Opinions about the proposal for a single tire manufacturer are still divided among the riders, but there is one thing that all of them agree on: They are going to miss the breathtaking sensation of pushing the astonishingly grippy qualifying tires to their very limits. Nicky Hayden has said the tires are so good, that "you get off the bike and you're shaking." For riders so used to being right on the edge to be shaking takes something quite remarkable.
So there was some disappointment when the weather on Saturday started off as gray and wet as it had been on Friday. It looked like the last chance to use qualifiers might be gone, but as the afternoon started, the rain stopped, and the track started to dry out.
The track filled quickly once qualifying started. With the race expected to be dry, teams and riders were anxious to find a race setting that might work on Sunday. After three drenched sessions of free practice, they had learned more than they needed to know about riding in the wet.
The track was still cool, and spotty in patches, so times came down slowly. It took 5 laps before the times even got into the 1'34s, Randy de Puniet the first to crack that barrier on his LCR Honda. De Puniet was joined seconds later by Loris Capirossi, then Shinya Nakano, the Japanese Gresini Honda rider taking half a second off the Frenchman's time, with a lap of 1'34.437.
Three minutes later, Nakano's time was beaten, Nicky Hayden taking over the top spot with a 1'34.351. The Kentucky Kid had been fastest in all three wet sessions, and was showing he was quick in the dry too. Hayden was on a strong run, going on to take 3/10ths off his time on the next lap, with a time of 1'34.009.
His team mate, with whom Hayden had been engaged in a war of words by proxy, was not about to let Hayden run away with the session, and with 15 minutes gone, set the 2nd fastest time with a lap of 1'34.195.
Work continued calmly on finding a dry setup, the qualifying tires waiting quietly for their turn to shine after the halfway mark. But with 38 minutes of the session to go, the weather decided the session needed shaking up, and a light drizzle began, causing the marshals to bring out the rain flag.
That flag certainly had the desired effect. Suddenly, the entire field dived into the pits to throw on their first qualifier, hoping to set a decent time before the rain slowed the whole show down. Once again it was Nicky Hayden who timed his run best, taking over three quarters of a second off his qualifying time, with a lap of 1'33.218. Still over 2 seconds off the current pole record, under the circumstances, this looked like a strong contender for pole.
The track was full of men on soft rubber. Over the next 10 minutes, rider after rider posted very fast times, with 2nd place changing hands almost every minute. But the only man capable of beating Hayden's time was the Kentucky Kid himself, posting a 1'32.468 just after the halfway mark.
This was not going to be good enough for pole, however. The weak sprinkling of light rain gradually faded away with half the session left, and most of the field went back to working on their race setup.
With 15 minutes to go, Hayden's dominance came under serious threat for the first time. Casey Stoner, who had been beavering away on race tires, was suddenly flying, and rounded the long left hander leading on to the straight to post a time of 1'31.930, taking the pole from Hayden, and the first man to get into the 1'31 bracket.
Hayden's response was strong, but not strong enough, falling a tenth short with a lap of 1'32.073, but consolidating his 2nd position. But Stoner was only just getting warmed up. Next time the Australian came around, he took 4/10ths off his own lap time, getting a firmer grasp on pole position with a lap of 1'31.502.
That time would take some beating. Hayden took one more shot with a couple of minutes left in the session, shaving another 3/10ths off his own best time with a 1'31.703, but even that wouldn't be good enough to hang on to 2nd. As the clock ticked down for the end of qualifying, Hayden's team mate Dani Pedrosa fired across the line in a scorching lap of 1'31.555, snatching 2nd place just a few hundredths behind polesitter Stoner.
Casey Stoner took his 9th pole of the season, equaling Valentino Rossi's MotoGP record, and setting himself up with a decent shot at winning here on Sunday. Stoner's injured scaphoid is not troubling the Australian too much at Valencia, and the reigning World Champion will want to part with his #1 plate in style. Looking at his times on race tires - consistent high 1'33s, and even a high 1'32 in the final seconds of the session, Stoner has to be the favorite to win on Sunday, but questions remain about whether he can last the full distance of the race at full speed.
With the two Repsol Hondas starting on the front row - Dani Pedrosa ahead of Nicky Hayden, much to Hayden's chagrin - that puts the three fastest starters on the front row of the grid. The run into the first corner should be interesting, with all three men very quick off the line. As for race pace, neither Hayden nor Pedrosa can match Stoner's pace, but Hayden is probably closest, by a couple of tenths.
There are a few other men who are quick on race tires - Valentino Rossi, Chris Vermeulen, Sylvain Guintoli - but all of them are starting from way down the grid. Rossi's Valencia jinx is still fully operational, The Doctor timing his qualifying runs completely wrongly. But at least he hasn't been spat off and left to deal with bruised and broken bones this year. Vermeulen and Guintoli are even further behind in 12th and 13th, and on a tight track like Valencia, it's hard to make up that many positions. Even if they do, by the time they get to the front, the speed of Hayden, Pedrosa and Stoner means that they will be long gone, leaving the others too far behind to chase.
The race is shaping up to be interesting. Under normal circumstances, Casey Stoner would pull away from the start, and lead from start to finish. But with a weakened wrist, he may not last the distance, opening the door to Hayden and Pedrosa. The two Repsol men will not be giving yielding an inch. With Sunday Hayden's last day at Repsol Honda, and Pedrosa determined to win in front of his home fans neither man is prepared to countenance the other being ahead for very long. The battle is likely to be hard, and may even be viscious, with another "friendly fire" incident not beyond the realms of possibility. Old scores may yet be settled at Valencia on Sunday.