The weather once again played havoc with MotoGP during this afternoon's qualifying session, shaking up the grid considerably, leaving us with a result which is part shocker, part par for the course. The session started out with a wet track, but no rain falling, although the dark, pregnant sky made it clear that this situation would not last for long. Consequently, the track soon filled up with riders trying very hard to put in a fast time right from the start, gambling that a fast time now might just be good enough to secure a decent spot on the grid if the weather turned nasty later.
And from the start, it was the two Australians, Ducati's Casey Stoner and Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen who were vying for pole position, times dropping by almost a second a lap for the first 12 minutes, Vermeulen eventually coming out on top, with a time of just over 2'03. After 15 minutes, Vermeulen led Stoner, with Yamaha's Valentino Rossi taking provisional 3rd spot.
But the dark clouds held off, the watery sun allowing the track to form a dry line, and times kept coming down. 20 minutes in to the session, Marco Melandri took the fastest time from Vermeulen, putting in a couple of laps under 2'03 on his Gresini Honda, on a crowded track. So eager was everyone to take advantage of the temporarily dry conditions that Carlos Checa, after suffering a mechanical problem with his LCR Honda, was seen pushing his bike back into the pits, to ensure that it could be fixed to go back out again on.
Just before the halfway mark, times still gradually getting faster, it was Casey Stoner who took back pole position from Melandri, cracking first into the 2'01 bracket, before setting an even faster lap of 2'00.359. Vermeulen tried, but could not get close, but was fast enough to take 2nd place back from Melandri, ahead of Kawasaki's Olivier Jacque, returning from injury and a renowned force in the wet, with Loris Capirossi in 5th. Where OJ was the surprise name at the front, there were several surprises further down the field. Valentino Rossi had slipped to 9th position, ahead of Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa, the man who had dominated in the two dry sessions we had had so far. Pedrosa's team mate, and reigning world champion was struggling down in 13th, trying to rebuild his confidence in the damp conditions, after the rain at Le Mans saw Hayden crash spectacularly and painfully out of 5th position, and the polesitter at Le Mans, Colin Edwards, was way down in 18th.
Then, the rain that had been threatening all session finally began to fall, and fall heavily. A mass exodus to the pits followed, leaving an almost empty track, where moments before it had been nearly full. Only Olivier Jacque and Nicky Hayden stayed out, though OJ soon retired to the haven of the garages. Hayden, however stayed out, working on his confidence, and once the rain eased off, and the track began to dry again some 10 minutes later, Hayden's times started to fall again.
With just under 15 minutes to go, and the track starting to dry a little again, pit lane became a hive of activity once again, as riders saddled up and rode on out to try their luck once more. At first it was mainly those with times putting them in the lower half of the grid, but one by one, as riders began to set ever faster times, the garages emptied and the track filled. Only one name remained absent: Casey Stoner was gambling, gambling that it would remain wet enough that his time was good enough to stay out of reach in the still tricky conditions, with some corners bone dry and others still streaming wet.
But with 5 minutes to go, Stoner's gamble was looking every more risky, and so the young Australian boarded his Ducati and set out to try and defend his pole position. Though many tried, his time proved good enough, as was Chris Vermeulen's time for 2nd spot, a full second behind Stoner's. But behind Vermeulen, the battle was surprisingly fierce. Valentino Rossi took 3rd position, 3/10ths behind Vermeulen, and Olivier Jacque eventually came out on top in the fight for 4th, just 0.014 behind Rossi, and ahead of Stoner's team mate Loris Capirossi in 5th. Marco Melandri, whose time had seen him on the front row for much of the session, came up just short, taking the final spot on the 2nd row of the grid.
Randy de Puniet took 7th spot, reinforcing Kawasaki's strong showing in the wet, ahead of Dani Pedrosa, who was less successful in the wet than in the dry. John Hopkins took 9th, ahead of Alex Barros in 10th.
The luckiest rider of the session must be Makoto Tamada on the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha, whose time was outside the 107% limit allowed for qualifying, but who the Race Director has allowed to take part in Sunday's race, citing the difficult conditions. The same allowance was made for 250 qualifying, where current championship leader Jorge Lorenzo threatened to fall foul of the same ruling, after fast times were set during the first few minutes of the 250 session, before the rain started to fall, leaving much of the field outside of the qualifying limit.
Once again, the weather has had its wicked way with MotoGP, and that reign of uncertainty looks set to continue. The weathermen are predicting more rain for tomorrow, but none can be certain as to when it will fall. We could see a complete set of dry races tomorrow, or we could see them all rain-soaked. We could even see the race start dry, but become a flag to flag affair, if the rain starts to fall while the race is on. If the rain holds off, then Dani Pedrosa looks like being very hard to beat, but if it's wet, then the names of Vermeulen and Melandri look likely to be leading the field. But whatever the weather, those names will surely be joined by Valentino Rossi and championship leader Casey Stoner. A fascinating prospect awaits.