2006 Le Mans Qualifying Practice - Return of the Young Challenger

The rain clouds which had caused problems during this morning's free practice session had disappeared by this afternoon, allowing the track to dry out and warm up a little. The strong winds, which had earlier blown a temporary commentary unit over, complete with worried journalists, remained, however. With everyone worried about the possibility of the rain returning later in the session, all 19 riders took off as soon as the green flag dropped, reasoning that a half-decent time might turn into a pole if the track got wet. After the first ten minutes, John Hopkins topped the timesheets with a respectable 1:36.22, with Sete Gibernau in second. The Yamahas and Kawasakis were prominent in the times, including Frenchman Randy de Puniet. De Puniet has plenty to live up to, having scored podiums at Le Mans for the last four races in a row, albeit in the 250 class. Aboard the Kawaski, in his first season of MotoGP, he faces a much tougher task this year.

But he wasn't showing much sign of that pressure, as he set the fastest time so far with 43 minutes of the session to go. His top time wasn't to last long, though, as most of the riders were out on the track, and putting in the next set of fast times. Valentino Rossi was the first rider to take de Puniet's lead from him, followed quickly by Loris Capirossi on the Ducati, whose time of 1:35.257 was getting closer to the times set during yesterday's free practice sessions. Capirossi's time also wasn't to last, though with first Colin Edwards, and then team mate Rossi, taking back fastest time for Yamaha. The Doctor's time was faster than Friday's free practice sessions, just a few hundredths over 1:35.

With 35 minutes to go, the session had gone quiet, most of the riders in the pits examining the setup to use for their fast laps later. Few riders were out improving their times, though first Gibernau and then Nakano moved up to fourth place. Most worrying for HRC was that neither Nicky Hayden, who is suffering with some kind of flu, nor Dani Pedrosa, had set a decent time, both riders a long way down on the time sheets. This was not a situation which could be allowed to stand. But it would take a while.

With 20 minutes left in the session, the pace started hotting up, and the grid was starting to look more and more interesting. Shinya Nakano was the first rider to break the 1:35 barrier, setting a 1:34.954, and the Bridgestone riders were looking more and more dominant. With 14 minutes to go, Capirossi jumped to second spot, and two minutes later, Hopkins took over first place with a 1:34.795. Nakano was not going to take this lying down, however, and retook first place within a couple of minutes. The prospect of an all Bridgestone front row, with no Hondas or Yamahas, seemed ever more likely.

The last ten minutes of qualifying practice turned intense, as they always are. Nakano's pole time, while constantly under threat, seemed safe for the moment. The Honda riders started to get into shape, with Marco Melandri moving into fifth with 8 minutes to go, only to have Dani Pedrosa shoot past him into third place a minute later, Hayden climbing to fourth another minute later. The Yamaha riders, who had been at the top of the timesheets for most of the session, were starting a downwards slide. With four minutes to go, Nakano proved that he, at least, was capable of improving his own pole time, taking nearly half a second off to 1:34.201.

With three minutes to go, everyone was out on the track. The electronic timesheet was flurry of blue, almost everyone on a personal fastest time, but no one could maintain the red numbers, indicating fastest overall. Capirossi tried, but stranded in 3rd, then Melandri tried, but only managed second. The one man constantly keeping red times after his name, was Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda. After failing on his first attempt at taking pole, when he was baulked by Carlos Checa on the Tech 3 Yamaha, who was also on a fast lap, he wasn't to be thwarted next time around. With an astonishing 1:33.990, the tiny Spaniard took his second pole in succession, in only his first season in the premier division.

No one else could match either Pedrosa's fantastic time, or Nakano's similarly impressive performance. John Hopkins put in a final fast lap on his Suzuki to take the last spot on the front row, and Randy de Puniet delighted his home crowd by taking his Kawasaki to fourth. Marco Melandri will be next to de Puniet tomorrow, with Loris Capirossi being the first Ducati and last bike on the second row of the grid. Bridgestone certainly seem to have good tires for this track, one of the tracks they use for testing, as four of the top six riders are on Bridgestones. Valentino Rossi slips to seventh place on the M1 with the new chassis, team mate Colin Edwards on the old bike in 9th, and Sete Gibernau on the other Ducati sandwiched between them.

Although Nicky Hayden is only tenth on the grid, the Kentucky Kid surely won't be too disappointed, as the difference between fourth and tenth is less than 2/10ths of a second. Casey Stoner is likely to be disappointed with his eleventh place, after topping the timesheet this morning. Hopper's Suzuki team mate Chris Vermeulen earned a respectable 12th place on the grid, not bad considering this is his first race at Le Mans. Behind Vermeulen, Makoto Tamada must have expected to do better than 13th, after being much further forward yesterday. Carlos Checa put up a good fight on the disappointing Dunlops, finishing in 14th, with Kenny Roberts Junior a lot further down the timesheets than expected, in 15th place. Toni Elias is perhaps the biggest loser in qualifying, a lowly 16th well below what he is capable of. Ellison, Hofmann and Cardoso once again bring up the rear.

So, the results of yesterday's practice are turned upside down. Pedrosa put in a fantastic performance to take pole, where he was struggling yesterday, and the Yamahas, so dominant the day before, slipped some today. Bridgestone is really challenging Michelin's dominance at Le Mans, ironically a French track, despite the testing which former Dutch GP rider Jurgen van den Goorbergh has been doing on Rossi's Michelin-shod Yamaha at Mugello. With the weather uncertain for tomorrow, we are sure of a spectacle, come rain or shine.

Official results at MotoGP.com


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