If the atmosphere was tense during practice yesterday, today it was as taut as piano wire. The morning session had already seen the Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi square off on qualifying tires, Hayden coming within 4/100ths of Rossi's fastest lap, with both men diving just under Sete Gibernau's qualifying time from last year. Prior to the qualifiers coming out, both men had set long runs of 1:33 laps, proving they both had decent race pace. But neither of these sets of laps were quite as impressive as Loris Capirossi's 19 lap run, 18 laps of which were below 1:34. With Capirex capable of doing 2/3rds race distance on his Ducati at that kind of pace, it no longer looked like a two man fight.
By the afternoon, the stage was set for what has to have been one of the most intense qualifying sessions ever. As the bikes rolled out on to the track for the final time, the question was how much time would be spent looking for a race set-up, and how quickly would people start looking for fast laps? Valencia is a very difficult track to pass at, thanks to its tortuous infield, so a place at the front is crucial. Almost from the start, Loris Capirossi set a fast time, putting in a string of 1:32s, getting progressively faster almost every lap. The Ducatis were obviously fast, as World Superbike refugee Troy Bayliss was running close behind Capirossi's times. By the 40 minute mark, no one had really gotten close to challenging the Bolognese supremacy, but the reigning world champion had come closest, putting in a couple of runs in the 1:33 bracket. At that moment, Hayden was down in 7th, though climbing gradually up the timesheet. On his 2nd run, the Kentucky Kid was starting to post better lap times, hitting 1:32s on a regular basis.
Just as Hayden got closer to Rossi's times, attention suddenly shifted to Randy de Puniet, who put on a set of qualifiers just 25 minutes into the session, and ripped through to a fastest lap of 1:31.914, 1/10 slower than the storming time Valentino Rossi had set during the morning session. The French Kawasaki rider had stated his intention of taking the pole on Friday, after his fine 2nd fastest time in FP2. The qualifiers were out, and the gloves were quite clearly off.
But with 35 minutes of the session to go, it seemed a little early to be putting in pole laps. Any time spent trying to get a qualifying time now would cost valuable time testing race set-ups. On the other hand, a spot on the front row is vital at Valencia, so it could well be worth the risk. Especially if, like Loris Capirossi, you already have a pretty good race set-up. Having put in fast consistent sessions in the morning and at the beginning of qualifying, Loris set about attempting to conquer pole, and with 32 minutes left, he smashed Sete Gibernau's pole record by nearly 2/10ths of a second.
The minutes that followed confirmed that Bridgestone had brought some excellent qualifying tires, as the Ducatis, Kawasakis and Suzukis all started putting in fast laps. But it took 10 minutes for Capirossi's time to be bettered. Fortunately for both Bridgestone and Ducati, it was Loris' temporary team mate Troy Bayliss who did so, shaving a fraction off Capirex's time, with a 1:31.585.
Bayliss could not enjoy his advantage for as long as Capirossi did, for within 3 minutes Nicky Hayden showed everyone that he meant business. If first Capirossi then Bayliss had broken Gibernau's former pole record, Hayden just crushed, coming within a hair of taking 1/2 a second off of the previous record. A couple of hundred yards behind Hayden, danger lurked, as Valentino Rossi followed the Kentucky Kid around. Everywhere Hayden had been fast, Rossi had been faster, or nearly as fast. The question was, how long would Hayden's pole time last? As The Doctor crossed the line, it was clear just what a strong time Hayden's lap had been: Rossi came in over 1/10th slower, taking 2nd place.
But it was a long way from over. With close to 15 minutes to go, nothing was settled, despite the blistering pace. Rider after rider put in a fast lap, but no one could get close, until, with 9 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi wrested the pole back from arch-rival Hayden, setting a time of 1:31.234, just over 0.1 of a second faster than Hayden's time.
The Bridgestones were not yet done, and both Nakano and Capirossi put in strong shots at the pole, both falling short. Then, with 3 minutes left, a missile struck: a Baylisstic missile, Sete Gibernau's replacement, and the man who had given the Ducati Desmosedici its first public outing, put in one more astonishingly fast lap, shaving 3/100ths off Valentino Rossi's pole time, to steal the top spot on the time sheet. Bayliss' pole didn't look like it would last long though, as not far behind, The Kentucky Kid was back on a stormer: beating Bayliss' time at every intermediate, the pole seemed to be his, until he came across Alex Hofmann on his out lap. Hofmann did his best to get out of Hayden's way, but Nicky's rhythm was broken, and he lost 3/10ths in the last section. His pole attempt ruined, and with not enough time left in the session to take out another qualifier, Hayden could only wait for the session to end, and hope that he had done enough to stay on the front row.
There was one man Hayden didn't have to wait for. A few seconds after Hayden's lap finished, a yellow bike flashed passed the timing lights in a mind-bending 1:31.002, just 2/1000ths away from smashing the 1:31 barrier. That man was, of course, Valentino Rossi. Rossi's time was nearly 9/10ths faster than Gibernau's previous pole record, an astounding feat. Though Rossi had taken the moral victory, snatching the pole, all was not yet lost for Hayden. He was still on the front row, in 3rd place, but there were still a couple of minutes left. Not enough time for Hayden to go back in for a new tire, but enough for others, already out on the track, to have a shot at beating him.
The first man to do that was Shinya Nakano, who set a time just fractionally faster than Hayden's, but this was enough to push the Kentucky Kid onto the 2nd row. Starting directly behind Rossi wouldn't have been so bad, but the session was still not done: As the clock ticked down, Loris Capirossi put in a last gasp attempt to take back the fastest time, or at least to beat his temporary team mate. Beating Bayliss proved impossible, but his time was good enough to clinch 3rd place, taking the final spot on the front row, and pushing Hayden down into 5th.
So as the session ended, and the showboating began, the victor of the day was Valentino Rossi. He had demolished the old pole record, shown that he had race pace, and would start from the front of the grid. Beside Rossi sat two Ducatis, the first of them being Bayliss, taking 2nd place on the grid at a track he knows well. Next to Bayliss sits his team mate Loris Capirossi, who will prove a real threat if he can set the same pace in the race that he set in practice.
Heading up the 2nd row sits Shinya Nakano, starting his last race on the Kawasaki determined to put on a good show. And beside Nakano sits Nicky Hayden. Starting from 5th is not disastrous, but it does make things difficult for the Kid. Fortunately for Hayden, team mate Dani Pedrosa, who has pledged to do all he can to help Hayden, sits right next to him in 6th.
Bad news for Hayden is Casey Stoner in 7th place. Stoner is a notoriously fast starter, often taking 4 or 5 places from the start, something Hayden won't want. Besides Stoner sit the Suzuki pairing of Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins. The Bridgestones have good race pace, so neither of them can be counted out. Rounding out the top 10 is Colin Edwards, too far down the grid to be of much help to his team mate in Valencia.
Nicky Hayden has an uphill struggle tomorrow. But one thing that has changed is his options: In previous races, Hayden has ridden conservatively, attempting to safely maximize his points. It's a wise, but uninspiring approach, and one which is now entirely redundant. Hayden only has one option tomorrow, and that is to ride the race of his life to try and win. With Valentino Rossi in this kind of form, nothing else will suffice.