The qualifying session for the 2008 Qatar Grand Prix proved once again that running in the late evening is having more ramifications than anyone considered. The planning for this event has been, as ever, extraordinary, but like most well-planned events, there are always things which people overlooked. So far in Qatar, it's been the track temperatures.
The session started warm enough, with track temperatures up around 19° centigrade, and as the bikes rolled out of the pits and on to the track, it took just a few short laps for Casey Stoner to assert his authority over the MotoGP paddock once again, grabbing the fastest lap with his 2nd lap, then whittling it down to a respectable 1'55.426 over the next couple of laps. At this early stage in the proceedings, it was only Valentino Rossi who could follow Stoner's pace, putting in a lap just 3/10ths slower than the world champion.
But The Doctor wasn't the only Yamaha who was fast, 6 minutes later, Rossi was passed by his team mate Jorge Lorenzo, "Porfuera" getting to within a tenth of a second of Stoner. Then, more impressively, he did it again on the next lap, as part of a run of very fast laps, all in the 1'55 bracket, and well inside of lap record pace.
With the increase in the tire quotas, up to 18 fronts and 22 rears, from 14 fronts and 17 rears, it seemed a certainty that most riders would take an extra qualifier, giving them at least three runs at setting a qualifying time, rather than just the two, as had been the case last year. With extra tires to play with, the question was, when would the first qualifier come out?
The answer, when it came, was rather surprising. Less than 20 minutes into the session, James Toseland started lighting up the intermediate timing like a Christmas tree, as he smashed the fastest time for each sector, finally crossing the line to take provisional pole with a time nearly a second faster than Stoner's current fastest lap. Toseland and his pit crew had made the very shrewd decision to get a fast lap in early, as experience from the previous evening suggested that it got more difficult to set a fast time later on in the session, as the temperature cooled.
That Toseland's decision was a good one was soon confirmed by Casey Stoner, the champion following the British Yamaha man's lead on the next lap, flying through the 1st and 2nd sections right on Toseland's pace, only to lose out in the 3rd sector, eventually coming up 2/10ths short with his first qualifier.
A bigger surprise was perhaps that no one else thought to follow the two leaders' examples, the remainder of the grid stubbornly turning in laps on race tires, working on a setup for tomorrow's race. Only Toseland and Stoner were out trying to set pole times, until well into the last half hour of the session.
Stoner's next fast lap got him nowhere, end up in a low 1'55, nearly a second off where he needed to be for the pole, while Toseland put in yet another 1'54 lap.
By the 26 minute to go mark, the pack was starting to chase, as rider after rider started going out on their first qualifiers. The first man to make a dent on Toseland and Stoner was Jorge Lorenzo, coming up half a second short on JT's fast time. Then, a whole gaggle of qualifiers started to fly, with Randy de Puniet moving up to 5th, and Nicky Hayden taking the '07 RC212V up to 8th, but both men were still significantly off the pace.
For the bikes making the pace were the Yamahas. With 21 minutes to go, Jorge Lorenzo's 2nd qualifier worked out better, snatching the pole from Toseland with a very fast 1'54.219. But Lorenzo's moment of glory was to last just 45 seconds, as behind the Spanish 250 champion, Toseland was on another hot lap, this time taking back provisional pole with a 1'54.182, over 8/10ths faster than Valentino Rossi's pole record from last year.
From here on in, the action became ever more hectic. Casey Stoner put on the third of his qualifiers, but once again came up short, managing only a 1'55.015, and retaining 3rd spot. Then Valentino Rossi flew over the line, improving his time, but still only climbing to 5th spot on the grid, with a lot of people on fast laps behind him. Not least of whom was Colin Edwards, Rossi's former team mate climbing up into 3rd spot with a lap of 1'54.718.
As the clock ticked down, the temperature fell, and moisture started to form in the cool air, the increasingly adverse conditions did not prevent the hot laps from getting hotter. First Lorenzo improved his time, but not enough to snatch back pole, then Nicky Hayden climbed to 6th, while John Hopkins got up into 8th. With 3 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi made a final attempt to get onto the front row, which stranded on the cold track, leaving him 7th, with a 1'55.133, slower than his pole record from last year.
The seconds ticked away towards what looked like being a remarkable result. Could James Toseland, the man said to be too old to move to MotoGP, who'd left the safety of Honda for an adventure with a satellite Yamaha team, and what's more, the man who came from Superbikes, the "wrong" series to switch from, could he hold onto the pole in his very first race in the senior class? With most of the riders having chewed up their allocation of qualifiers, that pole was getting closer and closer, but another rookie was still out on a fast lap. Jorge Lorenzo, on the Fiat Yamaha, rounded section after section ahead of JT, and he crossed the line to take the pole and smash the pole record, setting an incredible lap of 1'53.927, over a second ahead of Rossi's record from last year. It wasn't to be JT who took pole on his first outing, instead it was Lorenzo, the man who was regarded as the great unknown, having one two 250 championships against dubious competition. A truly astounding achievement.
Toseland was forced to settle for 2nd, having already used up all his qualifiers, finishing ahead of his team mate Colin Edwards, making it an all-Yamaha, all-Michelin front row. Casey Stoner looked irritated, forced to start from 4th on the grid, with Randy de Puniet and Nicky Hayden behind him, both on the '07 Hondas.
Valentino Rossi heads up the third row of the grid, the slowest of the Yamahas, but ahead of Honda's Dani Pedrosa, who had elected to run the '08 bikes for the duration of the test. Andrea Dovizioso took 9th spot, while Kawasaki's John Hopkins, still suffering with a groin injury, completed the top 10.
The strangeness of the qualifying session illuminated a few important points for the race. First of all, the Michelin qualifiers are still significantly better than the Bridgestone Qs, with Stoner and Rossi the only Bridgestone runners to make it into the top 9. What is more relevant for Sunday's race, however, is that the Michelins are dealing with the cold conditions of race time better than the Bridgestones, with the Michelin runners scoring better results in the late sessions, while the Bridgestones fared better in the 7pm practices, when temperatures were warmer. The temperature differences are significant, and conditions are changing rapidly throughout the course of the session, with track temperatures dropping by 5+ ° centigrade over the course of an hour.
What this will mean for tomorrow is very hard to say. With the Michelins doing better in the cold, you'd be foolish not to point to one of the Michelin bikes as a potential winner, with Jorge Lorenzo the hot favorite on the pneumatic valve Yamaha. But Lorenzo isn't the only rider with good race pace: both Colin Edwards and, unsurprisingly, Casey Stoner were also running mid 1'55s in the cool of night.
How this will impact the already riven Yamaha garage, one can only guess. Valentino Rossi may be starting to have second thoughts about his switch to Bridgestones, but more likely, he'll put it down to the unusual conditions of a night race making the Qatar race fairly meaningless as a guide to the rest of the season. That knowledge won't make him any happier if his team mate finishes ahead of him tomorrow, or even worse, wins.
The Repsol Honda team must be wishing they had a wall down the middle of the garage, with the team now split between the two riders. The situation with only two '07 bikes can only have exacerbated the tension, and MotoGP wags are already comparing Dani Pedrosa to Max Biaggi, though "without any of Max's endearing qualities", to quote one commentator. Honda seems very much to have lost its way, and will need to score some points tomorrow to get its season underway. It's a small step from simmering resentment to open warfare, but a step which seems more likely every day.
|Pos.||No.||Rider||Manufacturer||Fast Lap||Diff||Diff Previous|
|5||14||Randy DE PUNIET||HONDA||1'54.818||0.891||0.085|
|12||15||Alex DE ANGELIS||HONDA||1'55.692||1.765||0.152|
|Fastest Lap:||Lap 21||Jorge LORENZO||1'53.927||170.003 Km/h|
|Circuit Record Lap:||2007||Casey STONER||1'56.528||166.208 Km/h|
|Circuit Best Lap:||2008||Jorge LORENZO||1'53.927||170.003 Km/h|