With Casey Stoner having dominated practice in Istanbul this far, it was with some trepidation most riders approached this afternoon's official Qualifying Practice. The question foremost in their minds was "How do we stop the Ducatis?" And within 5 minutes of practice starting, their worst fears were confirmed, as the young Australian quickly put his Marlboro Ducati at the top of the timesheets. Their worries were compounded when a minute later, Stoner's team mate Loris Capirossi took over the top spot, becoming the first rider to break into the 1'54s.
There was one rider who was not intimidated by this display of Ducati dominance was Valentino Rossi. The Doctor had made good progress towards finding a race setup through the previous sessions, and this process continued apace, the Italian taking top spot 10 minutes into the session, and going on to set a string of fast laps, all well inside the 1'54 bracket.
Behind Rossi, the competition for 2nd spot was fierce. The Ducatis of Casey Stoner and Loris Capirossi swapped places with John Hopkins on the Rizla Suzuki and Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda, as they all spent time in search of the perfect race setup. Stoner was consistently fast, and the most confident in his race setup, as he disappeared into his garage at the 30 minute mark, not to reappear for another 15 minutes, when he went out for his first qualifying lap. The other three were less consistent, alternating fast 1'54 laps with slower laps in the high 1'54s and low 1'55s.
At the halfway mark, Randy de Puniet emerged from the pit lane for his traditional early qualifying lap, and took the provisional pole with a 1'53.706. Though he was the first rider to crack the 1'53 barrier, it was pretty clear this wouldn't be fast enough, being only 3/10ths faster than the time Casey Stoner had set on race tires in the morning session. It was good enough to keep his name at the top of the timesheets for a good while though, as the waiting game commenced for the race to the pole.
Before the tire restrictions, this would always kick off with some 20 minutes to go, as the trickle of riders going out on qualifiers turned into a flood, with riders rushing in and out of the pits in an effort to burn through as many qualifiers as possible in the hope of setting the fastest time. Now that tire numbers are limited, the trickle stayed a trickle with riders out sparingly with between 20 and 10 minutes left in the session, allowing a few surprising names to rise to the top. First, Carlos Checa, who has been struggling all weekend, put in a fast lap to take 3rd spot, and a couple of minutes later, Kawasaki's Olivier Jacque shot up the standings to take 4th.
But with 13 minutes to go, The Doctor was back, reclaiming pole position with a blazing 1'53.092, over 6/10ths faster than de Puniet's time. Though fast, whether this would be good enough to give Rossi the pole was not yet clear, especially with Casey Stoner emerging from the pit lane to start his first lap on qualifiers. Stoner was fast, but unexpectedly, nowhere near fast enough. His first qualifying lap was only good enough to take the third time, 8/10ths behind Rossi's provisional pole time. The young Australian rode back to the pits, shaking his head. One qualifier down, and only one more to go.
The action started hotting up in the final 10 minutes of the session, a lot of riders out on hot laps, in a bid to improve their grid position. Dani Pedrosa shot through to take 2nd spot, still over half a second down on Rossi's pole time. Behind him, Repsol Honda team mate Nicky Hayden put in an astounding lap to climb up to 6th, putting an end to the misery of spending the session languishing down in 19th and last position, still struggling with front end grip. Hayden's position was not to last, though, as a gaggle of other riders were now out on hot laps, Chris Vermeulen, John Hopkins and Toni Elias pushing Hayden down the grid, whilst Colin Edwards showed that his Fiat Yamaha team had found some answers to the Texas Tornado's front-end woes, pushing up into 3rd spot.
Then, with just over 4 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi consolidated his grip on pole position. In another terrifyingly fast lap, The Doctor sliced nearly 3/10ths off his previous time, cracking the 1'52 barrier with a time of 1'52.795, good enough for pole by a long way.
By now, all hell had broken loose, as everyone with a qualifier left was out on the track. The hot laps were coming so thick and fast it was hard to keep up. First Capirossi, then Edwards took back 2nd place, but behind them, one man was faster than Rossi through the intermediate timing sections. Dani Pedrosa was flying, and on what looked like the fast track to the pole. But Pedrosa had mistimed his run, waiting for what he thought was clear track, and setting off just as John Hopkins flew past and ahead of him. Hopper was fast, but not quite as fast as Pedrosa, and Pedrosa caught Hopper as they flew through the second section. But no matter how hard Pedrosa tried, he could not get past the Suzuki of the American. He still had 1/10th of a second over Rossi's pole time through the third timing section, and as they flew through the 180mph Turn 11 and crested the hill, Pedrosa tried to outbrake Hopkins into the twiddles of Turns 12, 13 and 14. But if there's one thing that's nigh on impossible to do, it's outbraking John Hopkins, and so Pedrosa was condemned to following Hopper round the slow turns, dropping to 3rd place by the time they crossed the line. Pedrosa later absolved Hopkins of any blame, saying that it was he who had mistimed his run to start so close to Hopper.
In the dying seconds of the session, Nicky Hayden managed once again to salvage his grid position, to set the 6th fastest time, leaving him on the 2nd row of the grid, behind Rossi, Edwards, and Pedrosa, and besides Stoner and Capirossi. He will need a good start if he is to survive, as his times on race tires have been a long way off the rest of the pack.
Though the spectacle was fascinating, the grid is rather deceptive. A number of riders, including reigning champ Hayden, managed to up their game on qualifiers, and finish well ahead of the place they would have managed on race tires. And though Stoner didn't dominate the Qualifying session like he did Free Practice, his lap times make devastatingly clear the race is his to lose. There are only a few riders who look capable of stopping him, but those names include Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa, Loris Capirossi and John Hopkins. Stoner will not have it all his own way on Sunday, and the fight he will have to put up should make for a thrilling race. Roll on Sunday.
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