Qualifying practice at the Catalunya Grand Prix at Barcelona, Spain, got underway in warm, humid conditions, under overcast but dry skies. The weather has been like this all weekend, with rain overnight, and occasional smatterings during practice, rendering the track incredibly slippery. After Friday's crashfest, the riders were a little more circumspect this morning, especially once it started to rain with 15 minutes of the session to go.
But the afternoon looked like staying thankfully dry. The riders took to the track to a man at the start of the session, working hard to find a race setup after the slippery track surface ruined times on Friday. All except Jorge Lorenzo, that is, who was forced to withdraw from the race after a big crash in Friday afternoon's second free practice session left the Spanish rookie knocked unconscious and out with severe concussion.
Times dropped quickly, getting into the 1'43 bracket within 6 minutes, Dani Pedrosa being the first to hit that target on his third lap out of the pits. Three minutes later, Colin Edwards had taken over half a second off Pedrosa's time, and before the first 10 minutes of qualifying practice was over, Loris Capirossi had cracked the next barrier, with a lap of 1'42.989. Capirex was already under the existing race lap record, and obviously out trying race tires.
Capirossi's time was obviously good, as his time stood for another ten minutes. And Capirossi wasn't the only Suzuki at the sharp end: with a quarter of the session gone, Chris Vermeulen put in the 2nd quickest time to that point, with a lap of 1'43.069. It certainly seemed like Suzuki have found a few solutions to the problems which have held them back so far this season.
The first man to beat Capirossi's time was Casey Stoner, cracking well into the 42s with a 1'42.710 with 40 minutes of the session left. Six minutes later, Stoner was joined by Dani Pedrosa, the man riding his home Grand Prix taking second spot just over a tenth slower than the Ducati. Pedrosa was out on his spare bike, as his first machine had stopped after a small electrical fire, leaving the Spaniard stranded at the side of the race track.
At the halfway mark, the tension started to grow, as we waited for the first rider to put on a qualifier and try for a time. But for the first time in several races, we were left waiting, despite an initial glimpse from Colin Edwards. The Texan improved his time to 3rd with 28 minutes to go, but as it was on the second of two fast laps, it was probably set on race rubber.
Traditionally, it has been Randy de Puniet who is the first to put on soft rubber, and he did not disappoint. But he was beaten out of pit lane by British rookie James Toseland, who crossed the line with 24 minutes of the session left, to take provisional pole with a 1'42.361. His pole position lasted all of 15 seconds, before Randy de Puniet finally rocketed across the line to smash Valentino Rossi's existing pole record by nearly a tenth, with a lap of 1'41.766.
That was fast, but if de Puniet was going so quickly with well over 20 minutes left, the pole record looked like being obliterated. Colin Edwards was the next man to take a shot, taking over pole with 19 minutes to go in 1'41.711, but by now, everyone was getting up to speed. Rider after rider was hitting low 1'42s, with Casey Stoner the third man to crack into the 1'41 bracket. But though almost everyone on track was improving their times, no one could get near to Edwards' time.
Except, of course, for Edwards himself. At the 10 minute mark, the Tech 3 Yamaha veteran shaved another tenth off his pole time, taking it to 1'41.609, gaining confidence on his next set of qualifiers.
The trouble was, so was everyone else. Especially, it seemed, Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man was electric in front of his home crowd, taking pole from Edwards with 7 minutes to go with a 1'41.561. Seconds later, Edwards was pushed down to 3rd, as Randy de Puniet put in another fast lap to take 2nd.
With 5 minutes to go, the action became absolutely frenzied. Casey Stoner looked like taking Pedrosa's pole, but came up short over the finish line. But Nicky Hayden, Pedrosa's team mate, fared better. Seconds later, the American took provisional pole with a lap just 9/1000ths faster than Pedrosa's, in 1'41.558.
The pressure was to prove too much for some riders, with Marco Melandri crashing out and Alex de Angelis running off track in the final minutes, while attempting to improve their times, but the rest just kept on coming.
With the seconds counting down to the end of the session, Pedrosa made a bid to crush the opposition. The Spaniard, born just 12 miles from the track, took a quarter of a second off his pole time, setting a lap of 1'41.269. It was an astonishing time, but the question remained whether it would be enough.
The track was chock-a-block with riders all on fast laps, and all improving their times. Randy de Puniet looked like getting close, but fell short over the line, as did Nicky Hayden. But in the end, it was Casey Stoner who answered Pedrosa's challenge, crossing the line after the flag had dropped in an astounding time of 1'41.186, nearly 7/10ths faster than Valentino Rossi's pole record from last year, taking pole position and pushing Pedrosa down into 2nd.
Nicky Hayden took the 3rd fastest time, and had been quick all day on Saturday, leading to speculation that the Repsol Honda team had decided to use the pneumatic valve engine after all, but had just not told anybody. It's a welcome revival for the former World Champion, who has had a dismal season so far.
Randy de Puniet takes the 4th spot on the grid, the French LCR Honda man proving that he can be fast, though he has to back that up by staying on board during the race. Beside de Puniet sit the two Tech 3 Yamaha men, Colin Edwards ahead of his team mate James Toseland. For a long time, Edwards looked like taking the pole, but once the rest of the field got up to speed, the Texan couldn't gain another tenth of a second. Toseland's 6th spot is impressive, the Brit being fast from the off at a track he has never visited before. The omens are very good for Donington, something that will please the British fans.
Andrea Dovizioso is the 2nd satellite Honda, the Italian rider ahead of Chris Vermeulen in 8th. The Suzukis look good on race tires, though they lost out on qualifying rubber.
The big loser of the session was Valentino Rossi. The Italian has looked strong all weekend, but during qualifying, he just didn't seem to be able to get going. 9th is not a position he is accustomed to starting from, but when he does start from this far back, he has often managed to get on the podium at the very least. Alex de Angelis rounds out the top 10.
As thrilling as qualifying is, soft, sticky rubber can mask problems with race setup, and vice versa. Though the gaps in qualifying were surprisingly large, things are a lot closer together on race tires. There are a whole slew of people who look capable of running race pace, which looks to be in the low 1'43 bracket. Casey Stoner is fastest, managing to crack 1'42 consistently but not often, while Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards were running low 1'43s with ease. But also up at that speed were Randy de Puniet, Nicky Hayden, James Toseland, and the Suzukis of Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen.
With so many riders so close, the race could turn out to be a thriller. If it stays dry. There's a chance of some light showers at some point in the afternoon, though it looks like being later, rather than earlier. If it does rain, it could all turn upside down. Whatever happens, it looks like being a fascinating race.
Full results of the Qualiying Practice of the Catalunya MotoGP round.