The weather had been forecast to be poor for the 2nd day of practice, and boy, where the weather forecasters right. Both this morning's free practice and this afternoon's qualifying practice took place in full rain. And like the morning's session, the afternoon's qualifying saw the wet weather specialists leap straight to the top of the table. Within ten minutes of the session starting, the tables were headed by three Australians: Casey Stoner, Chris Vermeulen and Ant West. Vermeulen and West will be no surprise, both men being renowned specialists in the rain - Vermeulen's protests that he doesn't like the rain notwithstanding - and Stoner has always coped very well in the wet.
The surprise, though, was the margin of Stoner's dominance. After just 5 minutes, Stoner was 3 seconds faster than the field, which Vermeulen managed to cut back to "only" 1.5 seconds within a couple of laps. But the rest of the field were such a long way behind that if it had been a race, Stoner would have been lapping most of them several times.
Vermeulen was putting up a real fight, though. At first he chipped away at Stoner's time, but within a couple of laps, he put in a time which was exactly identical to Stoner's provisional pole time. Another couple of laps, and Ant West had followed the Suzuki man's example, getting within a couple of tenths of Stoner, all three Australians on the grid dominating the field.
With the rain falling hard, there was no chance that qualifiers would be brought out, and so the end of qualifying was likely to see less of a rush for pole. The entire field was out testing rain tires, and looking for a setup that would work. In the rain, it's a lot easier to pass, and so starting from further down the field is less of an issue.
Behind the Australians was a gap, before Valentino Rossi in 4th. Rossi had struggled in the first part of the session, but kept gaining speed throughout the 2nd half hour. His former team mate Colin Edwards was 5th fastest, ahead of Nicky Hayden, revitalized by the pneumatic valves of the Honda. Behind Hayden, Ben Spies was doing a great job filling in for Loris Capirossi, the American 7th fastest with 15 minutes to go.
Vermeulen had been getting close to Stoner's time all session, and with 19 minutes left, he finally cracked it, taking first with a lap of 1'39.876, a tenth of a second faster than Stoner's previous time. But Vermeulen's attack just spurred Stoner on, and with 13 minutes to go, the reigning World Champion demonstrated why he is just that. In a blistering lap, Stoner took over a second off Vermeluen's time, reclaiming provisional pole with a lap of 1'38.869.
Though the qualifying tires had been left back in the tire trucks headed for Assen, the last 10 minutes of the session saw a flurry of activity, as everyone went out on slightly softer rain tires, to try and improve their grid position. With 8 minutes left, Valentino Rossi broke the Australian hegemony, taking 2nd place from Vermeulen. But his conquest was far from permanent, as the Suzuki rider kept getting slicing tenths off his time.
With 4 minutes left, and Casey Stoner on a fast lap, Nicky Hayden arrived to break up the party, taking 2nd from Rossi with a 1'39.270. Seeing riders close on his time, Stoner pushed on again, improving his time once again, first to 1'38.783, then to 1'38.719.
As the clock ticked down on the session, the front row battle hotted up. With 2 minutes left, Valentino Rossi took back 2nd spot, while Vermeulen took 3rd. One lap later, Vermeulen climbed to 2nd, only for Rossi to barge ahead of him in the dying seconds of the session. With a lap of 1'38.881, The Doctor became the second rider to get into the 1'38s, the rest stuck in 1'39s.
While 1'38.881 was a good time, it was nowhere near what Casey Stoner was capable of. Just to prove his point, Stoner took another half a second off his own pole time to set a fantastic time of 1'38.232, over 0.6 faster than 2nd place man Rossi. Casey Stoner set out a warning, and looks very much like the man to beat. If Stoner gets a lead from the line, it could all be over by the time they head down Craner.
Valentino Rossi will be glad to be on the front row, so that he at least stands a chance of staying with Stoner. He'll also be glad to be on Bridgestones, as the Michelins he used last year let him down badly in the wet.
Chris Vermeulen fills out the front row, the Australian showing once again what an outstanding wet weather rider he is. If it rains tomorrow, he'll be in with a good chance of winning.
Nicky Hayden heads up the 2nd row of the grid, clearly much more at ease aboard the new air valve engine. Besides him sits fellow countryman Colin Edwards, with Andrea Dovizioso in 6th.
Like Chris Vermeulen, Ant West took full advantage of his wet weather skills to clinch 7th place, a spot quite unthinkable on the basis of his form this year. And besides West sits an even bigger surprise, Ben Spies qualifying in 8th for his first MotoGP. Contrary to what many Europeans believe, Spies does have experience of riding in the rain, as the AMA does run some races in the rain, though not many. Dani Pedrosa rounds out the 3rd row in 9th.
While Rossi and Edwards sit on the 1st and 2nd rows of the grid, their Yamaha team mates are on the last row. James Toseland seems to have succumbed to nerves in front of his home crowd, and struggled all session. But his misery got worse, as in the dying minutes of the session, Toseland managed to highside not once, but twice, within a half a lap. The first was a big highside at Goddards, as he rounded the hairpin to come back to the line, then, he fell at the Bus Stop, again taking a nasty tumble. Toseland can probably forget about a podium in front of his home fans, but perhaps this thought will let him relax, and just race.
Jorge Lorenzo is still regaining confidence, and was happy to ride around getting a feel for the bike, not wanting to risk another crash. Like his compatriot Dani Pedrosa when Pedrosa first came to the class, Lorenzo is no great lover of the rain. But while Pedrosa has developed into a very strong rider in the rain - if still not comfortable - Lorenzo still has a lot of learning to do.
The weather forecast for tomorrow is uncertain, but it could quite easily be dry. Wet or dry, Casey Stoner has dominated every session, and could win this by a country mile. Valentino Rossi will be glad that he is close enough to at least attempt to put up a fight. It should be a fascinating race on Sunday.