If there were any lingering doubts about who is favorite for the 2008 MotoGP title, Sunday's qualifying practice at the official IRTA test in Jerez should have laid these well and truly to rest. Within just 11 minutes of the start of the session, one rider had stamped his authority on qualifying with such force that the 2nd place rider at that moment was nearly three and a half seconds behind. Three and a half seconds. And though his lead was reduced, after the 40 minutes were up, the winning margin was still over 1.3 seconds. This wasn't a contest, it was a massacre.
The session had started in hope, with the track damp after the morning's rain. Wet weather meant an upset could be on the cards, with wet weather specialists such as Kawasaki's Ant West and Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen capable of springing a surprise in a downpour. But the showers, which had been falling on and off throughout the morning, had been driven off in the early afternoon, and the session started under a watery sun.
The hopes of an upset were reinforced over the first few minutes, when first Ant West, then Gresini Honda's Shinya Nakano and LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet vied for the top of the timesheets. Times were dropping steadily, from West's initial 1'57.366 down to Nakano's 1'52.9054.
Then, all illusions were shattered. The man who has dominated previous tests, reigning world champion Casey Stoner, put in a time of 1'50.514 on just his second full lap of the track. His third lap was over a second faster, at 1'49.411, and followed it up with an even faster 1'49.263. As a statement of intent, it was both emphatic and devastating. Job done, Casey Stoner retreated back to the pits, with over 25 minutes of the session left to go.
Just how good Stoner's lap was quickly became apparent. Nicky Hayden, the man in 2nd place, was some 3.5 seconds slower, and it took over 10 minutes before this gap started to narrow. At the halfway mark, Valentino Rossi got to within 3.1 seconds of the Australian, then took another second off his time on the next lap, setting a 1'51.439. For the next 10 minutes, only Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden could get close, regularly dipping into the mid 1'51s.
With 10 minutes of the session to go, Ant West rejoined the fray. The Australian wet weather specialist took another big chunk out of Stoner's lead, being the 2nd man to get in the 1'50 bracket. As the end of the session neared, it looked increasingly likely that someone would get close to cracking Stoner's time. First Rossi closed in, then Nicky Hayden, both men setting high 1'50 laps, as rider after rider improved their own time.
But Stoner knew that his lap was good enough, and just to underline it, he went out for the last few minutes, putting in two more full laps, one a 1'49, the other a 1'50.569. In the end, only Valentino Rossi could get near, taking 2nd place with a lap of 1'50.580, over 1.3 seconds slower than his Ducati rival. Nicky Hayden rounded out the top 3, making it a clean sweep of current and former MotoGP champions.
Behind Hayden, Ant West took 4th after his strongest showing of the weekend, and confirming his status as a real threat when the track is damp. And behind West, Andrea Dovizioso and Shinya Nakano were testament to the strength of the satellite Hondas, both men aboard the bike based on Dani Pedrosa's race-winning RC212V at Valencia.
Other riders worthy of note were Marco Melandri and Sylvain Guintoli. So far, only Casey Stoner has been the only man able to get the Ducati Desmosedici to fly, but for the first time, his team mate and one of the satellite Alice team managed to get the bike working, finishing in 9th and 10th, a "mere" 2.8 and 2.9 seconds behind. The same can not be said for Toni Elias. The amiable Spaniard has been nowhere on the Ducati GP8, and today was not exception, Elias finishing 19th and last, behind even the factory test riders.
Two names were missing from the session: those of Dani Pedrosa and John Hopkins. Both men decided to sit out the qualifying session, Pedrosa not having ridden all day on Sunday, wary of injuring his hand further by crashing in the damp conditions.
The Qualifying Practice session of the Official IRTA Test at Jerez is meant to be an appetizer for the fans, something to whet their appetites for a season full of spectacle and excitement. Unfortunately for Dorna, and for many of the fans, Casey Stoner has severely dampened their expectations with yet another dominant display of man, team, bike and tires working in perfect harmony. Of the 6 full laps that Casey Stoner put in during the qualifying session, 5 were faster than any other rider, the Australian champ needing just a single lap to get up to speed. And while the Yamaha of Valentino Rossi and the Honda of Nicky Hayden are obviously competitive, they still have a sizable leap to make before they can match Mr Perfect and his Ducati GP8. If this is a foretaste of the season, then Mick Doohan's record for most wins in a season is under very serious threat.