Throughout all three Free Practice sessions, it was clear that Qatar was about two men: One, Kenny Roberts Jr, a seasoned veteran returning to form; The other, Casey Stoner, a young upstart who came within spitting distance of winning the 250cc championship last year. At the end of qualifying, only one name remained.
Stoner started the session impressively, setting a time just 7 hundredths outside of Capirossi's pole record from last year after just 5 minutes. If he was this fast after just 5 minutes, the odds looked good for Stoner, at least, to break the 1:56 barrier. Capirossi, looking for a repeat of last year, and the last GP, was the only rider to occasionally break Stoner's hegemony, dropping the time after 10 minutes had elapsed to 1:56.6, but 10 minutes later, Stoner took nearly half a second off Capirossi's time again.
The other fast rider in practice, Kenny Jr, didn't seem able to match his speed in the previous sessions, and never really made an impression. Meanwhile, the riders on the 2006 Hondas, Hayden and Melandri, were visibly struggling. Hayden fought manfully, but was obviously having to wrestle his Repsol Honda round the track, constantly searching for rear-end grip.
By the half way mark, after Edwards had moved up, slipping into second spot, it was clear that Qatar is a Michelin track. Only the Ducatis were in the top 9, with only Tamada on Michelins following the Bridgestone shod bikes, and Dunlop, with the honourable exception of Checa, trailing the field.
With 15 minutes to go, Capirossi took back pole, with a 1:56.102, showing that a 1:55 should be possible, and a couple of minutes later, just about everyone got back on the track to see how far their qualifiers would take them. With 10 minutes to go, Stoner shattered the 1:56 barrier, setting the time that would give him pole position: an astonishing 1:55.683.
After that, all hell broke loose, as Rossi put in a fast lap 1:56.433 to take him to 4th, while Elias rocketed to second with another sub-1:56 time: 1:55.938. Gibernau, on a hot lap, improved his time to 1:56.177, but couldn't improve on his fourth spot.
Everyone went back in for one last set of tyres, and the last 2 minutes were a mad dash. Capirossi came close to regaining pole, eventually stranding on 1:55.721, and second place on the grid. Hayden put in an almost superhuman effort to take 3rd, only to be dropped to the second row by Elias, with a 1:55.735. At the end, Roberts, who had dropped down to 13th, salvaged some pride with a 10th spot, but will surely be disappointed with his spot, despite taking 7/10ths of his previous fastest time. Gibernau, tellingly, came in to the pits for a new rear qualifier, but couldn't get out again in time, leaving the pits with just 1:15 on the clock, nowhere near long enough to get round the track to start a new qualifying lap.
But the most telling statistic of this qualifying session is Stoner's consistency: from the outset, Casey was riding 1:56s, looking beautifully smooth and effortless. The onboard camera allowed glimpses of one of the reasons for his smoothness: on downshifts, he operates the clutch with just two fingers, the second and third (middle and ring finger), using his index finger to keep hold of the bars, giving better control of the bike. His pole time is nearly 1.3 seconds faster than Capirossi's pole last year.
Stoner's dominance was in stark contrast to Pedrosa's performance. Pedrosa doesn't really like Qatar, he has said that he has to push too hard to go fast, and this opinion can only have been reinforced by a lowsider during Friday morning's free practice session. He never looked comfortable, and never seemed to find the smoothness which marked his performance in Jerez.
One wonders what HRC makes of the grid. On the front row, are Stoner and Elias, on what are basically tweaked 2005 client Hondas, with Hayden a creditable (though, surely in HRC's eyes, disappointing) 4th, his team mate Pedrosa beside him.
Rossi looked annoyed after setting his fastest lap, his body language speaking volumes, and Yamaha won't be pleased, as both Edwards and Rossi had looked much stronger during free practice.
As I said before, Qatar is obviously a Michelin track. If you take Capirossi's 2nd place away, the next Bridgestone-shod bike is Gibernau on 7th spot, followed by Nakano in 9th. Nakano will be disappointed after starting from the front row at Jerez. Roberts in 10th will at least be pleased that he is ahead of both the Suzukis, with Vermeulen 11th ahead of Hopkins in 13th spot.
The big disappointment is Melandri, with a very poor 12th place. I have no idea what went wrong for him, but it seems likely that he's on the 2006 Honda as well as Hayden, but is having even more problems than Nicky.
Checa is in a creditable 14th spot, heading up de Puniet, with Tamada in 16th. Considering Tamada is on a proven bike and Michelin tyres, this is a shockingly bad display. If Tamada doesn't start getting some top 10 results (at the very least) soon, then it wouldn't surprise me to see Tamada going, possibly before the end of the summer.
1 27 Casey Stoner AUS HONDA 1'55.683 329.6
2 65 Loris Capirossi ITA Ducati 1'55.721 0.038 0.038 324.6
3 24 Toni Elias SPA HONDA 1'55.735 0.052 0.014 326.5
4 69 Nicky Hayden USA HONDA 1'55.793 0.110 0.058 323.2
5 26 Dani Pedrosa SPA HONDA 1'56.008 0.325 0.215 330.2
6 46 Valentino Rossi ITA Yamaha 1'56.076 0.393 0.068 323.2
7 15 Sete Gibernau SPA Ducati 1'56.177 0.494 0.101 326.5
8 5 Colin Edwards USA Yamaha 1'56.230 0.547 0.053 322.8
9 56 Shinya Nakano JPN Kawasaki 1'56.237 0.554 0.007 319.2
10 10 Kenny ROBERTS KR211V 1'56.272 0.589 0.035 324.7
11 71 Chris Vermeulen AUS Suzuki 1'56.356 0.673 0.084 317.4
12 33 Marco Melandri ITA HONDA 1'56.822 1.139 0.466 325.1
13 21 John Hopkins USA Suzuki 1'56.981 1.298 0.159 323.9
14 7 Carlos Checa SPA Yamaha 1'57.299 1.616 0.318 321.7
15 17 Randy DE-PUNIET FRA Kawasaki 1'57.822 2.139 0.523 319.0
16 6 Makoto Tamada JPN HONDA 1'57.891 2.208 0.069 328.5
17 77 James Ellison GBR Yamaha 1'58.674 2.991 0.783 321.0
18 66 Alex HOFMANN GER Ducati 1'59.591 3.908 0.917 321.2
19 30 Jose Luis CARDOSO SPA Ducati 1'59.733 4.050 0.142 317.1