While the weather gods had thrown just about everything they had at the Donington Park circuit on Friday, Saturday turned out to be a much better day. That "much better" should be seen in the light of yesterday's deluge, however, as the weather could hardly be regarded as glorious. But although it had been gray and overcast, tt least it had stayed dry for both the morning and the afternoon session.
The first dry session had thrown up a couple of surprises, none bigger than Nicky Hayden's return to form. Topping the timesheets, and looking consistently quick, the reigning world champion seems to have made a big step forward since his successful test after the Catalunya race, and looked the best he has been all year. At the other end of the table, Anthony West, who had been very impressive in the wet, showed he still needed some time to get used to the Kawasaki MotoGP bike in the dry, ending a lowly 18th.
So, there were a lot of unanswered questions as the riders made their way out onto the track for the official qualifying practice, to sort out the starting grid amongst themselves. Conditions were still dry, the track a little warmer, but still not perfect racing weather, track temperatures staying stubbornly in the high 70s and low 80s, some 20 degrees Fahrenheit below ideal. Casey Stoner immediately demonstrated the lack of grip at the track, by outbraking himself into Melbourne, and running off the track.
Stoner soon made amends. Although Dani Pedrosa set the early pace, getting just inside the 1'29 bracket, after just 10 minutes, a quarter of the way into the session, it was Casey Stoner who set the first serious time of the day, with a 1'29.339. One lap later, he was 3/10ths faster, setting a 1'29.061. If Donington does not suit the Ducatis, nobody had bothered to tell Stoner.
Over the next 20 minutes, riders and teams were focussed on getting as good a dry setup as possible, with everyone putting in long, consistent runs. The timesheets showed that Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi and John Hopkins were doing the best job, with Dani Pedrosa not far off. But we were waiting for the first of the qualifiers to appear, to start the delicate business of sorting out the grid.
As always, it was Randy de Puniet who was the first to oblige. With 27 minutes to go, the young Frenchman went out on his first qualifying tire to try and set a fast lap. We were in for a surprise: de Puniet's qualifier helped him improve his time, but was still only good enough for 3rd spot, nearly 4/10ths slower than Stoner's time set on a race tire. The man de Puniet had taken 3rd place from was another surprise name: Carlos Checa was setting very respectable times on his very standard satellite Honda, de Puniet's time dropping him down to 4th spot.
The action started getting tighter, and the times started dropping, but not as quickly as we had been expecting. With 22 minutes to go, Dani Pedrosa took 3rd spot from de Puniet, and a minute later, Valentino Rossi improved on his best time so far. But Stoner's time still looked out of reach. Two minutes later, Pedrosa tried again, being faster round the first three sections of the track, but losing out around the final tight left-hander at Goddards, a crucial turn in the race, and a place where the race can be won or lost.
With 15 minutes to go, the track was quiet and the pits full, as everyone came in before the final dash for pole position. Toni Elias' Honda joined in with the general mood, falling silent and leaving the young Spaniard to rush back to the pits to try to set a time on his spare bike.
At the 10 minute mark, qualifying got serious: Valentino Rossi put his first set of Michelin qualifiers to excellent use, grabbing pole from Stoner with a lap of 1'28.667. And a minute later, The Kentucky Kid showed his form in the morning was no fluke, Hayden pushing his Repsol Honda to take 3rd spot. Behind Hayden, John Hopkins looked like getting on the front row, being very quick round the first part of the track, before losing out again on the tight final couple of sections, improving his time, but staying down in 4th.
Then, the Tornado blew in. Colin Edwards had been setting decent times all session, but with 6 minutes to go, the Fiat Yamaha rider took his first qualifier to 2nd spot with a lap of 1'28.931. Stoner, now down in 3rd, was in the middle of fighting back. The shorter track at Donington allows a qualifier to last for two laps, if you're lucky, and Stoner was running very fast for the first three sections. But once again, the tight, bumpy left-hander at Goddards claimed another victim, Stoner nearly losing the front end over the bumps, to cross the line well down on his own best time.
The final minutes of Qualifying turned into a familiar battle, and perhaps the battle we had all expected at the start of the season. The Fiat Yamahas were pitched against the Repsol Hondas, with the Yamahas getting the best of the early running. With 3 minutes to go, Nicky Hayden pushed harder, but could only improve to 3rd. Then Valentino Rossi fought back, fast through the first couple of sections, but could not hold on.
With 2 minutes to go, Dani Pedrosa moved up a gear. Setting a blistering pace through the first 3 sections, he looked like claiming his first pole of the year, but once again, the final corner at Goddards thwarted him, improving his time, but only to 2nd. Pedrosa tried eking another lap out of his qualifiers, but just could not hold his speed through the second half of the track.
There was only one man left on the track still in with a shot at pole. As the clock ticked down to 0, Colin Edwards put his head down and went. With less than a minute left to go, the Texas Tornado howled across the line with a 1'28.521, fast enough to claim pole, the second of this year, and of his career. Once Edwards crossed the line, there was no one else left capable of taking pole away.
So, the front of the grid has a familiar look. The two Fiat Yamahas of Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi in spots 1 and 2, with the Repsol Hondas of Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden closing out row 1 with 3rd, and opening up row 2 with 4th spot. The man who was fast early on, Casey Stoner, took 5th spot on his Marlboro Ducati. Though Stoner will be disappointed with 5th spot, what is most arresting about his time is he set it on race tires, while the rest of the grid set their fastest laps on qualifiers. John Hopkins closes out the 2nd row on the Rizla Suzuki.
The third row sees Carlos Checa on the LCR Honda in 7th, a remarkable achievement considering the terrible time he had at his home Grand Prix in Barcelona two weeks ago. Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet is in 8th, after setting strong times on race tires, ahead of the two Gresini Hondas, Marco Melandri taking 9th ahead of team mate Toni Elias.
What this means for tomorrow's race is hard to say. In the dry, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden all had good, consistent pace, while in the wet, Anthony West and John Hopkins were up with Rossi and Stoner. The weather forecast is for light rain, so a dry race looks unlikely, but then the conditions don't look like being as torrential as they were on Friday. It looks like anything could happen on Sunday, and it probably will.
Donington Qualifying Practice times