The first day of the last race weekend of the season looks as familiar as ever. Casey Stoner dominated both sessions of practice setting the fastest time in the morning and in the afternoon. Stoner even came within a whisker of hitting last year's lap record pace, finishing just a couple of hundredths slower.
There were differences with earlier in the year, however, and those differences give those hoping for an exciting race something to cheer about. Where in the cool of the morning session, Stoner was fastest by a significant margin, during the afternoon, when temperatures reached something likely to resemble conditions on race day, Dani Pedrosa was setting times which matched Stoner's laps reasonably closely. For once, Stoner was not streets ahead of the rest of the field.
Marco Melandri was nearly as fast as Pedrosa, also stringing consistently fast laps together in the afternoon, and looks like being a force on Sunday. But between Stoner in 1st and Pedrosa in 3rd, the surprising name in 2nd position was Sylvain Guintoli. The young Frenchman undoubtedly set his fastest time of the afternoon on qualifying tires, for as a Dunlop rider, Guintoli is not constrained by the tire limits imposed on Bridgestone and Michelin rider, but prior to setting his fast time, he was still capable of running consistent high 1'33 lap times, which looks good enough to take him well inside the top 10 on race day.
Behind Vermeulen, who was nearly 2/10ths off Melandri's time, the field is very tight indeed, with less than 2/10ths separating 5th to 10th place. Most disappointed of those runners must be Valentino Rossi, running times which are basically still half a second shy of what he will need to contest the lead on Sunday. Tomorrow will bring another chance to close the deficit to Stoner, Pedrosa and Melandri.
Unluckiest rider of the weekend was probably Chaz Davies, struggling during the morning before having a very big crash at the end of the first session. Initially, it was feared he could have broken bones in his feet and hands, but x-rays showed that he was only badly bruised. More worrying was that Davies was complaining of pain in his lower back, but scans at the hospital at Valencia failed to detect any problems, and Davies returned to the track in the afternoon, though too late and in no shape to take any part in the proceedings.
||Randy DE PUNIET
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