For most of this year, qualifying has followed a reasonably predictable pattern. A couple of laps after his out lap, Casey Stoner would seize pole position, gradually turning the thumbscrews on the rest of the field. About halfway through the session, Randy de Puniet would be the first rider out on qualifying tires and snatch pole from Stoner. His glory would be short-lived, however, lasting only until Stoner threw on the first set of qualifiers, then the process would repeat itself, the only real question being how big Stoner's margin would be over the rest, and whether Valentino Rossi would manage to qualify on the front row.
The inaugural Indianapolis MotoGP race was anything but predictable, and turned into one of the most fascinating and thrilling sessions of the entire year. This may have been due to the fact that the session was the first truly dry outing of the weekend, with both Friday's sessions having been held in torrential rain, and Saturday's morning free practice session starting off damp, and only really drying out towards the end. And so for most teams, the first 20 minutes of the session were spent searching for some kind of dry weather set up, before they could even think about qualifying.
The session started much as expected, with Casey Stoner the first rider to crack into the 1'43s, but just 10 minutes into the session, the fast laps were flying thick and fast. Ben Spies, Sylvain Guintoli, Nicky Hayden, Jorge Lorenzo, Randy de Puniet and Toni Elias all held provisional pole at one point, as the times edged towards the mid-1'43 mark, and beyond.
But with 20 minutes of the session gone, the really fast times started to shake out. Naturally, the first of the fastest was Casey Stoner, the Australian shaving nearly 3/10ths off Elias' time with a lap of 1'43.105, but he wasn't to be the only quick man. Just a couple of minutes later, Valentino Rossi took 8/100ths off Stoner's provisional pole, improving to 1'43.021.
Rossi wasn't finished there: his provisional pole was just the first in a sequence of fast laps, eventually taking pole down to 1'42.945. But Rossi wasn't the only rider capable of running fast on race tires. Nicky Hayden was running low 1'43s, smoking his rear tire in crowd-pleasing fashion through some of the long left handers, while Toni Elias was also getting quicker. So quick, in fact, that the Spaniard took his Alice Ducati to provisional pole with an impressive 1'42.741, 2/10ths quicker than Rossi's previous time.
But Elias' time on race tires was sure to go once the qualifiers appeared, and shortly after the halfway mark, Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen was the first to give it a shot. Surprisingly, the Australian could only improve to 3rd, falling well short of Elias' pole time, but by now, a whole mess of riders were in for soft qualifying rubber. Ben Spies, Alex de Angelis and Colin Edwards were all out on qualifiers, but only Edwards put his tires to the best use, taking provisional pole with a 1'42.412. De Angelis could only manage 4th, while Ben Spies was suffering from his lack of experience with qualifiers, improving only to 7th.
Not everyone was out on qualifiers, and Casey Stoner has always managed to be plenty fast on race rubber. With 23 minutes of the session left, Stoner took 1/10th off Elias' fastest time on race tires, and a full 3/10ths off Rossi.
But by now, the qualifying tires were flying thick and fast. First Nicky Hayden took back provisional pole, before the Frenchman Randy de Puniet got close to the 1'41 mark, with a lap of 1'42.027. With a quarter of the session left, de Puniet took another shot, and this time hit his mark firmly between the eyes, with a lap of 1'41.570.
Valentino Rossi also took a shot, and though he got into the 1'41s, he could not get close enough to take pole from the LCR Honda rider. A minute later, his Fiat Yamaha team mate did just that, setting the fastest time with a 1'41.488.
As the session entered the final 10 minutes, the already hectic pace exploded. Everyone and anyone was going quickly, but 4 names kept popping up at the front. Nicky Hayden took pole first, with a 1'41.271, before Valentino Rossi took it back with a 1'41.031, while Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner followed very closely behind.
The dying minutes saw the riders taking their final shot on soft rubber, with Valentino Rossi the first to cross the line for the final time, in a blistering time of 1'40.776. At first he looked like being threatened by Nicky Hayden, but the American lost out in the third section, as his smoking rear tire got the better of him. In the end, only Casey Stoner was capable of following Rossi into the 1'40s, coming up a tenth short to take pole, while Jorge Lorenzo consolidated his strong performance at Misano by taking 3rd, 4/10ths behind Rossi, and just ahead of Nicky Hayden.
Ben Spies finished the session in 5th, fastest of the Suzukis by far, and an impressive showing by the young American, considering his limited time on qualifying tires. Spies sits ahead of Randy de Puniet, showing once again that he is capable of putting in incredibly fast laps when needed, though whether he can hold that pace during the race remains to be seen.
Andrea Dovizioso heads up the third row of the grid, ahead of his (probable) team mate for next year, Dani Pedrosa, now on the pneumatic valve engined Honda RC212V and Bridgestone tires, while Toni Elias was unlucky to finish only 9th. Elias was incredibly quick on race tires, but suffered a crash in the last 20 minutes of the session, and lost valuable time trying to qualify. James Toseland rounds out the top 10, just ahead of his team mate Colin Edwards.
Valentino Rossi's pole snaps Casey Stoner's string of 7 poles in a row, but the picture remains the same. Both Stoner and Rossi are the fastest of the bunch, with a sizable gap back to the following group. Stoner is 3/10ths ahead of 3rd place man Jorge Lorenzo, while less than 8/10ths covers 3rd to 12th.
More importantly, qualifying is a poor reflection of times on race tires. On harder rubber, it was Casey Stoner who was fastest, ahead of Toni Elias, Valentino Rossi and Alex de Angelis. Both de Angelis and Elias are too far down on the grid to be a feature, so it's likely to be down to Stoner and Rossi once again. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Nicky Hayden were quick on race rubber, but though they are close on the grid, they are just too far off the pace of the two men chasing the title to be likely to snatch victory.
But the race may well turn out to be completely different to all expectations anyway. Though today's session was dry, rain is forecast for tomorrow, and what's worse, the tail of hurricane Ike could cause a torrential downpour during the afternoon. The race could be moved forward to be run in the morning, or it could even be canceled, if the conditions become too diluvian. Only tomorrow will tell, but it has all the makings of a fascinating spectacle nonetheless.
Full results of the Indianapolis MotoGP qualifying practice here.