After yesterday's dominant performance by Casey Stoner during the first two free practice sessions, the expectation was that the pattern we've seen all year would continue, with Stoner going fastest during (almost) every session. We were, however, in for a surprise. For a start, it was not Stoner who as fastest in the morning session, but the surprising Frenchman Sylvain Guintoli, and during the afternoon qualifying practice, Stoner was very far from having it his own way.
In previous sessions, Stoner would set a fast time early on, and just keep getting quicker and quicker, but on Saturday afternoon, it was John Hopkins who put in the first seriously quick time, putting in a lap of 1'33.004 just over 7 minutes into the session. Hopkins' time would stand for a while, until 20 minutes in, a slew of riders started getting into their rhythm.
Meanwhile, the drama was less about lap times than injuries, as Valentino Rossi crashed heavily, breaking three bones in his hand, leaving the Italian ex champion uncertain of racing tomorrow. Rossi was later joined in the Clinica Mobile by Chaz Davies, who crashed in exactly the same spot as Friday, the twin right handers of turns 4 and 5, exacerbating the hand injuries he suffered the day before.
Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet was the first to improve on Hopper's time, cracking into the 1'32 bracket after 20 minutes, with Dani Pedrosa beating his time 5 minutes later. But Pedrosa would only hold provisional pole for 30 seconds, as it was Sylvain Guintoli who powered over the line on the first of his qualifying tires on a lap of 1'32.821. Guintoli's provisional pole was similarly short-lived, with Randy de Puniet snatching back pole with the first of his qualifying tires in a time of 1'32.497.
With 17 minutes left in the session, Guintoli took pole back once again, using the advantage offered by Dunlop not be fettered by the tire restrictions, set fast lap after fast lap on qualifying tires, setting a time of 1'32.444. A few minutes later, he improved on his time again, cutting his time down to 1'32.188, a time that was looking like it could be good enough for the front row.
But the rest of the grid were in action now as well, and the session ended in one of the most exciting races for pole we have seen all season. First, Nicky Hayden, who had been struggling for grip all weekend, used the second of his qualifying tires to fall just short of Guintoli's time and take 2nd spot. A minute later, his team mate Dani Pedrosa went one better, setting the fastest time of the day so far, with a 1'32.128, only to see his time beaten by 3/100ths of a second by Casey Stoner, who at that point had dropped all the way down to 12th position.
The French were not to be outdone, though, as Randy de Puniet became the first man to crack the 1'31 barrier with just 5 minutes to go, his time looking very strong indeed. It was strong enough to hang on to pole for three minutes, but that was not long enough. Nicky Hayden was the first man to take pole away from the Kawasaki rider, taking 6/100ths off de Puniet's time.
But Hayden would not enjoy his pole for long. Seconds later, Casey Stoner stamped his authority on the proceedings once again, smashing Hayden's time by over three tenths of a second, with a lap of 1'31.603. But as fast as Stoner was, it would not be fast enough, as Dani Pedrosa snatched the pole half a minute later to uproarious cheers from the home crowd, setting a fastest lap of 1'31.517. It was Pedrosa's 4th pole in a row, and a sign that the Honda is starting to catch up. Pedrosa is joined on the front row by Casey Stoner on the Ducati, and Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate Nicky Hayden.
The race now looks like it could be an exciting affair, as there are a gaggle of riders all running similar times, low 1'33s and high 1'32s. Two of those men, Stoner and Pedrosa, are on the front row of the grid, but the rest, including Marco Melandri and Alex Barros, are much further down, in 10th and 12th respectively. If the Italian and the Brazilian can get a good start, and catch the leaders early on, the race could end up being very close indeed.
||Randy DE PUNIET
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