The MotoGP free practice sessions at Estoril have so far followed an all too familiar pattern, and a rather dispiriting one for anyone who is not Casey Stoner, or one of Stoner's fans. From the very first free practice session, Stoner has once again come out and been the fastest rider on the track, every single outing. The only glimmer of hope for the opposition was that on Friday, Stoner's dominance wasn't quite as total as at previous tracks, with the afternoon's FP2 session ending with 16 riders within a second of Stoner's fastest lap.
But this morning, during the final free practice session, Casey Stoner once again stamped his authority on the proceedings. In the cooler morning conditions, Stoner shattered the race lap record by 3/4 of a second, during a long run of 12 laps, 10 of which were faster than Kenny Roberts Jr lap record from last year's race. Valentino Rossi was second fastest, but was a quarter of a second back, with only the top 7 within a second of Stoner this time. So as qualifying approached, it looked like another pole was already in the bag for Casey Stoner.
The session started warm and sunny, excellent conditions for riding a motorcycle fast. After the initial flurry of name changes at the top of the timesheet, as the riders got up to speed, Valentino Rossi became the first rider to get into the 1'37 bracket, and onto what is likely to be race pace tomorrow. His time would not stand for very long, as a couple of minutes later, it was usurped by John Hopkins, but Rossi struck back some 5 minutes later, with 42 minutes left in the session.
Rossi's fortunes have improved a little since the post-race test at Misano, wnere he found some Michelin tires which worked better than previous tires. These improved tires had helped Rossi run encouragingly close to Stoner, giving him hope that he should at least be able to put up a fight at Estoril. Ten minutes later, with just under half of the session left, the improvement of the Michelins was confirmed by Dani Pedrosa, who took 0.15 of a second of Rossi's time to take the provisional pole.
So where was Stoner? Eyebrows were being raised all around the paddock by the fact that the Australian championship leader was not dominating the session as usual. Stoner had slowly climbed up the standings, from 7th, to 5th, to 4th, but he was not pushing for the fastest time. Stoner was also spending a surprising amount of time in the pits. That in itself is ominous, suggesting that Stoner has a tire and a setup he's happy with, and is ready to race.
With 20 minutes to go, the waiting was on for the first rider to go out on qualifiers, and try and take the pole. All eyes were on Randy de Puniet, who can usually be relied on to be the first out on qualifying tires. But this time, it was not de Puniet who went first, it was the two Tech 3 Yamahas, trying out their Dunlop Qualifiers, Sylvain Guintoli managing the 4th fastest time, while Makoto Tamada set the 2nd fastest time, just over 1/10th behind Pedrosa. But with the Dunlop riders not subject to the tire restrictions, once the Tech 3 team had been out, it all went quiet, as the riders headed back to the pits, and waited for the right moment to try and set a time for the grid.
The first rider to succumb to the temptation of an empty track was Toni Elias, riding without pain killers for his injured leg for the first time, who managed to set the 2nd fastest time ahead of Tamada, and just a fraction behind Pedrosa, but with 12 minutes of the session left, it began in earnest. Casey Stoner went out on a qualifier and, as if to remind everyone who had dominated all the previous sessions, set a blistering time of 1'36.594, nearly a second faster than Pedrosa's time, to take provisional pole. The mark having been set, Stoner cruised back to the pits, to see if anyone had an answer for him.
Over the next 5 minutes, the answer to that question seemed to be a resounding no. Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa all improved their times, but Hayden was the only man to get inside 1'37, setting a lap of 1'36.820, still over 2/10ths slower than Stoner. Then, with under 5 minutes of the session left, Valentino Rossi posted his response. On a flying lap, Rossi took back provisional pole with a lap of 1'36.576, less than 2/100ths inside Stoner's pole time. But as Rossi slowed down on his in lap, Stoner was already on a charge. With 3 minutes to go, the Australian crossed the line to take back pole position by over 2/10ths, setting a time of 1'36.341. With Rossi having already used both his qualifiers, Stoner looked like he had the pole in the bag.
There were still plenty of others who thought otherwise, though. Colin Edwards, Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden were all on fast laps, but looked to fall just short of what it would take. Hayden was closest, but as he entered the final timing section, comprising the chicane, the Esses, and the endless right hander of the Parabolica, he was still down by under 55/100ths of a second. Getting back that much time through such a difficult section on Casey Stoner didn't look possible, but Hayden gave it his best shot. The rear of his Honda RC212V sliding round the Parabolica showed just how hard he was trying, and his effort was met with just reward: As Hayden shot across the line, the timing screens showed 1'36.301. Hayden had taken the pole from Casey Stoner by just 4/100ths of a second.
The last time Nicky Hayden sat on pole was 364 days ago, at last year's Australian Grand Prix. Since then, The Kentucky Kid has taken a tumble in the gravel, a world championship, and a very long, and very hard road to adapt to the tiny Honda RC212V. As this season has progressed, Hayden's disastrous start to his title defense has gotten steadily better, with 3 podiums in the last 5 races. Gradually, Hayden is once again becoming a factor to be reckoned with.
But though Nicky Hayden may have taken the pole, his times on race tires are less encouraging, leaving the American nearer the middle of the field than the front. Casey Stoner, on the other hand, is fine on race tires. From 2nd spot on the grid, Stoner should easily be capable of running at the front, at the very least, and running away with the race if given the merest whiff of the lead. The man determined to stop him is Valentino Rossi, sitting in the final spot on the front row. Rossi finally has some tires he feels confident about, and his times on race tires have been close enough to Stoner to give the Australian a run for his money. But it's not just Rossi whose Michelins are working: in 5th place on the grid is Dani Pedrosa, who also set a string of very fast laps this afternoon, and looks capable of mixing it up at the front.
Pedrosa is sandwiched between what is probably the biggest surprise of the weekend. In 4th and 8th spot on the grid are Makoto Tamada and Sylvain Guintoli, demonstrating that Dunlop have finally got a qualifier that works. Their race tires are a different matter, but the deficit to Bridgestone and Michelin is definitely closing, some of which may be laid at the door of the tire regulations, which allow tire makers which have not won any races recently (like Dunlop) to bring as many tires to the track as they like.
Colin Edwards finishes out the 2nd row of the grid in 6th, with a good qualifying time, but less convincing race pace, with Marco Melandri in 7th, with the opposite. Casey Stoner's future team mate ran good times on race tires, but his disappointing qualifying leaves him with a lot to do at the start. Guintoli sits next to Melandri, and then comes Melandri's team mate Toni Elias, as spectacular at Estoril as ever. Suzuki's John Hopkins, whose been on the podium at the last 2 races, finishes out the top 10.
Casey Stoner has whitewashed the last 3 races, with no one capable of putting up any resistance. While Stoner is still looking like a very firm favorite to take the win yet again tomorrow, he could have to put up a fight for it, for the first time in a couple of months. MotoGP fans all over the world are hoping that he has to, and we see a return to the thrilling show that MotoGP was before.