Fate must be having a crackdown on hubris. Just as in Shanghai, where the predicted Ducati domination failed to materialize, Le Mans has once again proven the pundits to be quite wrong. Those who are supposed to know about these things had forecast that in France, the roles would be reversed, and the Yamahas would make all the running, with the Ducatis desperately trying to keep up, and not lose too much ground, and the Hondas struggling at the back. I was one of those voices, but today's thrilling qualifying has proved us all comprehensively wrong.
The session started fairly sunny and warm, and though there were worries that clouds, and maybe even some light rain, might spoil play, the weather cooperated, leaving us to enjoy a fascination session. From the outset, John Hopkins set out to prove that the fastest time he set in this morning's session was no fluke, and Hopper's Suzuki and Casey Stoner's Ducati contested the top spot for the first 10 minutes or so, the American and the Australian pushing each other further into the 1'35 bracket. After less than 10 minutes, Stoner set the fastest time of the weekend, with a 1'35.109, but he did not have to wait long for a response. Three minutes later, the Anglo-American became the first rider to crack into the 1'34s, with a lap of 1'34.963.
Stoner and Edwards were joined at the top of the lap charts by the American veteran Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado became the second rider to crack the 1'34 barrier, taking 2nd spot ahead of Stoner. Behind Stoner, Dani Pedrosa headed up Marco Melandri, with Alex Barros sitting around 6th spot on the Pramac Ducati.
While the rest of the field seemed to be concentrating on testing race tires and finding a setup for Sunday, Kawasaki struck. With just over a third of the session gone, Randy de Puniet put on his first qualifying tire, an event which, like Christmas, just seems to keep getting earlier. The young Frenchman was obviously hoping to take advantage of a lull in activity on the track to secure a strong starting position for his home Grand Prix, and though he set the fastest time of the session so far, with a 1'34.837, it was obvious even at this stage that this was going to be a long way short of the what it would take to clinch pole.
Behind de Puniet, reigning world champion Nicky Hayden was improving, climbing from 8th place to temporarily take the 5th fastest time. While Hayden had been expected to struggle, and was doing better than anticipated, the opposite was true of Valentino Rossi. The Doctor had come to Le Mans hoping to expunge the memory of last year's disastrous race, where he dropped out with mechanical problems while charging through the field on his way to the front, but he has struggled to find pace in almost every session so far. Just before the halfway mark, Rossi climbed up from 9th to 7th, but still a long way behind where he would need to start from on Sunday. Where team mate Edwards has found a good setup almost from the off, The Doctor just can't seem to get his Fiat Yamaha set up to his liking.
As the clock ticked down to the 20 minute to go mark, the first batch of (non-Kawasaki) qualifiers came out, and times began to tumble. First Melandri improved his time, then Alex Barros, then with 22 minutes left, Shinya Nakano came out with the first of his qualifiers to take 2nd spot, after good for the fastest time for much of the lap. But Nakano's time at the top of the lap charts was to be short lived.
3 minutes later, Casey Stoner was out on a fast lap. To see Stoner setting fast section times was much as we expected, but trailing in Stoner's wake was the surprise of the session so far: French Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha rider Sylvain Guintoli was flying, tracking Stoner as the Australian chased towards the fastest time. Stoner flashed across the finish line to set provisional pole, but his time was to last for less than half a second. For in Stoner's slipstream came Guintoli, delighting the Le Mans crowd and the Dunlop garage with a highly respectable 1'34.716. Still a long way off what would be needed to secure pole, but a great result for Dunlop, and proof that the British tire maker is rapidly closing on the two big names in MotoGP.
Guintoli could savor his position for a full five minutes before reality set in, in the shape of Carlos Checa. With a quarter of an hour to go, the Spaniard, whose LCR Honda team is at the very bottom of the HRC food chain when it comes to getting new parts to help with the fraught RC212V, came within spitting distance of the 1'33 barrier, setting a time of 1'34.038, 5/100ths of a second off Dani Pedrosa's pole time from last year. Checa has been surprisingly strong all weekend, his fastest time of the session so far confirming his form.
The track was now virtually deserted, as the pits became a hive of activity, tires and wheels littering the garage fronts. With 11 minutes to, John Hopkins climbed to 2nd position, still shy of the 1'33 marker, while the track filled up with riders. The times started coming thick and fast, the timing screens awash with red and blue helmets. Rossi, Hayden and Stoner all vied for 3rd in the 9th minute, while one minute later, Carlos Checa strengthened his grip on pole, smashing the 1'33 barrier with a time of 1'33.859, taking over a tenth of a second of Dani Pedrosa's existing pole record. Behind Checa, Colin Edwards confirmed his form, taking 2nd with a time just shy of the 1'33s.
With 2 minutes to, the riders were out putting in their last gasp attempts at taking pole. Hopkins and Elias came up short, but the Wizard of Oz did not: Casey Stoner looked like having wrapped up pole position with time to spare, smashing Checa's time by over a tenth, with a lap of 1'33.710. Valentino Rossi looked like stealing Stoner's thunder, but came up just short, while Nicky Hayden climbed once again into 5th.
The pole seemed settled, with everyone out setting fast laps, but all looked out of contention with Stoner. The only man with a shot was Colin Edwards. But Edwards was 0.2 seconds down at the first intermediate timing section, losing a fraction more in the second section, and clawing back a fraction in the third section. Then, the Texas Tornado touched down, and laid waste to everything in his path: Through the final section, Edwards not only made good the 0.2 seconds he was down, he took off another tenth in a convincing display of all-out riding, to clinch the first MotoGP pole of his career. He had fallen heavily in the morning session, and walked way unhurt, and having decided that "the ground doesn't hurt that bad," he risked everything to take a deserved pole.
Edwards' fantastic first pole rather overshadowed Casey Stoner's great 2nd position. Ducati had been expected to struggle here, but if this is what Stoner looks like when he's struggling, then both Nicky Hayden's title defense and Valentino Rossi's title challenge are starting to look in real trouble. Carlos Checa takes the 3rd, and the final spot on the front of the grid, another rider who was not expected to do well at Le Mans, despite his previous strong showings here.
Checa's strong performance, and his team mate's incredible pole, pushed Valentino Rossi down to 4th. Starting from the 2nd row of the grid will not be what The Doctor ordered, especially as he is having so much trouble with his race set up. Far from being his to lose, the Le Mans race looks like being another incredibly tough fight for Rossi. And besides him, sits another man who can get in his way: John Hopkins has looked very strong all weekend, and will be out to improve on his podium from last week. He has the pace, and the Suzuki's new engine has given him just a little bit more of an edge. And to add to Rossi's troubles, the Wild Man of MotoGP, Terrible Toni Elias is with him on the second row, taking 6th spot on the grid. With Le Mans' first chicane being a notorious first-lap trouble spot, having Toni The Torpedo putting on a repeat of Shanghai is the last thing Rossi will want.
Behind Elias, Nicky Hayden is the first of the Repsol Hondas in 7th. The Kentucky Kid is slowly returning to form, and the stop-and-go nature of Le Mans is merciful indeed to the Honda's weaknesses. Although Hayden is 3rd Honda on the grid, he will be glad to be not too far off the front, and ahead of his team mate. Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet will have hoped for a better starting position for his home Grand Prix, but the young Frenchman's policy of taking an extra qualifier has yet to pay off, only managing 8th, ahead of Marco Melandri on the Gresini Honda in 9th. Melandri won at Le Mans last year, but will be very hard pushed to repeat that feat this year.
Dani Pedrosa, the man who looked so strong here in 2006, taking pole and coming close to winning, before his tire went off, will be deeply disappointed to be starting from 10th. The man who was to challenge Valentino Rossi for the title this year is still a long way from achieving that aim. Beside Pedrosa sits the revelation of the weekend, Dunlop Yamaha's Sylvain Guintoli. The young French rider has looked strong in several sessions, and impressed in this afternoon's qualifying sessions with several strong laps, including leading the timesheets for a while. Guintoli is obviously extremely motivated to do well at his home race, but the Dunlops are clearly starting to close the gap with Bridgestone and Michelin. Dunlop, which dominates the 125 and 250 classes, is close to being competitive in the premier class too. Chris Vermeulen sits in 12th spot, another weak qualifying session, despite having a reasonable race setup.
While Casey Stoner has shown no signs of suffering with his Ducati's supposed weakness, at the other end of the starting grid, the Ducatis are living up to expectations. Pramac d'Antin's Alex Barros heads up the 5th row in 13th spot, while Stoner's team mate Loris Capirossi is floundering down in 15th. Capirossi, tipped for the title this year, has failed entirely to get to grips with the 800s, and his run of mediocre results shows no signs of abating. Shinya Nakano sits in the Ducati sandwich, struggling as ever to come to terms with the Michelins.
Guintoli's Tech 3 team mate Makoto Tamada continues to be outclassed by his young team mate, starting from 16th on the grid. Besides him sits Alex Hofmann on the other Pramac Ducati, and Kenny Roberts Jr on the KR212V. No end seems in sight for Kenny Jr's suffering, his only consolation being that so many fans have declared the Team KR bike to be the prettiest machine on the grid. Olivier Jacque's substitute Fonsi Nieto rounds out the grid in 19th, much where you would expect for the first outing on a MotoGP machine. Nieto has shown strong progress in each session, starting out 3.7 seconds off the pace, and being 1.6 seconds behind during this morning's free practice session
Tomorrow looks like bringing us a scintillating race. Ignoring the qualifying times, which determine only starting position, and tell us little about how the riders will run during the race, there looks like being two contenders for the victory. Colin Edwards and Casey Stoner both have the fastest race pace, capable of running constant high 1'34s and low 1'35s. The Ducati has the edge in the first part of the track, over start and finish through the fast first turn, but Edwards' Yamaha looks stronger round the final part of the circuit, in the 4 or 5 turns before returning to cross the finish line. If the two are together on the last lap, the race will be decided by whether Edwards can steer his Yamaha round the Ducati through the last part of the track, and not lose too much time on the first part.
Close, but just off Edwards and Stoner's pace, are John Hopkins and Marco Melandri. After Hopkins maiden podium last year, his second looks very close indeed. If Melandri can stay with Hopkins, he could steal it away from the American, but it is a big ask. Also close are Valentino Rossi, Alex Barros and Dani Pedrosa. Rossi really needs to win this race, to stay in contention for the title, but frustratingly, he can't get the bike sorted to his liking. Once a great enthusiast of the new tire regulations, as the season goes on, Rossi is feeling the pinch more and more. Barros' starting place on the grid is not representative of his race pace, and if he doesn't get caught in traffic, he should be able to run at the front for a fair while. Pedrosa also has reasonable pace, but may not be strong enough to stick at the front all race. The tiny Spaniard could fall into the clutches of the gaggle of Hondas all running laps in the mid 1'35s, with Toni Elias, Nicky Hayden and Carlos Checa all fast, but not convincingly so. That little battle really could shake out in any and all direction.
This, of course, is all just speculation. Only tomorrow knows what the race will bring, and once again, we could have a fascinating battle on our hands. The one fly in the ointment is that there is a chance of rain tomorrow, and rain really does change everything. If it rains, all bets are off again, and the grid becomes meaningless. Roll on race day.
Le Mans MotoGP Qualifying Times