Whenever people talk about the weather affecting MotoGP, it's almost inevitably rain they mean. But it's not just water which affects the grip levels of a track, there's also the blazing sun. This is precisely what has happened at Barcelona, where the pummeling heat and blazing sun of the afternoon is driving track temperatures up towards the 120° mark, softening the surface of the track, reducing grip, and destroying tire rubber. As the riders returned to the pit lane after their qualifying laps, the afternoon's heat had helped to rip their soft qualifying tires to shreds, especially on the right-hand side, a result of the many long, fast right-handers the Catalunya track boasts.
The contrast with the mornings is marked, the early sessions taking place in almost perfect conditions for racing with temperatures in the low 70s and the temperature of the track in the mid-80s. Those conditions suit riders, machinery and tires all to a tee, as witnessed by Casey Stoner's astonishing string of laps in the 1'42s in Saturday morning's session. But in the afternoon, the temperatures rise, and the balance shifts in favor of riders who are good in less than perfect conditions and on sliding tires.
The temperature situation has been complicated by the new tire regulations. With only 14 front tires and 17 rear tires at their disposal, the nature of qualifying sessions has changed, with riders spending much more time searching for the right bike setup and the right tires to use on race day. Previously, qualifying tended to descend into a blitz of fast laps pretty quickly, with riders taking their first qualifiers out earlier and earlier. But no more.
So the first part of qualifying was fairly quiet, as the riders and their teams worked diligently at finding a set up which will work in the heat of the afternoon. But not all the riders: Olivier Jacque had suffered a nasty crash during the morning's practice, and was in a hospital in Barcelona being checked for damage. So far, reports are favorable, and it looks like OJ hasn't broken anything, but not having participated in the qualifying session, he is at the mercy of race direction as to whether he will be allowed to participate in the race.
Alex Barros was the first rider to set a competitive time, breaking into the 1'43 bracket on his Pramac Ducati after 5 minutes. But his time would not last long, as a minute later, Toni Elias posted the fastest time of the session so far with a lap of 1'43.153, the Gresini Honda man already beating his personal fastest time of the weekend by over a third of a second.
In the early part of the session, a pattern started to emerge. From the very beginning, Rizla Suzuki's John Hopkins and Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa were fast and consistent, both men stringing together sequences of 1'43 laps with apparent ease, Hopkins, if anything, more regular than Pedrosa. But they were not having it all their own way, as they were soon joined in the 1'43 bracket by most of the field. The difference, though, was where Pedrosa and Hopkins were running low to mid 1'43s, Edwards, Rossi, Elias and Vermeulen were all hovering in the high 1'43 mark.
Casey Stoner, still the championship leader coming into Barcelona, was nowhere to be seen at first. Stoner's string of 1'42s had set the benchmark in the morning, and so there was a little surprise that Stoner's name was stuck persistently in the second half of the timesheets. This was not to last for long though, for when Stoner came out for his second run on the factory Marlboro Ducati, he immediately took a second of his own time, and improved the provisional pole time to 1'43.022. He did three quick laps in succession before diving back into the pits, returning 5 minutes later to put in another pair of laps in the low 1'43s.
After the first 20 minutes, the session settled down into as close to a vision of calmness as you could expect when in the vicinity of 130dB, 225 bhp racing motorcycles. Times remained steady, with the excitement coming from the machines themselves: First, Alex Hofmann parked his Pramac Ducati against the barrier with a clutch problem, causing a flurry of activity in the d'Antin pits as they hurried to get his second bike ready for him. Ten minutes later, John Hopkins ran straight on into the gravel trap at turn 1, his legs flailing wildly in an attempt to hold the bike up. His Suzuki had also suffered some kind of drive train failure, leaving Hopper to rush back to the pits to board his second, and definitely least favored bike.
The waiting, though, was for the qualifying tires. Normally, the Kawasaki riders are first to have a go, taking the first of their 3 qualifiers out shortly after the halfway mark. It's a risky strategy, as taking a third qualifying tire means sacrificing a potential race tire, gambling on the advantage an good start position offers. That's a risk the other teams are not willing to take, preferring a greater choice of tires on race day, willing to fight their way through the pack.
But the halfway mark came and went, and still no sign of the Kawasaki qualifiers. Of course, OJ was in still in the hospital, and out of contention, but where was de Puniet? The young Frenchman had earlier posted some fairly quick times, running with the front 5, but had elected to save himself, as he was suffering with a badly swollen knee, the after-effects of his big crash at Mugello last weekend. He was bound to come out early with a qualifier, the question was, when?
Tension was starting to rise by the 20 minute mark. Fiat Yamaha's Valentino Rossi set a fast lap, then Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, and the speculation started: They were fast, but not that fast. Were they really out on qualifiers? A minute later, the answer came, in the anticipated shape of Randy de Puniet. The young Frenchman came out with 19 minutes to go and obliterated the existing fastest time by over a second, setting a lap of 1'41.901, just a fraction outside Valentino's pole record from last year, set on the 990 cc Yamaha M1. Considering the shape de Puniet was in, it was a very brave performance indeed.
But if de Puniet could go that fast on an injured knee, surely it was only a matter of time before the entire field flew past him on their qualifiers? That proved much harder than it seemed. First Vermeulen took 2nd spot, but still over a second down on de Puniet's time, then Toni Elias took 2nd, followed a couple of minutes later by Casey Stoner. But even Stoner was still over 7/10ths of a second behind de Puniet's pole time, which was looking better and better as each minute passed.
Once again, it was starting to look like the tire restrictions were having an impact: instead of the teams sending the riders out in the last 20 minutes, they now seemed to be focusing on the last 10 minutes of qualifying to throw on the soft sticky rubber and attempting to conquer the grid. As it would turn out, this proved to be an unwise gamble.
With 9 minutes to go, there was one man on the track who was capable of beating Randy de Puniet's increasingly convincing time: Valentino Rossi was at one of his favorite tracks, and was making the most of it. He was absolutely flying, but though the 5 time MotoGP world champion snatched pole from de Puniet, even Rossi could only shave 6/100ths of a second off the Frenchman's time, setting a new lap record of 1'41.840.
As the clock ticked down, the gamble to wait until the last minute was going awry: The crowded track was putting paid to any attempt at getting near the pole time. Rider after rider was baulked on their fast laps, forcing a dash back to the pits for fresh rubber and another attempt. At the end of the session, no one had been able to get close, leaving Valentino Rossi to claim his 4th pole of the season, fractionally ahead of Randy de Puniet's best qualifying performance in MotoGP.
The fastest pair of the day are joined on the front row by Dani Pedrosa, who was fast throughout the session. Casey Stoner, quick in the morning, was relegated to head up the 2nd row in 4th, with the John Hopkins in 5th, and Colin Edwards in 6th. Current World Champion Nicky Hayden is in 7th, and looking surprisingly chipper. Hayden has constantly improved throughout the weekend, and his times during qualifying have looked surprisingly good. Not good enough to win, but certainly good enough to star putting up a worthy defense of his #1 plate. Hayden is joined on the 3rd row by the two Gresini Hondas of Toni Elias and Marco Melandri, with Pramac's Alex Hofmann rounding out the top 10, his best starting position of the season so far.
Today's qualifying was an interesting precursor to tomorrow's race. Although Casey Stoner is quickest by a big margin in the cooler conditions of the morning, his domination disappears in the hot afternoons. It looks like the winner will have to be able to run consistent strings of low 1'43 second laps. And looking at the lap charts, there are three names which jump out at you: Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and John Hopkins. Although Stoner ran several sets of quick laps, he was setting his times in sequences of 4 laps, not the 10 and 12 lap runs that Pedrosa, Rossi and Hopper were running. On paper, Stoner should be able to stick with them, but 24 laps is going to be a very long way on Sunday. Behind the front four, almost anything could happen. Once again, there are 8 or 10 riders who could figure, including Randy de Puniet, Toni Elias, Marco Melandri, Nicky Hayden, the two Pramac Alexes, Colin Edwards and Chris Vermeulen.
Whatever happens, the race is going to be a real war of attrition. The heat is tough on riders, but it's also murderous on tires. The state of the tires coming in after the qualifying laps was horrific, and will be sure to give the people from Bridgestone, Michelin and Dunlop a very sleepless night tonight. It really will be the survival of the fittest tomorrow.
Catalunya Qualifying Practice result in full