Qualifying for the MotoGP class at Mugello took place under a hot Tuscan sun, the weekend continuing as it started yesterday. And just like yesterday afternoon, it was Valentino Rossi taking an early lead, cracking under the race lap record and into the 1'49s on just his 3rd lap. Rossi had been goaded into action after the morning session in which Casey Stoner once again did what he does best, which is to start fast and never let up, the Australian setting an astonishing 1'49.323 in the second session of free practice. So by laying down the law early in qualifying, Valentino Rossi set out his stall, making it clear to all what it would take to beat him.
For the first half of qualifying, the only man capable of getting close to Rossi was his team mate Jorge Lorenzo. Both Fiat Yamaha men spent the first 30 minutes doing long runs and race simulations, the pair of them putting in terrifyingly consistent runs in the mid to high 1'49s, setting the pace that will be needed for victory at Mugello on Sunday. Only Colin Edwards looked capable of approaching the pace of the Fiat Yamahas, the Texan demonstrating that the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha is very close to the factory bikes in performance.
The halfway point of the session came and went, and the wait began for the first real challenge to Rossi's dominance. The expectation was that it would come from Casey Stoner, as Stoner's time from the morning session was still nearly half a second quicker than Rossi's provisional pole session, but the Australian was having problems with the Ducati, spending time diving in and out of the pits to adjust the bike, and get the machine to turn.
With 18 minutes of the session left, it was Valentino Rossi who was worrying away at his own time, getting it down to 1'49.443, but forty seconds later, Casey Stoner made his first attempt on Rossi's pole time, snatching top spot with a lap of 1'49.370. Stoner's lead was to last for 10 minutes, as Rossi and Lorenzo worked up to speed, Rossi taking back provisional pole with a 1'49.227.
As the session entered its final 6 minutes, the track filled with riders ready to make their last shot on the softer of the two compounds Bridgestone brought to the track, their best shot. With under 3 minutes left, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo were all out on track, and under the existing pole time at the intermediate checkpoints. Rossi crossed the line first, and cut his time again to 1'49.148, but his time would not stand for long. Loris Capirossi, who had been running with the group containing Rossi, Stoner and Toni Elias, crossed the line a couple of seconds later, and snatched pole from Rossi with a lap of 1'49.121.
Casey Stoner had been the fastest of the group, but had lost out in the final sector, improving his time but not enough for to take pole. But there was still enough time for one more shot at the front row of the grid.
Jorge Lorenzo was still out on track, and flying. The Spaniard was quickest through the intermediate timing points, and as the final seconds ticked away on the session clock, Lorenzo crossed the line and smashed through the 1'49 barrier, setting a time of 1'48.987 to take pole. Rossi, who had been matching Lorenzo's pace through the first half of the track, slowed up in the final section and couldn't improve. But The Doctor did get across the line just in time to start a final lap. Behind him, Stoner was too late, crossing the line as the checkered flag fell, but was fast enough to take 2nd place with a lap of 1'49.008.
Stoner's time left Valentino Rossi with it all to do. The Italian has only ever started from the front row of the grid at Mugello, and had one final attempt to beat the times of Lorenzo, Stoner and Capirossi. Rossi was quick round the first half of the track once again, but just like the previous lap, he came up short in the final section, crossing the line way off the pace, and left down on the second row of the grid. One streak had come to an end for Rossi at Mugello, he would not be starting from the front row.
Lorenzo's pole time is remarkable, given that it was set on a medium compound race tire, and was just 0.8 seconds off Rossi's previous pole record set on super-sticky qualifying rubber, capable of lasting only a single lap. But what was more impressive was his solid race simulation early in the session, the Spaniard showing exactly what a winning race pace will be.
Casey Stoner should be capable of matching that race pace, but only if things go as well as they did in FP2, rather than during qualifying. The Australian ran only short runs during QP, spending a lot of time in the pits trying to get the bike to turn, something which it had done perfectly well in the morning. If the team can fix the problem, Stoner will match the pace.
Loris Capirossi, on the other hand, looks less capable of running race pace. The Italian veteran put in a couple of fast laps in his first run, but the Suzuki is still down on power compared to both the Yamaha and the Ducati. If he can get a good start, he may be able to stick with the front runners for a while, but you have to doubt whether he can maintain that pace for the full 23 laps.
Valentino Rossi certainly can. Despite his failure to get on the front row, Rossi was running consistent strings of mid 1'49s, the kind of speed needed to match Lorenzo, and maybe even beat him. Rossi's streak of front row starts may be over, but his win streak at Mugello isn't dead yet.
Randy de Puniet will start from 5th on the grid, but his place was down to a strong qualifying rather than fast race pace. Colin Edwards and Andrea Dovizioso, on the other hand, have plenty of race pace, but came up short in qualifying, ending up 6th and 7th on the grid. Both men were running consistent low 1'50s, which won't be enough for victory, but will be good enough for 4th, and might even give them a shot at the final podium spot.
In 8th spot sits a troubled Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard pulled a muscle in his hip during the morning session - though rumors persist that he actually dislocated the hip - catching a near-highside. The pain in his leg has left Pedrosa struggling to control the bike, and doubtful of lasting a full race. Luck certainly isn't going Pedrosa's way this season, as the Spaniard had been fast at previous races, and was nearly back to full fitness from his knee injury.
Toni Elias finished up 9th during qualifying, starting to make progress and get closer to the position his factory RC212V would dictate. Yuki Takahashi put in an impressive final burst to take 10th spot, a huge improvement for the Japanese rider, usually found at the back of the grid.
The rear of the grid is peopled by two Ducatis, Mika Kallio in 17th behind Nicky Hayden. Clearly the Ducati remains virtually unrideable, with only Casey Stoner capable of getting results from the machine. Even Niccolo Canepa, at the track where he has ridden thousands of laps as Ducati's test rider, could only qualify in 13th spot, an impressive enough achievement for the Italian rookie.
Right now, the world is full of admiration for Ducati, and the results that Stoner has brought them. But take the Australian out of the equation, and the Ducati transforms from race winner to grid filler. If anything happens to Casey Stoner, or the Australian decides to try his chances elsewhere, Ducati is in a whole heap of trouble, and the factory would have reason to seriously question its involvement in MotoGP.
If it stays dry on Sunday, then the race looks like being incredibly tight between Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, giving Rossi the chance to keep his winning streak alive. But the weather forecast for Sunday is bad, with rain a near certainty for the race at 2pm. This may yet work in Rossi's favor, as the teams may only have the morning session to test a wet setup, if it rains in the morning that is. Otherwise, the field could find itself on bikes set up by guesswork, ready to tackle a soaking wet Mugello. Either way, it looks like being a fascinating race on Sunday.