The third free practice session at Estoril's Portuguese Grand Prix started half an hour later than planned, after morning dew had left the track damp and treacherous. Though the spring sunshine soon chased away the damp patches, the air and track temperatures meant that the conditions remained cooler than the riders would have wanted.
Of course, this did not stop them from going fast. The tone was set by Valentino Rossi and Randy de Puniet, who were swiftly running 1'38 laps, around the pace set in yesterday's much warmer afternoon session. Behind Rossi and de Puniet, Colin Edwards, Nicky Hayden and John Hopkins matched the speed of the leading pair.
In the end, it was Colin Edwards who set the fastest lap, getting down to within 1/10th of a second of lap record pace halfway through practice, with a lap of 1'37.598. But it was no fluke, as it was set in the middle of a long run of very fast laps. The Texan, who is rapidly earning back his "Tornado" moniker, continued to run laps at a similar pace for the rest of the session, getting an obvious benefit from the new engine in his Yamaha M1.
Jorge Lorenzo underlined the fact that the Yamahas run well in Portugal, taking 2nd spot with a time just 0.07 off Edwards' fastest lap. But while Edwards was fast all session, Lorenzo found a burst of speed in the second half of practice.
Nicky Hayden was the 3rd fastest man on the track, nearly a quarter of a second behind Edwards. But Hayden was consistently fast, at a track he obviously likes. Behind Hayden, Valentino Rossi set the 4th fastest time, and was the fastest of the Bridgestone riders by a long way. Rossi was the last man inside 1'37, and over half a second faster than the next fastest rider on Bridgestones.
Hayden's Repsol Honda team mate was 5th fastest, and like Lorenzo, was faster during the second half of practice, running a consistent pace in the low 1'38s. The top 5 all look capable of running a decent race pace, with Edwards and Lorenzo especially impressive.
James Toseland made it 4 Yamahas in the top 6, in a very impressive display of learning a track. Toseland, who has never ridden at Estoril before, improved his time from yesterday afternoon by over 1.7 seconds, and looks like he may have some speed in hand. If he continues to learn at this pace, the British World Superbike champion could spring a surprise on Sunday.
Toseland beat fellow rookie Andrea Dovizioso into 7th place, the Italian looking stronger and stronger. In 8th came Randy de Puniet, who could not consolidate on his early pace. John Hopkins was another rider who could not build on the speed he had early in the session. The Kawasaki rider looked like jumping back into the lead on one lap, but lost out in the final section. Hopper still managed to finish ahead of his former Suzuki team mate Chris Vermeulen, another rider who made a huge improvement, taking 1.4 seconds off his time from yesterday afternoon to set the 10th fastest time.
The morning's big losers were Ducati. Marco Melandri's misery continued, finishing 18th and dead last, over 3 seconds off the pace, and barely improving his time from Friday. The Alice Ducatis did better, though still ahead only of Melandri, but both Elias and Guintoli picked up over 2 seconds. Sadly for the Alice team, this still leaves them over 2 seconds off the pace.
But the most worrying development must be Casey Stoner's 11th place. Stoner could not find the second or so he needs to catch the leading group. He managed to improve his times from yesterday by half a second, but the top 5 were all around a second a lap faster than Friday. Stoner's laps followed a persistent pattern: fast in the first section, strong in the second section, but losing out badly in the third and fourth sections of the track, sections which are crucial to going fast at Estoril, containing the chicane, the Esses and the Parabolica, the fast right which leads back onto the straight.
The top speed chart shows that the Ducati's problems aren't in the parabolica. Three Ducatis are in the top 4 fastest speeds, with only Jorge Lorenzo's 3rd fastest speed keeping Melandri out of the top 3. Casey Stoner was complaining of a lack of confidence in the front end on Friday. As this has been the key to Stoner's success in the past, unless Ducati and Bridgestone find a remedy soon, the prospects look bad for Stoner's season.
The Ducati engineers have a couple of hours to find a solution, before qualifying starts this afternoon, and the grid is set for tomorrow's race.
||Randy DE PUNIET
||Alex DE ANGELIS
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