Since the damp start to the race weekend on Friday morning, the weather at Motegi has cleared up nicely, and Saturday's qualifying practice session started under warm sunshine and with a hot track. Fortunately for the riders, they had already had two dry sessions to work on their dry setups, and the fastest laps were soon coming thick and fast.
As we have come to expect, Casey Stoner quickly shot to the top of the timesheets, taking fastest lap on his very first complete lap, but he was pushing a little harder than the bike was up to. As he braked for the hairpin on his 3rd lap, Stoner overcooked it, and ran off the track into the gravel. He quickly rejoined, and was back up to speed within a couple of laps.
For the first 8 minutes, the fastest time changed relentlessly, with Randy de Puniet, Shinya Nakano and Valentino Rossi chipping away at the lead to get into the low 1'48s. But once Rossi hit his stride, he took a much firmer grasp of the lead, setting a lap of 1'47.581, and going on to circulate in the 1'47.7 bracket.
After his initial off-track excursion, Stoner soon joined Rossi in the 1'47s, along with Jorge Lorenzo, and with a quarter of the session gone, took over provisional pole with a 1'47.484. There was clearly nothing wrong with Stoner's race setup, but unusually, the Australian was not yet breaking lap record pace, a feat he has managed during practice almost effortlessly at almost every racetrack since Barcelona.
If a 1'47.484 was outside the lap record, there could be no doubt that it would not be good enough for pole, and it was just a matter of waiting for the first qualifying tire to come out to get an idea of what it would take to secure the front spot on the grid. Fortunately, and in a return to something resembling tradition, the Frenchman Randy de Puniet broke the tension just after the mid-point of the session, squeezing his LCR Honda to a lap of 1'47.172.
For a minute, de Puniet made us wonder, though, as the satellite Honda man held on to his fast times through the first couple of sectors, but as he headed into the final section, heading under the bridge to turn back onto the front straight, it became clear that though the Michelin qualifiers were good, they weren't good enough to use for two full laps. Not quite, anyway.
De Puniet's fast lap was the signal for a general charge by the grid, with a host of riders out on qualifiers, but on their first qualifier, most people are just getting used to the increased levels of grip, and trying to wrap their minds around just how much later they can brake, and how much earlier they can get on the gas. De Puniet's time would stand for while.
In fact, it would stand for just 5 minutes. Colin Edwards was the first to take pole from de Puniet, taking just under a tenth of a second from the Frenchman, but clearly that wouldn't be enough to last either. A couple of minutes later, and there were two men chasing Edwards time, and on track to break it.
The first man was Loris Capirossi, the winner of the last three races at Motegi. With just over 22 minutes of the session to go, Capirossi streaked across the line in 1'47.002, but his provisional pole would be very short lived. Two seconds later, the man who had followed him round smashed his time, Nicky Hayden hitting a more respectable 1'46.666, the first man to crack into the 1'46s.
But clearly not the last. A couple of minutes later, the factory Honda was forced to make way for the factory Yamahas, as Jorge Lorenzo took a tenth off Hayden's time, then Valentino Rossi shaved another few hundredths off, taking pole with a 1'46.542.
The times were still a long way off a likely pole time. Loris Capirossi's 2006 pole record was three quarters of a second faster, and despite their reduced capacity, the 2008 bikes should have been capable of getting close, at the very least. The question was, could anyone crack into the 1'45s?
The answer was not entirely unexpected. Casey Stoner, so often the fastest man on the planet on two wheels, staked his claim to that title once again with just over a quarter of the session to go. And he did so emphatically, taking nearly 7/10ths of a second off Rossi's pole time, with a lap of 1'45.831. This was much more like it.
Stoner's Bridgestones were undoubtedly quick, especially at a track where Bridgestone has done well for the past few years, but the Michelins weren't so bad either. Three minutes after the Australian had taken pole, Jorge Lorenzo was back, and quicker. The Spaniard snatched pole back from Stoner with a furious lap of 1'45.750, the Fiat Yamaha man clearly having refound his form.
As the clock ticked down, the action on track hotted up, as everyone went back out for their final attempts to secure a spot on the front row. Nicky Hayden was the first to manage that, taking 3rd with a 1'46.196, before seeing it taken away again by Valentino Rossi, coming up just short of the 1'45 bracket.
Casey Stoner was also back out, but came straight back in again, his tire failing to work as expected. He was out again straight away, but uncharacteristically, was off the pace, not capable of cracking Lorenzo's record pace. He crossed the line with just under 4 minutes to go, plenty of time, but not enough for an in lap, and then another out lap, and so any hopes of taking pole were gone. It would later transpire that Stoner had had a bug hit his visor as he started his fast lap, and he had been unable to see the apexes properly, slowing him down. A little bit of bad luck, and a niggle, but the sort of thing that has conspired against Stoner lately, luck having seemingly deserted him recently.
He was not alone in that fate. Just as Nicky Hayden rounded the final corner to start on his fast lap, a gaggle of riders pulled out of pit lane on their out laps. With so many people on track, it was bound to go wrong, and sure enough, Ant West got in Hayden's way as he rounded the second hairpin. To be fair to West, that is a difficult corner, and a place where you are always going to be in the way at some point or other, but Hayden's lap was gone.
Luckily for Hayden, the Michelins had some endurance, as de Puniet's earlier two-lap run had shown. Hayden slowed, and ran the rest of the lap just fast enough to keep the heat in his tires, then set off once again. The Kentucky Kid's luck held, and his proven prowess on qualifiers took him back into the 1'45s, and back onto the front row.
As the clock ticked down, there was no one left to challenge Jorge Lorenzo's pole time. Except, that is, Jorge Lorenzo. In the dying seconds of the session, the Spaniard took another 2/10ths of his existing pole time, shattering the pole record with a lap of 1'45.543, and securing his first pole since Portugal early in the season, and confirming the form of his previous couple of races.
Even Casey Stoner had been unable to do anything about Lorenzo, and was forced to settle for 2nd. Things had not gone the Australian's way, but a front row start should be good enough to give him the start he needs.
Stoner starts ahead of Nicky Hayden, who is undergoing something of a revival. The Honda gets off the line very quickly, and a front row start could give him the chance to lead the race again for at least a couple of laps.
Hayden's fast lap pushed Valentino Rossi back down into 4th, and onto the 2nd row. Rossi has stated for most of the year that a front row start is vital if he is to challenge for the win, as he simply can't afford to let Stoner get away. But spending too much time on their race setup left the team with too little time on qualifiers, and Rossi paid the price.
Besides Rossi sits Dani Pedrosa, still coming to grips with the Bridgestone qualifiers. Though 5th is not where he hoped to start from, the speed of the Honda off the line could work in Pedrosa's favor.
Three-time winner Loris Capirossi rounds out the second row, fast as always on the track he is so strong at. During the last few minutes of qualifying Capirossi looked like he could get onto the front row, but the Suzuki man came up short in the second half of the track, and was left back in 6th.
Colin Edwards heads up the third row, taking 7th place ahead of Randy de Puniet, the early polesitter. Shinya Nakano took his Gresini Honda to 9th, while Edwards' team mate James Toseland rounds out the top 10, 1.3 seconds back from Lorenzo's pole.
With Casey Stoner on the front row, Valentino Rossi must be worried. Both men are on similar race pace, Rossi maybe 0.1 seconds off Stoner's pace, but having to start from the second row will severely hamper The Doctor's race strategy, which is to get with Stoner and harass him.
Rossi will have to hope that either Lorenzo or Hayden can get off the line quickly and hold Stoner up until he can catch up with them. Hayden is certainly a good starter, and should be capable of matching Stoner off the line, though his race pace is a little short of Stoner's and Rossi's.
Unlike Lorenzo's. The Spaniard is decent off the line, but his race pace is close to Rossi's and he could once again feature in the race. Dani Pedrosa, at a track which suits him down to the ground, is still coming to terms with the Bridgestones, and is a fraction slower than Jorge Lorenzo, but a fraction faster than his team mate Hayden. Like Rossi, Pedrosa needs to get a blistering start, to stay with Stoner at the front, and try to get ahead.
The outsider here is once again Loris Capirossi. Capirex has a race pace not far off Lorenzo's, and given a bit of luck, could make the break and go on to win his 4th race in a row here. It all depends on how quick he is into the first corner.
With Rossi on the 2nd row, the Italian may decide to concentrate on the podium, and securing the title, instead of taking risks to try and catch and beat Casey Stoner. If someone can get in Stoner's way, then that may change things around, but for now, Rossi is surely focused mainly on getting back the title. It has eluded him for the past 2 years, and now it is so close again, he is unlikely to let it slip from his grasp once more. Little could be sweeter for Rossi and for Yamaha than to take the MotoGP crown in Honda's home.