After yesterday's torrential rain, which even managed to influence this morning's final free practice session, the MotoGP regulars were delighted to be rolling out of the pits onto hot tarmac in warm sunshine. The weather had almost completely cleared up, the clouds hanging back in the Tuscan hills, granting the MotoGP riders a reprieve from the rain - at least for the moment.
With so much time already lost to the conditions, the pack rolled out almost as one to set about the tricky business of finding a dry weather setup which will work. With hot sunshine forecast for the race tomorrow, and three sessions either blighted or at least impeded by rain, there was much to do.
The pace was very fast right from the off, with Colin Edwards taking just over 6 minutes to drop into the 1'50s, and start approaching what looked likely to be race pace. Just a couple of minutes later, a group of riders had all set times well within the 1'50 bracket, and a realistic pace for tomorrow's race started to become clear. Dani Pedrosa, Colin Edwards, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, and - the big surprise - Loris Capirossi were all running low to mid 1'50s, Pedrosa holding provisional pole with a time of 1'50.003. Pedrosa's time, set on race tires, was already 1/10th of a second inside the record set during the 2006 race. If Sunday is as warm as the forecasters predict, the lap record looks certain to go.
With the teams running several short runs in search of a race tire, the man who looked strongest was Valentino Rossi. Although the Misano circuit is closer to Rossi's home in Tavullia, The Doctor regards Mugello as his spiritual home, and it showed. His first run of laps were all in the 1'50s, and after a brief stop in the pits, Rossi was back out, and going even faster. With 36 minutes to go, Rossi redefined what race pace would be: The Italian fired across the line in 1'49.579 to set the fastest time so far.
He did not hold provisional pole for long, however: just 0.4 seconds later, and having sat in Rossi's draft all the way round the track, Loris Capirossi took a tenth of a second off Rossi's time, setting a 1'49.476. But while both men were on race tires, the difference soon showed. Capirossi was on a strong run, riding consistent 1'50 laps on the Rizla Suzuki, while Rossi was banging in lap after lap in the 1'49s. Rossi had found a Bridgestone that worked here, and no mistake.
Capirossi's time at the top of the timesheets was also to be short lived. Some 50 seconds after Capirex had fired across the line, Colin Edwards gambled on putting a qualifying Michelin in early, and his gamble paid off handsomely. With well over half of the session remaining, Edwards smashed Sete Gibernau's previous pole record by a couple of tenths, setting a lap of 1'48.785. A marker had been set.
As the riders entered the second half of the session, some interesting names started to bubble towards the top of the standings. Alex de Angelis, the rookie who has been almost invisible for much of this season, was consistently in the top 8, even briefly holding 5th with the first of his qualifiers. He was joined at the top end of the table by Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda, and Chris Vermeulen, who finally seemed to be getting a handle on qualifying, an acknowledged weakness of the Australian Suzuki man.
With 20 minutes to go, the focus switched from race tires to qualifiers in earnest. Almost everyone was now out on soft rubber, with a couple of interesting exceptions. The most impressive of these was Casey Stoner, taking 5th spot with a mid 1'49 on race tires, following that with a faster 1'49. The other man out on race tires was Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado was still sitting pretty after taking an early qualifying tire, and was now back hard at work on a race setup for his Tech 3 Yamaha. Times in the low 1'50s said that Edwards had most probably found one.
But Edwards was about to have his provisional pole taken from him, by his former team mate Valentino Rossi. The Doctor was flying, and as he shot across the line, provisional pole was once again his. Where Edwards had beaten Gibernau's pole record, Rossi positively trampled upon, lapping in 1'48.371, an astonishing lap on a bike with nearly 20% less capacity than the 990cc Ducati which Gibernau rode in 2006. A remarkable time, but with 15 minutes of the session left, it looked unlikely to hold for the pole.
And there were plenty of challengers. Loris Capirossi had once again trailed Rossi round the track to take 2nd spot, only to see Casey Stoner get close, then Colin Edwards take 2nd back from Capirex. It looked like there were 5 men capable of taking Rossi's pole from him, but The Doctor was not about to let it go without a fight.
With 7 minutes of the session left, Rossi threw down the glove once again, improving his time by 2/10ths of a second to 1'48.130. Loris Capirossi was the first to respond, beating Rossi's old pole time, but still 2/10ths off the new pole time. Dani Pedrosa was the next to have a go, only managing to clinch 3rd. As the session started to wind down, Rossi's pole was starting to look more and more secure.
With just a few minutes to go, Casey Stoner's chances seemed to have disappeared. Entering the pits for a final qualifying tire with under 3 minutes left, the question was, could Stoner get out of the pits again in time to start a final qualifying lap, without ruining the tire before the lap even started? At best, it would be close.
Rossi took one final shot at improving his own pole time, but The Doctor came up just short, and had to hope his time would be good enough. The first to challenge would be Colin Edwards, who once again came close, but was still a quarter of a second down. Next up was Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa's lap started well, but by the 2nd checkpoint, he started to lose time. It looked like Pedrosa's attempt at pole was done too. But through the 3rd section, the Spanish Repsol Honda rider clawed back over a tenth, and was back in contention once again. The final section, from the exit of Correntaio through Bucine to the finish line was not enough. Pedrosa came up just 0.167 short, with a time of 1'48.297. Valentino Rossi put an end to a long, long pole drought, taking his first pole position since June 2007, at Barcelona in Catalunya. Nearly a year had passed, but at Mugello, The Doctor was very much back.
Pedrosa stands beside Rossi on the grid in 2nd, just a bit short of top speed to catch the Italian. And rounding out the front row is Loris Capirossi, with Suzuki's best qualifying performance of the year. Capirex is strong at Mugello, and maybe he is starting to get a handle on the Suzuki GSV-R.
Casey Stoner heads up the 2nd row, and will start from 4th, Colin Edwards, despite his early lead, eventually ended up in 5th. Nicky Hayden, on the other Repsol Honda, managed to disguise the problems he is having on race tires with a strong lap on qualifiers once again, and sits in 6th.
Jorge Lorenzo is a little off the pace in 7th, a surprise after his strong qualifying earlier in the season. Lorenzo was down the order for most of the session, only finding some speed towards the end. Edwards' Tech 3 team mate James Toseland is in 8th, Toseland glad to be back at a track he has at least seen, if not raced at.
In 9th and 10th, the Gresini Hondas of Shinya Nakano and Alex de Angelis have their strongest starting positions of the season. The Gresinis are obviously in form at Mugello, despite Nakano's hairy crash during the soaking second free practice session yesterday.
Though qualifying times are interesting, this may mean little once it comes to the race. Nobody has been able to collect enough data to select a race tire, with time too short to test everything they would like to. Nobody, that is, except Valentino Rossi. Rossi looked relentless at Mugello on Saturday, clearly a step above the rest of the field. He looks capable of running 1'49s in the race tomorrow, a pace not very many can follow. The only man who could possibly be capable of following in Rossi's wheel tracks is Casey Stoner, though the reigning world champion only managed two 1'49 laps on race tires on his Ducati GP8.
Behind Rossi and Stoner, there are a big crowd all running low 1'50 laps. Chief among the protagonists is Dani Pedrosa, along with Colin Edwards, but there are a few others who could match the speed. The biggest surprises are the Suzukis of Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen, though Vermeulen is once again handicapped by having to start down in 11th. But they will also have company from Jorge Lorenzo, who has gotten off to a slow start, and is only now improving.
On the strength of qualifying, it is hard to rule out Valentino Rossi taking a 7th win in a row at Mugello on Sunday. Rossi is strong, fast and consistent, and if the weather holds, then he looks virtually unbeatable. The only man capable of following could be Casey Stoner. If Stoner wants to get back in touch for the title chase, he'll have to do just that. Mugello has all the makings of yet another scintillating race on Sunday.