Qualifying practice at Brno on Saturday started strangely, but turned into an old-fashioned thriller. Anyone trying to read the signs before practice started would have had a great deal of difficulty, with the names on the timesheets yo-yoing between the top and mid-sheet. What was clear by Saturday morning is that times were going to be fast, after Loris Capirossi clocked a track record in the third Free Practice session.
As a result, no one was really surprised to see Capirossi set the fastest time just a few minutes after the start of the official Qualifying Practice, with a 1:58.399, and before 10 minutes of the session had elapsed, five riders had all put in 1:58s. As all these times had been set on race tires, as the riders searched for the right setup before attempting an actual qualifying time, notice had already been served that Sunday's race was going to be very very fast indeed.
With 50 minutes left in the session, Kenny Roberts Jr put in a fast lap to exactly equal Loris Capirossi's fastest lap, though this was not to last long. A couple of minutes later, it was Nicky Hayden who took the provisional pole back from Kenny Jr by 2/10ths of a second, before Loris Capirossi reclaimed pole with a 1:57.713, just a couple of tenths above Sete Gibernau's pole record. Capirossi then went on to complete another seven laps on the same tires, a clear demonstration that race tires have made a huge leap forward since last year.
With Nicky Hayden sat near the top of the timesheet, and running consistently fast for the first time this weekend, all eyes turned to Valentino Rossi. The Doctor was running way down in 16th place at this point, improving only slowly by the halfway point, eventually climbing to seventh. But given Rossi's previous record at qualifying this year, another fourth or fifth row starting position was looking increasingly likely. Hayden's championship lead was looking stronger than ever.
With less than half an hour to go, we were treated to the first surprise of the session: John Hopkins blasted his Suzuki to a furiously fast 1:57.006, establishing a new lap record by nearly half a second. The surprise was not Hopkins being so fast: he has, after all, been on pole before. But putting qualifiers on at the halfway stage seemed a risky, if interesting, strategy. The unspoken rule of qualifying is that you spend the first 40 minutes of the session on race tires setting the bike up, before sticking on a couple of sets of qualifiers in the last 20 minutes to set a time for the grid. But Hopper has never been overly keen on adhering strictly to rules, and his gamble looked like having a good chance it might pay off.
On the stroke of 20 minutes, however, Loris Capirossi restored order to the proceedings, taking the pole back from Hopkins with a blistering 1:56.441, a full second faster than Gibernau's previous pole record. Seemingly convinced that he had put in the perfect lap and it was impossible to go faster, the diminutive Ducatisti retired to the pits to watch the remainder of the session.
His judgment looked beyond doubt, as rider after rider improved their time, but no one looked capable of challenging Loris' time. With 12 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi came closest, but he was still 4/10ths off the pole time, then 2 minutes later, Nicky Hayden pushed Rossi into third, coming within a quarter of a second of Capirossi's time. Rossi once again improved his time, but it was still not good enough to get back past Hayden, let alone Capirossi.
As the clock ticked down, the pits were a jumble of mechanics frantically changing tires and riders staring desparately at the clock, hoping to get out for one last lap to improve their grid position. Casey Stoner seemed a beacon of calm in the pits, strolling to his bike as a new tire was fitted, with the clock ticking down inexorably to the two minute mark. His pit crew were a good deal less calm, as a lap of Brno takes just under two minutes, and an out-lap several crucial seconds longer. But Stoner was to be punished for his languid pace, failing to get round in time to start a new lap before the checkered flag terminated the session, wasting a set of qualifiers, and leaving the young Australian well down the grid.
With the end of the session looming, Loris Capirossi's belief in his pole time started to wane, and he went out for one last attempt to improve his time. But as the clock ticked down, Capirossi's first pole since the season's opener at Jerez looked ever more certain. Valentino Rossi was out on a fast lap, but though his times for the first half of the track were an improvement on his fastest lap, a pole position seemed out of the question. But as Rossi entered the third section, it was obvious that something special was happening. At the second intermediate timing section, Rossi had reduced his deficit from nearly 2/10ths to 0.036 of a second. At I3, he was 0.039 seconds ahead, and as he crossed the line, after an astonishing display, he was a quarter of a second faster than Capirossi's time, setting a new pole record 1.3 seconds faster than Gibernau's time of last year. It was an imperious display of riding, a text book illustration of how to set a pole. The crowd watched in awe.
Whether Nicky Hayden was intimidated by this display, we do not know. But at least starting on the front row of the grid would limit the damage done by The Doctor's demolishing display. There was, however, one slight fly in the ointment. There was one last fast rider out there, capable of making a stir. Kenny Roberts Jr had had a fairly poor session until the last 10 minutes, being well down on the timesheet, and even being sidelined with a fuel problem. After coming in and switching fuel tanks with less than half the session to go, his times started to improve, and with 5 minutes left, he had fought his way up to 4th spot. But on his very last qualifying lap, Kenny Jr pushed his Honda V5 powered KR211V to a superb 3rd spot, 4/10ths behind Valentino Rossi, but 1/10th ahead of Nicky Hayden, pushing the Kentucky Kid to the second row of the grid, and making his task even more difficult.
With Rossi on pole, and Capirossi and Kenny Roberts Jr taking 2nd and 3rd respectively, there were three different manufacturers on the front row. And with Hayden in 4th and Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano in 5th, the first 5 riders are all on different bikes, with two different tire manufacturers. Beside Nakano is Toni Elias, who seems to have bounced back from his injury at Assen. John Hopkins heads up the third row, with besides him, Rossi's team mate Colin Edwards in 8th, and Dani Pedrosa a slightly disappointing 9th. Randy de Puniet is in 10th, ahead of a poor performance by title challenger Marco Melandri and a strolling Casey Stoner. Chris Vermeulen is having a very poor weekend, and heads up the fifth row in 13th, with besides him Sete Gibernau's replacement Alex Hofmann and the once-again lackluster Makoto Tamada, who, despite putting on an outstanding display of how to slide a bike, still starts from 15th. James Ellison will be delighted to be starting in 16th, ahead of Tech 3 Yamaha team mate Carlos Checa. Besides Checa is the Pramac Ducati of Jose Luis Cardoso, with his team mate Ivan Silva struggling to learn the track in 19th and last place.
So is Rossi back? Judging by the performance which gave him his first pole since Mugello, and only his second of this year, the answer has to be yes. In contrast to previous races, Rossi has been there or thereabouts at very single practice session, and if he can get the M1 to work with qualifying tires, it should be a breeze on race tires. Nicky Hayden must be a little worried, though he has a 51 point lead over Rossi with only 6 races to go. More comforting for Hayden is the fact that his two nearest rivals for the title are a long way down the grid, Pedrosa down in 9th and Melandri in 11th. The Kentucky Kid can ride to defend his title, just staying close to Rossi and trying not to lose too many points, while the riders who are the biggest threat have to fight their way forward before even starting to try and take points from him.
But the trouble is, that's not in Hayden's nature. Hayden must surely be getting sick and tired of hearing just how he owes his lead in the championship to Rossi's bad luck, rather than the fact he keeps landing on the podium. And the briefest study of those podium photos usually show two men looking very pleased, while Hayden looks like he's just heard his brothers are both sleeping with his girlfriend. The only time we've seen joy from the Kentucky Kid is when he's on the top step. He likes to win, and second place isn't winning.
So we're on for another epic battle this Sunday. Rossi has nothing to lose, and really wants to finish the season with the most race wins, as the season's moral victor. Hayden is tired of the criticism, and wants to prove he is the series leader on merit. Kenny Roberts Jr wants to get back on the podium after Catalunya, and Loris Capirossi wants to prove he's back and fighting fit after his injuries at Catalunya. Further down the field, Melandri and Pedrosa have to fight their way forward, and you can bet your bottom dollar that young Casey Stoner will want to make up for his terrible qualifying. On a track where there's plenty of room for overtaking, and where the smallest mistake can be very costly indeed, this has the makings of a classic. I'll barely sleep till Sunday.
|1||46||Valentino ROSSI||ITA||Camel Yamaha Team||1'56.191||300.8|
|2||65||Loris CAPIROSSI||ITA||Ducati Marlboro Team||1'56.441||0.250||304|
|3||10||Kenny ROBERTS JR||USA||Team Roberts KR211V||1'56.603||0.412||300.4|
|4||69||Nicky HAYDEN||USA||Repsol Honda Team||1'56.694||0.503||302.5|
|5||56||Shinya NAKANO||JPN||Kawasaki Racing Team||1'56.770||0.579||300.4|
|6||24||Toni ELIAS||SPA||Fortuna Honda||1'56.875||0.684||300.2|
|7||21||John HOPKINS||USA||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||1'56.913||0.722||299.6|
|8||5||Colin EDWARDS||USA||Camel Yamaha Team||1'56.967||0.776||298.1|
|9||26||Dani PEDROSA||SPA||Repsol Honda Team||1'57.139||0.948||304.8|
|10||17||Randy DE PUNIET||FRA||Kawasaki Racing Team||1'57.185||0.994||298.3|
|11||33||Marco MELANDRI||ITA||Fortuna Honda||1'57.221||1.030||298.9|
|12||27||Casey STONER||AUS||Honda LCR||1'57.679||1.488||303.8|
|13||71||Chris VERMEULEN||AUS||Rizla Suzuki||1'57.894||1.703||299.1|
|14||66||Alex HOFMANN||GER||Ducati Marlboro Team||1'57.906||1.715||303.4|
|15||6||Makoto TAMADA||JPN||Konica Minolta Honda||1'58.239||2.048||302.8|
|16||77||James ELLISON||GBR||Tech 3 Yamaha||1'59.011||2.820||295.7|
|17||7||Carlos CHECA||SPA||Tech 3 Yamaha||1'59.289||3.098||295.3|
|18||30||Jose Luis CARDOSO||SPA||Pramac d'Antín DUCATI||2'00.971||4.780||287.2|
|19||22||Ivan SILVA||SPA||Pramac d'Antín DUCATI||2'01.433||5.242||293.5|