At the end of the first day of practice at Brno, it was clear that there were two men a long way clear of the rest of the field. Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi were over half a second ahead of the man in 3rd, and the only riders capable of cracking into the 1'57s. The timing sheets seemed to tell a fairly clear-cut story of two fast men, a pack of riders all very close to each other, and another disastrous failure by Michelin. The grid seemed to be shaping up nicely.
The problem was, Saturday's weather threw not so much a fly as a whale into the ointment, after a storm front unleashed torrential rain over the Czech track, leaving the circuit completely drenched, though still ridable. With more rain coming in during the day, the grid was going to reflect a slightly different reality than Friday's practice had revealed, and confusing the picture even more, the forecast for Sunday is for the usual warm, bone dry conditions we have come to expect from Brno over the years.
During the morning's free practice session, Casey Stoner had already proved quite emphatically that he is probably the best wet-weather rider in the world, by stomping all over the competition. And as qualifying started in a light drizzle, he continued in the same vein. On just his 2nd flying lap, the Australian took a 5 second lead over the rest of the field, leaving his rivals gasping for breath.
As the other riders edged closer, led by Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins, Stoner put in two more crushing laps, finishing with a 2'11.657, to give himself a 3 second lead over the rest. The reigning world champion came in to try another tire, but went out for just one more lap before deciding that the worsening rain was not going to allow him to improve his times any time soon. He withdrew to his pit garage, and waited for better conditions.
Stoner's dominance left Valentino Rossi with work to do. He had shown he had the pace to stay with Stoner in the dry on Friday, but in Saturday's morning free practice, the leader in the championship race had only managed to set the 5th fastest time, and that was after a big leap at the end of the session. Rossi has acknowledged that his only chance of beating Stoner lies in starting beside him, or preferably ahead of him on the grid, and he couldn't afford to slip back to the 2nd row.
With 13 minutes of the session left, Vermeulen had got his Rizla Suzuki within 1.4 seconds of Stoner's provisional pole time, but by now Rossi was hitting his stride. The Italian got within 3 seconds, then took another 2 seconds off his previous time to set a 2'12.886, leaving him just over 1.2 seconds behind the Australian. Following not far behind, John Hopkins got to within a tenth of a second of Rossi, taking 3rd from Vermeulen, but could not quite match the Italian's pace.
With the front row provisionally settled, the rain started to come down in earnest. The track quickly went from just wet to completely waterlogged, and times immediately slowed by some 7 seconds. It was obvious that no improvements would be possible until the rain let up, and so the riders decided en masse to head back to the relative warmth of their pit garages. At least it was dry in there.
The few brave souls who decided to stay out came to regret their persistence. Several people hit the gravel, some harder than others, including James Toseland, Loris Capirossi, Randy de Puniet and Toni Elias, though Elias' trip was taken still on two wheels. Turn 1 was tricky, but Turn 3 was claiming the most victims, the first of the left-right combinations which give the Czech circuit its character.
As the session wound down, and the rain continued to fall, it became clear that the front row times were not going to be beaten. Further down the order, the season's stragglers were bucking the trend and climbing up through the grid. Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli on the Ducatis, and Ant West on the Kawasaki were improving their times almost every lap, climbing up from near the bottom of the order to get close to, and in some cases even in to, the top 10.
The last few minutes saw almost the entire grid go out, but it was more for experience than to better their times. The grid ended up almost as it had looked after the first quarter of an hour, with only some minor changes at the rear and in the middle orders. Casey Stoner took his 6th pole position in a row, in typical Stoner style: by well over a second.
Valentino Rossi achieved the goal he had set for himself, and will start the race from 2nd place, giving him a fair shot at battling with Stoner during the race tomorrow. He needed a front row start, and he made sure that he got it. His strategy will be helped by the fact that Casey Stoner is ill, and struggling with a head cold. But while Stoner was very weak on Friday, he had regained some of his strength on Saturday, and should be well enough to last the entire race on Sunday, something that was looking doubtful on Friday.
John Hopkins took 3rd, his first front row start since last year. Hopper was excellent in the wet, but as he was slower during Friday's dry sessions, he may not have the pace to stay with the front two on Sunday.
Hopper's former Suzuki team mate Chris Vermeulen heads up the 2nd row, and with strong times in both wet and dry conditions, the Australian is in with a good chance of a 3rd podium in a row. He'll have to beat Gresini Honda's Alex de Angelis to do so, though. Sitting 5th on the grid, de Angelis was good whatever the weather did.
Kawasaki's Ant West is the surprise of the session, starting from 6th. The wet conditions clearly suited West, allowing him to finish well up the order from where he was on Friday. Unfortunately, he is unlikely to feature if it is dry on Sunday.
Randy de Puniet is the first of the Michelin men in 7th, and by a very long way. The remainder of the Michelin-shod runners are languishing at the bottom of the table, as the French tire company has got it badly wrong once again. The LCR Honda man is joined on the third row of the grid by Shinya Nakano on the factory-spec Gresini Honda and Vermeulen's Suzuki team mate Loris Capirossi. Capirossi was strong in the dry, and has only finished outside the top 6 at Brno once in his racing career. He'll have to fight through traffic, but he should be good for a top 5 spot on Sunday.
Alice Ducati's Sylvain Guintoli rounds out the top 10, the Frenchman providing some spectacular action, sliding his Ducati all over the track in an attempt to improve his time. He is definitely getting to grips with the Desmosedici, and is strengthening his case for staying in MotoGP.
The Michelins were the biggest losers of the day. Though de Puniet finished 7th, Dani Pedrosa, the man who was leading the championship until the Sachsenring, could only manage 12th, while Dovizioso, Edwards, Toseland and Lorenzo prop up the bottom of the timesheet. So poor are the Michelins that both Toseland and Lorenzo failed to set a lap within the 107% qualifying limit, and technically shouldn't be allowed to start tomorrow. However, with the grids already terrifyingly sparse, there seems little chance that both Yamaha men will be allowed to take their place at the back of the grid tomorrow.
Fortunately for MotoGP fans, it looks like we could still be in for a proper race tomorrow. Valentino Rossi managed to qualify on the front row of the grid, and if he can stay close to Stoner over the first lap, then he can take the fight to him. And if Stoner is still weak from his mystery illness, a tough battle could be the last thing the Australian needs. If he has recovered enough on Sunday, then he should have the stamina to go the distance with Rossi, but if he is still ill, he could find himself short of physical fitness. It looks like being an interesting prospect.