Qualifying for Sunday's Catalunya Grand Prix took place in intense heat, making the conditions difficult for both riders and bikes. The riders were thankful that this was the first outing for Bridgestone's asymmetric dual compound tires, for the combination of very high track temperatures and the Barcelona track's endless right handers made a very hard compound necessary on the right-hand side of the tire, but a relatively softer compound on the left-hand side.
The heat meant that the early running was made by the riders on the hardest of the tires available, the extra-hard rear and the hard front, the compounds the teams are almost certain to be using in the race tomorrow. It was Jorge Lorenzo who took practice for the race to the greatest extreme, the Spaniard starting out the session with a monster run of 17 laps, over two thirds of race distance.
It wasn't just a long run, however, Lorenzo also demonstrated he was on race pace, taking the top spot after just a couple of laps, briefly ceding it to Andrea Dovizioso, then snatching it back, the first rider to lap under 1'43, with a time of 1'42.990. A lap later, Lorenzo took another two tenths off his time, setting out a marker of where race pace will be, and following it up with a long string of laps in the high 1'42s and low 1'43s.
The only person capable of following was Lorenzo's Fiat Yamaha team mate, Valentino Rossi. Rossi too ran low 1'43s, taking a provisional 2nd place on the grid with a quarter of the session gone. The other candidates for victory tomorrow were all running mid-1'43s, a couple of tenths off Rossi's pace.
While more than half the hour-long session remained, work continued apace on race setup, and any thoughts of pole were banished until later in the day. But as the 30 minute mark approached, the first tires appeared bearing the White Stripe Of Softness, the sign that the tire was the softer of the two available compounds. At Catalunya, that meant a hard rear tire, with the harder option being classified by Bridgestone as extra hard, and the first riders to venture out on them were well down the back of the grid.
Toni Elias was an early adopter, leaping up into 8th, quickly followed by team mate Alex de Angelis, ending one place behind his Gresini Honda companion. A couple of minutes later, James Toseland was up into 10th, while Chris Vermeulen worked his way forward, from 13th to 11th to 9th.
But Randy de Puniet, traditionally the first man to put on qualifiers when the super-soft tires still existed, was making good progress with the white-stripe pseudo-qualifiers. The Frenchman had already claimed 4th on the last lap of his run on race tires, but with stickier rubber, he was rapidly gaining ground on 3rd. Missing out on one lap, he claimed it the next, with 22 minutes of the session still to go.
Qualifying proper was now on, and with 20 minutes left, Valentino Rossi was the first to make a successful assault on pole, taking 0.2 seconds off Lorenzo's best time with a lap of 1'42.580. A lap later, and another quarter of a second faster, with a lap of 1'42.327. His team mate was close behind him though, close on Rossi's tail, but not close enough to take back pole, improving his time to 1'42.732.
With a quarter of the session left, Rossi and Lorenzo were joined in the 1'42s by Andrea Dovizioso, taking over 3rd with a lap of 1'42.910, a time he then improved the next lap. But as fast as these times were, more was surely still to come, as the times had not yet breached Dani Pedrosa's lap record from 2008, a record which Jorge Lorenzo had crushed in the morning session of free practice.
As the session entered its final frantic 10 minutes, the battle for pole was shaping up to be a straight fight between the Fiat Yamaha team mates. Both Lorenzo and Rossi were improving their laps every time they hit the track, with Rossi managing to keep just ahead of his younger Spanish team mate.
With 3 minutes of the session left, Casey Stoner looked like spoiling the party, the Ducati man taking over 2nd place with a lap of 1'42.452, shaving another 0.026 off his time next lap round. But Jorge Lorenzo had no intention of surrendering pole at his home Grand Prix, and with a minute of the session left, the Spaniard hounded his Yamaha round the track to a time of 1'41.974.
It was a fantastic time, but whether it was good enough for pole was anything but certain. As the dying seconds of the session ticked away, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi looked close to challenging Lorenzo's time, while Lorenzo sought to tighten his grip on pole. But though Dovizioso improved, and Rossi cracked into the 1'41s, neither man could beat Lorenzo's time, and the Spaniard held on to take pole for his home race.
As impressive as Lorenzo's pole time was, his race pace was even stronger. The Spaniard is clearly the favorite for tomorrow, having shown both the ability and the setup to run low 1'42s for a very long time in these difficult conditions.
Valentino Rossi was irritated to have been outdone by his team mate yet again, but the Italian showed that he has the pace to follow Lorenzo in race trim, and with just 0.013 between them on the grid, the race looks like being very close.
Casey Stoner was disappointed to finish in 3rd, and was complaining of setup problems with his Ducati. But the Australian is not far off the pace of the Fiat Yamahas, and if the team can find an improvement in tomorrow morning's warmup, then the race could easily turn into a three-way fight at the front.
Andrea Dovizioso heads up the second row in 4th place, the only other rider to be within a second of Lorenzo's pole time. But Dovizioso is missing just a couple of tenths a lap to be able to follow the Yamahas, and will need a good start to be able to hang with the trio likely to lead tomorrow.
Beside Dovizioso's sits the first of the day's surprises, Toni Elias finally finding some pace on his factory-spec Gresini Honda, and starting from 5th on the grid. But while his qualifying time was respectable, race pace is a different matter indeed.
Elias leads a gaggle of riders all within 0.1 of each other. Elias sits in 5th, ahead of Colin Edwards in 6th, Randy de Puniet in 7th, Dani Pedrosa in 8th and James Toseland in 9th, with nothing to choose between them. Of the group, Pedrosa had looked the most impressive in the morning, but in the afternoon, after his painkilling injections started to wear off, Pedrosa's pace dropped off, leaving him further down the field.
In the last minutes of the session, Pedrosa added to his plight by dropping his Honda, after running into Turn 4 too hot, and deciding to abandon ship once he looked like running into the air fence. Pedrosa escaped unhurt, but the incident prevented him from improving his time, and left him to start from the third row of the grid.
Mika Kallio will start from 10th on the grid, but again heads up a pack of riders all within another tenth of a second. Kallio starts ahead of Loris Capirossi, Chris Vermeulen, Nicky Hayden and Alex de Angelis, with nothing to choose between their best times.
Of the riders behind the front 5, only Randy de Puniet looks capable of running a pace consistently fast enough to stick with the front runners. But de Puniet will start from the third row, and will need a good start to get up with Lorenzo, Rossi and Stoner before the end of the first lap.
Honorable mention must go to Gabor Talmacsi, who in just his third hour on the bike managed to get to within 4 seconds of Lorenzo's impressive pole time. The Hungarian newcomer is likely to finish last in tomorrow's race, but he will certainly not disgrace himself. It's a big step up from riding 125s last year, to 250s in the first 3 races of the season, to trying to tame a MotoGP beast with no previous experience at all. Talmacsi took a second off his time every session he went out, and showed plenty of potential.
Talmacsi should be able to avoid being lapped on Sunday, but with the pace at the front likely to be relentless, it will be a close run thing. The margin of victory was just over a second at Mugello, but there's every chance that it will be a great deal less here at Barcelona. With Rossi and Lorenzo capable of matching each other's pace for lap after lap, this could be a very close run thing indeed, and if Casey Stoner can tag along, and maybe Andrea Dovizioso, it could turn into a fight to remember. With the weather expected to be hot, sunny and dry, at least it will be a straightforward race, without the complications of the flag-to-flag rules.