Qualifying practice at Jerez was a case of déjà vu, but from a parallel universe. A young man goes out on a new bike and posts the fastest time in session after session, before ripping up qualifying and snatching the pole by a big margin. Last year it was Casey Stoner putting on the smackdown at track after track. But here at Jerez, things were a little different.
The morning's session had seen Dani Pedrosa set the fastest time, ahead of Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden, meaning Michelin runners taking the top three times, hardly surprising considering Jerez is a Michelin test track. The bigger surprise was Loris Capirossi setting the 4th fastest time, the Suzuki finally finding some speed. But the next Bridgestone runner was Casey Stoner, the world champion only managing the 7th fastest time, ahead at least of his rival Valentino Rossi in 8th. The question was, how would the warmer temperatures of the afternoon's qualifying session change things?
That answer to that was, not much. After the first few minutes of the session had elapsed, Loris Capirossi was once again the first rider to set a competitive time, in the 1'40 bracket, but his time at the top of the standings would not last long. Fiat Yamaha rookie Jorge Lorenzo quickly took over the lead, surrendering it again to Capirossi for a single lap, before stamping his authority on the early part of the session with a 1'40.296, the fastest time of the weekend so far.
It was just a foretaste. Lorenzo was out testing his race set up, and as he circulated for lap after lap, it became clear that the Spaniard is in formidable shape. In an early run of 12 laps, or just under half race distance, Lorenzo ran 11 consecutive laps in the low to mid 1'40s. The benchmark has been set, as if Lorenzo can run around at that pace tomorrow, he will complete the race around 20 seconds faster than the 2007 race.
Lorenzo briefly surrendered his lead to Andrea Dovizioso on the Team Scot Honda, his former 250 rival also putting in a string of promising race laps, before the qualifying tires came out, and the battle for the pole started in earnest.
As ever, it was Randy de Puniet who took the first shot at Lorenzo. De Puniet always takes an extra set of qualifiers, in the hope of getting lucky early in the session. And get lucky he did, as on a quiet track, just 20 minutes into the session, the young Frenchman pushed his LCR Honda to a lap of 1'39.122, just 6/100ths of a second of Loris Capirossi's 2006 pole record, set aboard the 990 cc Ducati.
De Puniet's time would stand for a while, as the remainder of the field concentrated on finalizing their race setup. That did not leave the crowd with little to entertain them, however, as close to the halfway mark, Colin Edwards managed one of the most spectacular saves to be seen for a long while. Entering the right-hander of turn 1, the front Michelin on Edwards' Tech 3 Yamaha started to let go. Almost slipping off the bike, his left leg up in the air, Edwards caught the bike on his knee and elbow, then flipped the bike back up onto a wider part of the tire with his knee, and scrambled back aboard. Ever the showman, the Texas Tornado immediately turned to the crowd, and asked for applause. He was richly rewarded with wild cheers, and deserved every bit of it.
Meanwhile the Ducatis were in trouble, Melandri, Guintoli and Elias manning the bottom three places, and Casey Stoner not doing much better in 14th. Stoner spent a lot of time in the pits talking to his engineers, and was obviously not a happy man at all. His predicament was not as bad as Melandri's however. The man whose arrival at Ducati had been keenly anticipated was having a nightmare. After a nasty looking crash halfway through the session, Melandri returned to the pits, and sat talking to his engineers. His body language and the look on his face was one of defeat and despair. It's going to be a very, very long year for Marco Melandri.
While Melandri was flying into the gravel, Jorge Lorenzo was flying over the track. On his first set of qualifying tires, the impressive young rookie set about smashing the existing lap record with a blistering 1'38.964. But the mark of his talent is that he then went on to run another lap of 1'39.565 on the same, now worn out qualifying tire. Lorenzo then went out on three more sets of qualifiers, setting faster times every lap, finally finishing on a breathtaking 1'38.189, or 0.875 faster than Loris Capirossi's existing pole record. Each time Lorenzo took to the track, you were deeply aware that you were seeing something special, and each time, it just got better. Lorenzo has now taken 2 pole positions in a row in his first 2 races. If anyone was in any doubt that the first one was a fluke, they shouldn't be any more.
Behind Lorenzo, the battle for the front row was fierce. Jerez is a narrow track, and can be difficult to pass at, so getting a good start is absolutely key. After 40 minutes of the hour-long session had elapsed, most people had already had a shot at pole, with Colin Edwards, Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden putting in the strongest challenge. Then, in the final 15 minutes, the laps started coming hard and fast, making it difficult to know who to follow next. Pedrosa was the first to improve his time, but not his position, remaining in 4th spot, with Valentino Rossi following in 5th. Then Colin Edwards launched another assault, falling short, but grabbing 2nd spot.
But Edwards' hold on second was only tenuous, as Pedrosa struck back once again, this time taking 2nd spot with a 1'38.844. Edwards and Hayden tried, but came up short, with Pedrosa the only man capable of going faster, improving his time to a 1'38.789 in the dying seconds of the session. Pedrosa did have luck come to his aid, as Valentino Rossi suffered an engine problem while on a very fast lap on his final qualifier.
At the end of the session, Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Edwards had managed to hold onto their places on the front row of the grid with Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi in 4th and 5th, ahead of Randy de Puniet in 6th. Casey Stoner could only manage 7th place, his frustration clearly showing as he kicked out at Loris Capirossi on his last lap, as Capirossi had been going slow on his line. The fact that Stoner was already 0.6 seconds down at the previous section meant that Capirossi's move had made little difference to Stoner's starting position, but it was a sign that Stoner is starting to feel the pressure.
Stoner heads up the third row of the grid, ahead of James Toseland in 8th, suffering with severe bronchitis, and John Hopkins on the Kawasaki in 9th, also still in some pain from his groin injury. Loris Capirossi rounded out the top 10, the qualifiers not working out as well as race tires.
So tomorrow could bring us a familiar spectacle, if practice is anything to go by: The polesitter takes off, and wins the race by a country mile. Jorge Lorenzo has been dominant in the same way as Casey Stoner was at some tracks last year, and unless Pedrosa, Edwards and Hayden can get in his way, he should be able to set his own pace.
The Bridgestone runners aren't as happy as the Michelin men here, with all of them complaining of a lack of grip at the front end, something which is virtually unheard of. Conventional wisdom says that the Bridgestones grip forever at the front, so it is almost bizarre to hear that the Bridgestone fronts are letting their riders down. But the list of crashed riders, all from losing the front of the bike, is proof that there is something badly wrong at Jerez for the Japanese tire maker. This leaves Valentino Rossi, and to a lesser extent, Casey Stoner in trouble. Rossi has proven that he can ride around trouble all day long, but Stoner has an old reputation for front end crashes. It's not unthinkable that we could see Stoner's first race crash in 19 races on Sunday, something that would truly shake up the championship.
But if there is one man you cannot help but feel sorry for, it is Marco Melandri. He looks like a beaten man, and if this carries on much longer, the question is, how much fight has the Italian got left in him? Seeing him in his garage, slumped and broken in his chair, the answer would have to be, not much.