Qualifying practice turned out to be one of the most dramatic sessions we have seen for a long time at Laguna Seca, and not in a good way. By the end of the session, two of the three men leading the championship had suffered violent highsides and been stretchered off, though both Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo are expected to race tomorrow.
It all started off much as expected, with Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo leading the way, Stoner the first into the 1'22 bracket, followed shortly after by Lorenzo. The two young championship protagonists were soon joined by Andrea Dovizioso, and as the first quarter of the session ended, the Repsol Honda man and his team mate Dani Pedrosa took charge, Pedrosa taking over pole.
The Repsol Honda resurgence would be short-lived. Within a couple of minutes, Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner were playing leapfrog with provisional pole again, Stoner getting down into the low 1'22s and then Lorenzo cracking the 1'21s with a lap of 1'21.950. Valentino Rossi, who until that point had been well down the order, soon chipped away at his best time and was soon up to 3rd, a quarter of a second off Lorenzo's pole time.
As the 20 minute approached, Jorge Lorenzo suffered the first of the two crashes he was to have during qualifying, folding the front in Turn 10 and sliding off relatively unhurt into the gravel, his main concern how to get back to the pits in time to improve his time. In the meantime, Casey Stoner took back pole, shaving hundredths off first Lorenzo's time, and then his own, with a lap of 1'21.910. Minutes later, Valentino Rossi joined Stoner and Lorenzo in the 1'21s with a lap of 1'21.958, then another of 1'21.954.
Lorenzo's dash back into the pits would be handsomely rewarded, as the next time out, on the softer of the two available compounds, Lorenzo snatched pole back again, with a much faster time of 1'21.674. Both Lorenzo and Stoner then headed into the pits, ready for a final assault on the pole time. But with just 3 minutes of the session left, just as he entered Turn 10 on his approach to a flying lap, Jorge Lorenzo's rear Bridgestone slid, then caught, flinging the Spaniard high into the air and sending his Fiat Yamaha tumbling through the gravel. Lorenzo had difficulty getting up, clearly in pain in his leg, and was transported to the medical center by ambulance. There he was diagnosed with a partially dislocated shoulder blade and a bruised foot.
With Lorenzo out, challengers had a clear run at pole, but just seconds after Jorge Lorenzo had highsided out, Casey Stoner followed suit, the Australian being tossed from his Ducati in Turn 3 and tumbling through the gravel. Stoner came off better than Lorenzo, however, escaping with just a severely bruised hip, which shouldn't cause him too much trouble during tomorrow's race, at least not as much as the mystery virus which continues to plague the Ducati rider.
As the minutes ticked down, the front row looked already settled, as none of the other riders looked capable of matching the pace of Lorenzo, Stoner and Rossi. Though the composition may have been fixed, Valentino Rossi was not happy with the order, and on his final laps, set about doing something about it. The Italian was fast in the first three sectors, but in the final sector, from the bottom of the Corkscrew through Rainey and Turns 10 and 11, he couldn't get his Fiat Yamaha M1 to motor, and he would give up all the ground he had gained. on his final flying lap, Rossi finally managed to improve, sneaking up into 2nd with a lap of 1'21.845, still 0.167 off Lorenzo's time.
Though the Spaniard was absent both in parc ferme and in the post-qualifying TV interviews, Lorenzo remains on pole, ahead of his team mate and Casey Stoner. In terms of race pace, there is nothing to choose between Lorenzo and Stoner, the pair running race laps within a few hundredths and even thousandths of each other. Valentino Rossi, on the other hand, will need the magic touch of Jeremy Burgess tomorrow morning to help him find the couple of tenths of a second he is off the pace of Lorenzo and Stoner.
On the other hand, Rossi may not need too much help after all. Lorenzo is badly banged up, and with a decision due on his fitness to race tomorrow morning, is unlikely to be able to push Rossi has hard as he did at Barcelona. As for Casey Stoner, he may have escaped serious injury, but there are still question marks over his fitness, as the mystery virus which plagued him at Barcelona and Assen has returned at Laguna Seca. Laguna is a physically demanding track at the best of times, after highsiding and with some form of viral infection, it's going to be hard to be competitive for 32 laps.
The three factory-spec Hondas are behind the usual suspects at the front. Dani Pedrosa leads from Repsol Honda team mate Andrea Dovizioso and San Carlo Gresini's Toni Elias, but the three are separated by just 0.033 seconds. Elias has been especially impressive, the 2008 chassis giving him much more confidence and rear grip, and the ability to match the pace of the front runners.
Two Americans head up the third row on the grid, one rather unhappy, one much happier. Colin Edwards sits in 7th place, but has been struggling with suspension issues all weekend, while Nicky Hayden is up in 8th, and much closer to the fight at the front. It looks like Hayden is starting to reap the fruits of the radical changes made at Catalunya.
The two Suzukis round out the top 10, Chris Vermeulen heading up Loris Capirossi.
Blame for the highsides - and there has been a spate of them at Laguna Seca, including Colin Edwards, Chris Vermeulen and Niccolo Canepa - is being placed firmly on the Bridgestone spec tires. Valentino Rossi commented that the lack of asymmetric tires, or even dual compound tires, is probably to blame for the crashes, as the right side of the tire doesn't get worked as heavily at Laguna as the left hand side does. And in all of the press releases which discussed crashes, all of them referred to the crashes being caused by cold tires, cooling off either as a result of riders getting in the way or ther factors holding riders up and preventing them from getting sufficient heat into the tires. Spec tires may have simplified the choices in MotoGP, but sometimes, those choices appear to be a little too simple.