Going into Saturday afternoon's MotoGP qualifying session at Jerez, it was unusually hard to say who was likely to take pole. At Qatar, Casey Stoner had destroyed all-comers, and had also dominated the IRTA test here a month ago. But after two sessions of free practice, any of five men looked possible candidates for pole position. Valentino Rossi had utterly dominated Friday's free practice session, with Loris Capirossi and Casey Stoner some way behind, but Saturday morning was a different kettle of fish. In FP2, it was local heroes Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo who blasted the opposition, with Casey Stoner once again forced to settle for 3rd.
And as the green lights went and the riders rolled out of pit lane and onto the track, it was the two Spaniards who quickly made the early running. Lorenzo took the first shot at pole, but Dani Pedrosa soon took it away from the Mallorcan with a much more serious attempt in the low 1'40 bracket. With times in free practice regularly hitting the mid 1'39s, it was clear that there was plenty left to go.
With so much of practice already scrapped as part of the cost savings measures, the first half of qualifying was set further refining race setup, the teams looking for settings that will work with the hard tires they expect to use in the race. But as the clock ticked down past the 20 minutes to go mark, riders started to sling on the softer of the two compounds available and chase grid positions for the race on Sunday.
As a reminder of what we lost when we lost the special qualifying tires, Randy de Puniet made some of the early running, quickly getting up into 2nd, and then losing out in the final section after registering blazing times through the first three parts of the track. But it wasn't until the 15 minutes to go mark had passed that qualifying began in earnest.
Colin Edwards took the first shot at Pedrosa's low 1'40 time, and looked strong until the final section of the track, where the wind had been causing havoc all day, and lost the time he gained, finishing up 5th fastest. Then a couple of minutes later, Jorge Lorenzo took aim and shot true, the first man to crack the 1'40 barrier with a time of 1'30.675. Both Loris Capirossi and Valentino Rossi were hot on his heels, but again, both men lost out in the final section, and couldn't get near Lorenzo's time.
But the game was afoot, and Casey Stoner would be next to lay his cards upon the table. The Australian was fast, but with 12 minutes to go could not beat the Fiat Yamaha man, coming up short in 2nd. The fastest man in the morning session had more success, Dani Pedrosa shattering Lorenzo's time by half a second to take back provisional pole with 11 minutes to go.
But Pedrosa did not get to enjoy his position for long: Seconds later, Lorenzo was back, with another lap 2/10ths under Pedrosa's and back on the front of the grid. Loris Capirossi tried, but came up short, as did Casey Stoner, but no one was near enough to threaten. With 6 minutes left, Valentino Rossi gave it his best shot, but even the reigning World Champion could only get within half a second of his team mate with a provisional 3rd spot on the grid.
Lorenzo wasn't finished yet, though. A minute later, the Spaniard was back, and into the 1'38s. Again, Pedrosa responded, but again, the Repsol Honda man came up short, just 0.05 seconds off his fellow countryman's time. Casey Stoner had another go, but the Australian couldn't near Lorenzo either. His first attempt left him half a second off Lorenzo's time, his final lap only shaving a few hundredths off that deficit, Stoner could not improve on his 3rd spot.
His position was also under threat from tital rival Valentino Rossi. The Italian set a blistering pace in the first half of the track, losing out in the second half, then did exactly the same on the next lap, improving his time but not his position, still stuck in 4th. As the flag dropped, Jorge Lorenzo repeated his pole-winning performance of last year, taking the front spot on the grid.
Beside Lorenzo will sit Dani Pedrosa, and with both men setting long runs with good times earlier during practice, there is little to choose between the two. No doubt Pedrosa will get a rocket start, but if Lorenzo can get off the line well, he should be able to prevent his arch rival from repeating the disappearing trick he performed here last year. Pedrosa will also have to contend with Casey Stoner, who is struggling with the wind on the Ducati's big fairing.
Valentino Rossi has left himself with work to do, starting from the front of the second row. On Friday, he was utterly invincible, but in the cooler temperatures on Saturday morning, there was little left of his dominance. A change in setup failed to cure the problems he found in the morning, but some last minute experimentation on Sunday morning may yet provide the solutions he seeks, as it has done so many times before. Rossi told reporters that the problems he had been having centered around finding the right balance with the machine, and that Casey Stoner was having the same difficulty. The single tires have so far failed to play out to Rossi and Stoner's advantage, the Italian believes.
Randy de Puniet continued his good form here at Jerez with a solid 5th place, and is looking consistently fast for the race. Of course, de Puniet will have to not let the excitement go to his head, and throw his Playboy-sponsored LCR Honda into the dirt, but if he doesn't he could cause a couple of surprises. Suzuki's Loris Capirossi rounds out the second row of the grid, the Italian being fast all weekend, but still not quite capable of closing the gap to the front runners.
Colin Edwards heads up the third row with the 7th fastest time, and was disappointed to be so far back after strong showings in Qatar and - until the race - Motegi. Edwards has Andrea Dovizioso behind him, who has joined the general Honda complaints of a lack of grip, but the Italian was faster on race tires than the softer tires used to set a grid position. The other factory-spec RC212V, the Gresini Honda of Toni Elias, sits beside Dovizioso in 9th. Chris Vermeulen on the second Suzuki rounds out the top 10, while Marco Melandri just misses out in 11th.
Most worrying from Ducati's perspective is the dismal results of the remaining GP9 bikes. Sete Gibernau - the promotion of Africa's worst dictatorship now thankfully gone - is the best of the other Ducati riders in 12th, 1.5 seconds off Lorenzo and over a second slower than Casey Stoner, but the other three Ducatis, including Nicky Hayden on the other Factory bike, are at the bottom of the timesheets in 16th, 17th and 18th. Not even Mika Kallio has been able to put in a hot lap here to save the Bologna factory's honor. Once again, it really looks like there's only one man who can ride the bike.
With nothing to choose between Lorenzo and Pedrosa, and Rossi and Stoner both running similar times in race trim to the sparring Spaniards, tomorrow's race could be closer than last year. But to bet against there being a Spanish winner on Sunday would take a brave man, or a fool. We shall see when the flag drops.