With the rules changing for the 2007 MotoGP season, it was obvious that the series would change too: a new engine size, fewer tires and less fuel were always destined to have a big impact on the course of a weekend, with some changes being more important than others. Ironically, the headline-grabbing change, the change that got all the attention, has so far had the least impact: The reduction in engine sizes, agreed ostensibly to reduce speeds and make the racing safer, has made little difference at all. At both Jerez, and now Losail, lap records have been thoroughly smashed, putting paid to the myth that less engine capacity would slow the bikes down.
During all this time, less attention has been paid to the other changes: the limit to the number of tires riders can use over the course of the weekend; and the reduction in fuel capacity from 22 liters to 21 liters. But these two changes could turn out to be much more significant than the mere loss of 190ccs of engine capacity. The teams are now admitting that their race simulations have shown that fuel will be perilously tight over the duration of a race, with a number of bikes not expected to make it back to the pits from the parade lap. Though nothing is yet certain, we could see future events needing a larger number of pickup trucks at trackside, just to ferry stranded bikes and riders back to the pits. And today's qualifying practice session was the clearest demonstration yet that the tire limitations have had a huge impact on the way the teams approach the race. Having to guess weather and track conditions a couple of days in advance when picking tires has forced the teams into making some painful, and perhaps risky choices.
Practice began more or less as the previous sessions, with John Hopkins the rider first to get into the 1'56 bracket after 10 minutes, only to have Fiat Yamaha's Colin Edwards take his place 4 minutes later. The timesheets showed the same names at the top as had shone during all of the free practice session to date: Edwards and team mate Valentino Rossi, Hopkins on the Rizla Suzuki, and Marlboro Ducati's Casey Stoner. It seemed a pretty safe bet that the man who would eventually take pole would be among this group of names.
Then, after 23 minutes, Frenchman Randy de Puniet sprung a surprise: The young Kawasaki rider had been pretty quick all weekend, but suddenly, he got that bit quicker, taking over the top spot with a time of 1'56.331, the 3rd fastest time set during the practice sessions. This was good enough to hold the top spot until 40 minutes had elapsed, when Colin Edwards stepped up and took back quickest time.
In previous years, this is about the time that the first sets of qualifying tires would start to appear, as riders embarked on the brief, intense skirmish that is the battle for the pole. The first qualifier would be used to check the setup, before two or possibly three more would go on in an attempt to take the prime grid position. But this time, the Michelin- and Bridgestone-shod riders don't have unlimited numbers of qualifiers to burn up going for pole, and the pattern was quite different. With some 20 minutes to go, several people seemed to be out on a softer tire, running a few laps to try and check whether the qualifier setting was right, but without using up the precious "Q's".
It wasn't until the 10 minute to go mark that the first real qualifiers went on, with Stoner being the first to take advantage of the sticky rubber, smashing through the 1'56 barrier to set a lap of 1'55.794. Within a couple of minutes, Colin Edwards struck back, taking both the pole, and Stoner's pole record from 2006, shaving three hundredths of a second off last year's time. After the first round of qualifiers had been used up, the Fiat Yamaha team looked to have come off ahead, with Edwards fastest and Rossi 3rd, sandwiching Casey Stoner in 2nd. Randy de Puniet and John Hopkins were in 4th and 5th, while the Repsol Honda riders held 6th and 7th, Nicky Hayden losing out to Dani Pedrosa for 6th.
Then, as everyone exited the pit straight at more or less the same time, we witnessed a remarkable spectacle, more reminiscent of the 125 class than MotoGP. During 125 qualifying, you will often see large groups of riders all riding round slowly, looking backwards, and waiting for other riders. This is because the 125s need all the help they can get to achieve their top speeds, and slipstreaming a faster bike is a good way of grabbing a couple of tenths, climbing up a few places on the grid. And now, the MotoGP bikes were exhibiting the same behavior: looking around, waiting for other riders. But unlike the 125s, they were looking for a clear space, for this fast lap really is it. If they mess up, because another rider is ahead of them slowing them up, then that's the end of qualifying, they can no longer shoot back into the pits for one last qualifier in the hope of making another fast lap. They either get it right, or suffer on the grid.
As the seconds ticked way, a lot of riders got it right, but it was Valentino Rossi who got it most right of all, smashing the pole record by over 0.6 seconds, and coming within a whisker of breaking into the 1'54s. But Rossi's time was only just good enough for pole, beating Casey Stoner into 2nd by a mere 5 thousandths of a second. To make the joy complete for Fiat Yamaha, Colin Edwards took 3rd a couple of 10ths behind.
Where Randy de Puniet had surprised us all earlier, now it was Toni Elias' turn to surprise us, taking 4th place on his Hannspree Honda, after being fairly invisible for most of the weekend. His margin over Dani Pedrosa was small, but enough to push the Repsol Honda rider into 5th. Suzuki's John Hopkins had battled through the pain to take 6th, half a second down on Pedrosa. He is still in a great deal of pain after his accident here 4 weeks ago, and it must be questionable whether he will be able to put up with the pain for the full duration of a race.
Loris Capirossi heads up the 3rd row on his Marlboro Ducati, ahead of Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet and reigning World Champion Nicky Hayden. Hayden will not be pleased with 9th, but in the light of his tough weekend so far, he is probably glad he isn't further down the order. Marco Melandri rounds out the top 10.
The weather so far has been perfect, warm, but without truly track melting temperatures, but already tire issues are starting to surface. Choosing tires to use two days hence is a difficult business, and some of the teams look like having their gambles not pay off. Add tire issues to the potential fuel problems tomorrow, and the race looks like being an absolute cracker. Not long left to wait.
||Randy DE PUNIET
||Kenny ROBERTS JR