Two things were on everyone's mind during qualifying practice at Shanghai on Saturday afternoon. The first was the weather, the sun making conditions hot and sticky for qualifying, while torrential rain is forecast for the race on Sunday. This left the paddock in a quandary as to how to treat the session, whether to look for a dry race setup which may turn out to be irrelevant, or focus on qualifying as close to the front as possible, and hope it rains. In the end, most teams found a compromise, and split the session half and half.
The bigger question, however, was whether Jorge Lorenzo could ride with the fractured ankles he suffered after crashing yesterday, and if he did, whether he would be able to keep his perfect streak of poles alive. Lorenzo answered part of that question in the morning's free practice session, riding 21 laps in 3 sessions, to see whether he was physically capable of riding. Though his times were nothing to write home about, the Spanish rookie showed he was made of stern stuff, riding in obvious pain, but still setting consistent laps.
As the riders headed out onto the track for the first time, Andrea Dovizioso slid out at the end of the everlasting Turn 1, losing the rear before his tires were thoroughly warmed. It was to be the first fall of many in what turned out to be a crash-strewn and incident-packed qualifying session.
Less than 10 minutes into the session, Casey Stoner had taken command, with a 2'00.577, but his lead would be relatively short-lived. A few minutes later, Stoner saw his lead taken from him by a strong Dani Pedrosa, first by a couple of tenths, then on the next lap by more, Pedrosa managing a 2'00.163. But a time over 2'00 was never going to be good enough, and 3 minutes later, Valentino Rossi became the first man to crack the 2'00 barrier, setting a time of 1'59.876.
While the action at the front held plenty of interest, further down the field, a remarkable revival was occurring. Speculation had been running riot about Marco Melandri's future prior to the China round, and after he finished FP1 nearly 5 seconds off the pace, his fate seemed sealed. But 15 minutes into qualifying, Melandri had found something, as he was already faster than he had been all weekend. And 10 minutes later, the Italian was up to 4th place, and running laps consistently over 3/4 of a second faster than his previous best. This was more like the Melandri of old.
By the halfway point, we were waiting for the first of the qualifiers to appear, and this time, it was John Hopkins who took the first shot. Though Hopper had been running well on race tires, he wasn't there on qualifying tires, falling short of provisional pole, and unable to match Pedrosa's time of 1'59.693 set on race rubber. But now, there were plenty of riders following Hopkins' lead, and first Nicky Hayden, and then Loris Capirossi took pole, the Italian pushing his Suzuki to a lap of 1'59.506, just 0.001 seconds faster than the Repsol Honda man.
A few minutes later, Dani Pedrosa, out on a very fast lap, put on the first demonstration of both the dangers and the outstanding grip provided by qualifying tires. As he rounded Turn 10, Pedrosa's tire slid, then gripped just a little too much, almost throwing the Spaniard clear of his Honda, the bike bucking and weaving underneath him, the phenomenal grip of the tires. A few minutes later, Pedrosa's spectacular save was outdone in every respect by his bitter rival Jorge Lorenzo. As Lorenzo rounded the final turn onto the finish straight, the Spaniard found the rear coming round on him, his bike then gripping and shaking, bucking like an enraged bull, getting crossed right up, and tossing Lorenzo at least a foot out of the saddle, before the tires regained grip and the bike recovered its composure. Landing partly on his fracture ankle, and partly on his groin, the young rookie took a moment to get his breath back, and wipe the tears from his eyes, before carrying on his lap. A lesser, or perhaps more sensible, man might have decided that enough was enough, and pulled in, but Lorenzo rode out the rest of the session, even running wide and through the gravel at one point, forced to dab his other painful ankle to keep his balance. Lorenzo is made of very tough material indeed.
With 15 minutes to go, Casey Stoner decided it was time to make his mark, taking pole with a 1'58.860, the first man into the 1'58s. He was joined a few minutes later by Colin Edwards, taking the 2nd fastest time. But Stoner knew he was still nearly half a second off Valentino Rossi's pole record, and would have to do better to retain the pole. On his next flying lap, the Australian world champion pushed his Ducati to a 1'58.591, and a time much harder to beat.
Not impossible, though, as with 5 minutes left in the session, Valentino Rossi crossed the line in a time of 1'58.552 to take back pole, just 1/10th slower than his pole time of last year, and looking good enough to take his first pole of the year. But Rossi had reckoned without Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado was living up to his nickname, and was flying round the track on his Michelin qualifying tires. In the dying seconds of the session, Edwards flashed across the line in an astonishing time of 1'58.139, nearly 3/10ths faster than the previous record, to take his first pole for nearly a year.
Valentino Rossi was left with 2nd spot on the grid, but the way that he leapt on the back of Colin Edwards' Yamaha M1 when the Texan entered Parc Fermé suggested that Rossi wasn't too unhappy. The Doctor is back where he feels he belongs, and the Bridgestone qualifying tires are getting closer to the Michelins. Casey Stoner took the last place on the grid, but like Rossi, was not too unhappy, after the disastrous outings the Australian had had at Estoril and Jerez.
Jorge Lorenzo took an awe-inspiring 4th place, riding in obvious pain, and unable to get off his bike when he rolled into the garage. There can be no doubt he will ride tomorrow, but you have to doubt the wisdom of that decision, as Lorenzo made several mistakes due to the pain he was in during the session. Those kind of mistakes could be very costly during the race, and could even endanger the other riders.
Dani Pedrosa finished 5th on the grid, disappointed, but with good race pace, ahead of a strong Loris Capirossi on the Suzuki. James Toseland will head up the third row of the grid, starting from 7th, after another display of how quickly he can learn a track. Toseland improved by 0.7 of a second in each of the free practice sessions, ending up just over a second off his Tech 3 Yamaha team mate's astonishing pole time. Chris Vermeulen took 8th place, not far off the pace of his team mate. Randy de Puniet rounds out the third row of the grid, ahead of Nicky Hayden in 10th. Hayden had the misfortune to crash on a fast lap with 15 minutes to go, and the poor judgment to crash at Turn 13, about as far from the paddock as you can possibly get. By the time he was back in the pits, it was too late to put in a competitive lap.
On race rubber, the picture is much the same, with Valentino Rossi clearly fastest, and capable of running a consist pace, with only Pedrosa and, to a lesser extent, Stoner capable of keeping up. Behind Stoner, there are a host of riders capable of regular 2'00 laps, including Chris Vermeulen, Marco Melandri and Nicky Hayden. Jorge Lorenzo is also one of those riders, but the question remains whether he can keep up that pace for a full 21 laps with two cracked ankles.
But this may all be meaningless if the rain comes. The last time Colin Edwards took pole position, at Le Mans in 2007, it had rained the next day, and Edwards' hopeful start had resulted only in a 12th place, the last of the riders to finish. Edwards must hope for predictable conditions, to avoid the tire problems which wrecked his race in France. But if it does rain, then there will be a couple of men wringing their hands in glee. Chris Vermeulen has already won one wet race, that rain-soaked GP in France, and is a renowned rain rider. But a downpour could well be the saving of Ant West's career. It is widely rumored that this could be the Australian's last race for Kawasaki, and he is to be sacked after the race is over. If it rains, and West wins, it will be much harder for the team to give him his marching orders. That does rely on West winning, of course, but if there's one man who can dominate in the rain, it is Ant West. Tomorrow should make for an interesting race indeed.