taking an extra qualifier has yet to pay off, only managing 8th, ahead of Marco Melandri on the Gresini Honda in 9th. Melandri won at Le Mans last year, but will be very hard pushed to repeat that feat this year.

Dani Pedrosa, the man who looked so strong here in 2006, taking pole and coming close to winning, before his tire went off, will be deeply disappointed to be starting from 10th. The man who was to challenge Valentino Rossi for the title this year is still a long way from achieving that aim. Beside Pedrosa sits the revelation of the weekend, Dunlop Yamaha's Sylvain Guintoli. The young French rider has looked strong in several sessions, and impressed in this afternoon's qualifying sessions with several strong laps, including leading the timesheets for a while. Guintoli is obviously extremely motivated to do well at his home race, but the Dunlops are clearly starting to close the gap with Bridgestone and Michelin. Dunlop, which dominates the 125 and 250 classes, is close to being competitive in the premier class too. Chris Vermeulen sits in 12th spot, another weak qualifying session, despite having a reasonable race setup.

While Casey Stoner has shown no signs of suffering with his Ducati's supposed weakness, at the other end of the starting grid, the Ducatis are living up to expectations. Pramac d'Antin's Alex Barros heads up the 5th row in 13th spot, while Stoner's team mate Loris Capirossi is floundering down in 15th. Capirossi, tipped for the title this year, has failed entirely to get to grips with the 800s, and his run of mediocre results shows no signs of abating. Shinya Nakano sits in the Ducati sandwich, struggling as ever to come to terms with the Michelins.

Guintoli's Tech 3 team mate Makoto Tamada continues to be outclassed by his young team mate, starting from 16th on the grid. Besides him sits Alex Hofmann on the other Pramac Ducati, and Kenny Roberts Jr on the KR212V. No end seems in sight for Kenny Jr's suffering, his only consolation being that so many fans have declared the Team KR bike to be the prettiest machine on the grid. Olivier Jacque's substitute Fonsi Nieto rounds out the grid in 19th, much where you would expect for the first outing on a MotoGP machine. Nieto has shown strong progress in each session, starting out 3.7 seconds off the pace, and being 1.6 seconds behind during this morning's free practice session

Tomorrow looks like bringing us a scintillating race. Ignoring the qualifying times, which determine only starting position, and tell us little about how the riders will run during the race, there looks like being two contenders for the victory. Colin Edwards and Casey Stoner both have the fastest race pace, capable of running constant high 1'34s and low 1'35s. The Ducati has the edge in the first part of the track, over start and finish through the fast first turn, but Edwards' Yamaha looks stronger round the final part of the circuit, in the 4 or 5 turns before returning to cross the finish line. If the two are together on the last lap, the race will be decided by whether Edwards can steer his Yamaha round the Ducati through the last part of the track, and not lose too much time on the first part.

Close, but just off Edwards and Stoner's pace, are John Hopkins and Marco Melandri. After Hopkins maiden podium last year, his second looks very close indeed. If Melandri can stay with Hopkins, he could steal it away from the American, but it is a big ask. Also close are Valentino Rossi, Alex Barros and Dani Pedrosa. Rossi really needs to win this race, to stay in contention for the title, but frustratingly, he can't get the bike sorted to his liking. Once a great enthusiast of the new tire regulations, as the season goes on, Rossi is feeling the pinch more and more. Barros' starting place on the grid is not representative of his race pace, and if he doesn't get caught in traffic, he should be able to run at the front for a fair while. Pedrosa also has reasonable pace, but may not be strong enough to stick at the front all race. The tiny Spaniard could fall into the clutches of the gaggle of Hondas all running laps in the mid 1'35s, with Toni Elias, Nicky Hayden and Carlos Checa all fast, but not convincingly so. That little battle really could shake out in any and all direction.

This, of course, is all just speculation. Only tomorrow knows what the race will bring, and once again, we could have a fascinating battle on our hands. The one fly in the ointment is that there is a chance of rain tomorrow, and rain really does change everything. If it rains, all bets are off again, and the grid becomes meaningless. Roll on race day.

Le Mans MotoGP Qualifying Times

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2007 Le Mans MotoGP Qualifying Practice Report - Day 2 - The Tornado Touches Down

Fate must be having a crackdown on hubris. Just as in Shanghai, where the predicted Ducati domination failed to materialize, Le Mans has once again proven the pundits to be quite wrong. Those who are supposed to know about these things had forecast that in France, the roles would be reversed, and the Yamahas would make all the running, with the Ducatis desperately trying to keep up, and not lose too much ground, and the Hondas struggling at the back. I was one of those voices, but today's thrilling qualifying has proved us all comprehensively wrong.

The session started fairly sunny and warm, and though there were worries that clouds, and maybe even some light rain, might spoil play, the weather cooperated, leaving us to enjoy a fascination session. From the outset, John Hopkins set out to prove that the fastest time he set in this morning's session was no fluke, and Hopper's Suzuki and Casey Stoner's Ducati contested the top spot for the first 10 minutes or so, the American and the Australian pushing each other further into the 1'35 bracket. After less than 10 minutes, Stoner set the fastest time of the weekend, with a 1'35.109, but he did not have to wait long for a response. Three minutes later, the Anglo-American became the first rider to crack into the 1'34s, with a lap of 1'34.963.

Stoner and Edwards were joined at the top of the lap charts by the American veteran Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado became the second rider to crack the 1'34 barrier, taking 2nd spot ahead of Stoner. Behind Stoner, Dani Pedrosa headed up Marco Melandri, with Alex Barros sitting around 6th spot on the Pramac Ducati.

While the rest of the field seemed to be concentrating on testing race tires and finding a setup for Sunday, Kawasaki struck. With just over a third of the session gone, Randy de Puniet put on his first qualifying tire, an event which, like Christmas, just seems to keep getting earlier. The young Frenchman was obviously hoping to take advantage of a lull in activity on the track to secure a strong starting position for his home Grand Prix, and though he set the fastest time of the session so far, with a 1'34.837, it was obvious even at this stage that this was going to be a long way short of the what it would take to clinch pole.

Behind de Puniet, reigning world champion Nicky Hayden was improving, climbing from 8th place to temporarily take the 5th fastest time. While Hayden had been expected to struggle, and was doing better than anticipated, the opposite was true of Valentino Rossi. The Doctor had come to Le Mans hoping to expunge the memory of last year's disastrous race, where he dropped out with mechanical problems while charging through the field on his way to the front, but he has struggled to find pace in almost every session so far. Just before the halfway mark, Rossi climbed up from 9th to 7th, but still a long way behind where he would need to start from on Sunday. Where team mate Edwards has found a good setup almost from the off, The Doctor just can't seem to get his Fiat Yamaha set up to his liking.

As the clock ticked down to the 20 minute to go mark, the first batch of (non-Kawasaki) qualifiers came out, and times began to tumble. First Melandri improved his time, then Alex Barros, then with 22 minutes left, Shinya Nakano came out with the first of his qualifiers to take 2nd spot, after good for the fastest time for much of the lap. But Nakano's time at the top of the lap charts was to be short lived.

3 minutes later, Casey Stoner was out on a fast lap. To see Stoner setting fast section times was much as we expected, but trailing in Stoner's wake was the surprise of the session so far: French Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha rider Sylvain Guintoli was flying, tracking Stoner as the Australian chased towards the fastest time. Stoner flashed across the finish line to set provisional pole, but his time was to last for less than half a second. For in Stoner's slipstream came Guintoli, delighting the Le Mans crowd and the Dunlop garage with a highly respectable 1'34.716. Still a long way off what would be needed to secure pole, but a great result for Dunlop, and proof that the British tire maker is rapidly closing on the two big names in MotoGP.

Guintoli could savor his position for a full five minutes before reality set in, in the shape of Carlos Checa. With a quarter of an hour to go, the Spaniard, whose LCR Honda team is at the very bottom of the HRC food chain when it comes to getting new parts to help with the fraught RC212V, came within spitting distance of the 1'33 barrier, setting a time of 1'34.038, 5/100ths of a second off Dani Pedrosa's pole time from last year. Checa has been surprisingly strong all weekend, his fastest time of the session so far confirming his form.

The track was now virtually deserted, as the pits became a hive of activity, tires and wheels littering the garage fronts. With 11 minutes to, John Hopkins climbed to 2nd position, still shy of the 1'33 marker, while the track filled up with riders. The times started coming thick and fast, the timing screens awash with red and blue helmets. Rossi, Hayden and Stoner all vied for 3rd in the 9th minute, while one minute later, Carlos Checa strengthened his grip on pole, smashing the 1'33 barrier with a time of 1'33.859, taking over a tenth of a second of Dani Pedrosa's existing pole record. Behind Checa, Colin Edwards confirmed his form, taking 2nd with a time just shy of the 1'33s.

With 2 minutes to, the riders were out putting in their last gasp attempts at taking pole. Hopkins and Elias came up short, but the Wizard of Oz did not: Casey Stoner looked like having wrapped up pole position with time to spare, smashing Checa's time by over a tenth, with a lap of 1'33.710. Valentino Rossi looked like stealing Stoner's thunder, but came up just short, while Nicky Hayden climbed once again into 5th.

The pole seemed settled, with everyone out setting fast laps, but all looked out of contention with Stoner. The only man with a shot was Colin Edwards. But Edwards was 0.2 seconds down at the first intermediate timing section, losing a fraction more in the second section, and clawing back a fraction in the third section. Then, the Texas Tornado touched down, and laid waste to everything in his path: Through the final section, Edwards not only made good the 0.2 seconds he was down, he took off another tenth in a convincing display of all-out riding, to clinch the first MotoGP pole of his career. He had fallen heavily in the morning session, and walked way unhurt, and having decided that "the ground doesn't hurt that bad," he risked everything to take a deserved pole.

Edwards' fantastic first pole rather overshadowed Casey Stoner's great 2nd position. Ducati had been expected to struggle here, but if this is what Stoner looks like when he's struggling, then both Nicky Hayden's title defense and Valentino Rossi's title challenge are starting to look in real trouble. Carlos Checa takes the 3rd, and the final spot on the front of the grid, another rider who was not expected to do well at Le Mans, despite his previous strong showings here.

Checa's strong performance, and his team mate's incredible pole, pushed Valentino Rossi down to 4th. Starting from the 2nd row of the grid will not be what The Doctor ordered, especially as he is having so much trouble with his race set up. Far from being his to lose, the Le Mans race looks like being another incredibly tough fight for Rossi. And besides him, sits another man who can get in his way: John Hopkins has looked very strong all weekend, and will be out to improve on his podium from last week. He has the pace, and the Suzuki's new engine has given him just a little bit more of an edge. And to add to Rossi's troubles, the Wild Man of MotoGP, Terrible Toni Elias is with him on the second row, taking 6th spot on the grid. With Le Mans' first chicane being a notorious first-lap trouble spot, having Toni The Torpedo putting on a repeat of Shanghai is the last thing Rossi will want.

Behind Elias, Nicky Hayden is the first of the Repsol Hondas in 7th. The Kentucky Kid is slowly returning to form, and the stop-and-go nature of Le Mans is merciful indeed to the Honda's weaknesses. Although Hayden is 3rd Honda on the grid, he will be glad to be not too far off the front, and ahead of his team mate. Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet will have hoped for a better starting position for his home Grand Prix, but the young Frenchman's policy of taking an extra qualifier has yet to pay off, only managing 8th, ahead of Marco Melandri on the Gresini Honda in 9th. Melandri won at Le Mans last year, but will be very hard pushed to repeat that feat this year.

Dani Pedrosa, the man who looked so strong here in 2006, taking pole and coming close to winning, before his tire went off, will be deeply disappointed to be starting from 10th. The man who was to challenge Valentino Rossi for the title this year is still a long way from achieving that aim. Beside Pedrosa sits the revelation of the weekend, Dunlop Yamaha's Sylvain Guintoli. The young French rider has looked strong in several sessions, and impressed in this afternoon's qualifying sessions with several strong laps, including leading the timesheets for a while. Guintoli is obviously extremely motivated to do well at his home race, but the Dunlops are clearly starting to close the gap with Bridgestone and Michelin. Dunlop, which dominates the 125 and 250 classes, is close to being competitive in the premier class too. Chris Vermeulen sits in 12th spot, another weak qualifying session, despite having a reasonable race setup.

While Casey Stoner has shown no signs of suffering with his Ducati's supposed weakness, at the other end of the starting grid, the Ducatis are living up to expectations. Pramac d'Antin's Alex Barros heads up the 5th row in 13th spot, while Stoner's team mate Loris Capirossi is floundering down in 15th. Capirossi, tipped for the title this year, has failed entirely to get to grips with the 800s, and his run of mediocre results shows no signs of abating. Shinya Nakano sits in the Ducati sandwich, struggling as ever to come to terms with the Michelins.

Guintoli's Tech 3 team mate Makoto Tamada continues to be outclassed by his young team mate, starting from 16th on the grid. Besides him sits Alex Hofmann on the other Pramac Ducati, and Kenny Roberts Jr on the KR212V. No end seems in sight for Kenny Jr's suffering, his only consolation being that so many fans have declared the Team KR bike to be the prettiest machine on the grid. Olivier Jacque's substitute Fonsi Nieto rounds out the grid in 19th, much where you would expect for the first outing on a MotoGP machine. Nieto has shown strong progress in each session, starting out 3.7 seconds off the pace, and being 1.6 seconds behind during this morning's free practice session

Tomorrow looks like bringing us a scintillating race. Ignoring the qualifying times, which determine only starting position, and tell us little about how the riders will run during the race, there looks like being two contenders for the victory. Colin Edwards and Casey Stoner both have the fastest race pace, capable of running constant high 1'34s and low 1'35s. The Ducati has the edge in the first part of the track, over start and finish through the fast first turn, but Edwards' Yamaha looks stronger round the final part of the circuit, in the 4 or 5 turns before returning to cross the finish line. If the two are together on the last lap, the race will be decided by whether Edwards can steer his Yamaha round the Ducati through the last part of the track, and not lose too much time on the first part.

Close, but just off Edwards and Stoner's pace, are John Hopkins and Marco Melandri. After Hopkins maiden podium last year, his second looks very close indeed. If Melandri can stay with Hopkins, he could steal it away from the American, but it is a big ask. Also close are Valentino Rossi, Alex Barros and Dani Pedrosa. Rossi really needs to win this race, to stay in contention for the title, but frustratingly, he can't get the bike sorted to his liking. Once a great enthusiast of the new tire regulations, as the season goes on, Rossi is feeling the pinch more and more. Barros' starting place on the grid is not representative of his race pace, and if he doesn't get caught in traffic, he should be able to run at the front for a fair while. Pedrosa also has reasonable pace, but may not be strong enough to stick at the front all race. The tiny Spaniard could fall into the clutches of the gaggle of Hondas all running laps in the mid 1'35s, with Toni Elias, Nicky Hayden and Carlos Checa all fast, but not convincingly so. That little battle really could shake out in any and all direction.

This, of course, is all just speculation. Only tomorrow knows what the race will bring, and once again, we could have a fascinating battle on our hands. The one fly in the ointment is that there is a chance of rain tomorrow, and rain really does change everything. If it rains, all bets are off again, and the grid becomes meaningless. Roll on race day.

Le Mans MotoGP Qualifying Times

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