Changing the way that Qualifying works is apparently the latest fashion in motorcycle racing. The World Superbike series did it by dropping the old single-lap Superpole format, and adopting a series of three knockout sessions, shameless copied from Formula One. MotoGP would protest that it has changed its qualifying format - though cost-cutting measures have reduced the length of qualifying from an hour to just 45 minutes - but the adoption of the single tire rule and the disappearance of full-on one-lap qualifying tires left MotoGP followers wondering just how this would affect the way the teams and riders approached Qualifying.
As the session started, at least one thing remained unchanged. Within a few minutes of the green lights, and on his first couple of laps out of the pits, Casey Stoner was laying down a blistering pace. The 2007 World Champion had cracked into the 1'56 bracket, and by his fourth lap, came within 0.009 of equaling the fastest time of the weekend, set by none other than Casey Stoner. The Marlboro Ducati rider was setting the bar for the rest of the field.
Though no one could directly challenge Stoner, he did not enjoy his huge (over a second) advantage for long. Within a few minutes, Valentino Rossi had jumped up to second fastest, just over 3/10ths of a second behind the Australian. Stoner did not wait long to respond: Six minutes later, the Australian was back out on track and cracking another barrier, into the 1'55s, extending his lead to over a second again with a lap of 1'55.504.
Behind Rossi, the fight for third was hotting up, with first Loris Capirossi taking the last front row spot, then Colin Edwards, before Andrea Dovizioso also got involved. Dovi held the spot for five more minutes, before Jorge Lorenzo confirmed his strong form at Qatar by blitzing a lap just short of Rossi's second place time.
As the session entered it's final fifteen minutes, the question of what difference the lack of a qualifying tire would make was answered: with the choice between a softer and a harder compound, and the hard compound being very much the tire to use for the race, riders started slipping their softer tires on, and pushing very hard, shaking up the grid. It bore a great deal of similarity to an old-fashioned qualifying session, only the times were dropping by half a second rather than a second and a half.
Colin Edwards was the first man to put on an old-fashioned qualifying display on the softer tire, ousting Valentino Rossi from second with a lap of 1'56.478, but Edwards was to be deposed himself a minute later, by LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet, who took an eighth of a second off the Tech 3 Yamaha rider's time. Andrea Dovizioso was improving, too, but only managed to make the jump to fourth.
With 8 minutes to go, The Doctor was back out on track, and lapping faster than he had done previously. At each checkpoint, he was a tenth or less of Stoner, rather than the second he had ceded to the Australian, and in with a shout at pole. But it was not to be, Rossi came up a couple of tenths short, snatching back second spot with a lap of 1'55.774.
As the clock ticked down, Casey Stoner returned to the track to see if there was anything more he could do, and the answer, as so often, was yes. Stoner was lapping fast, but ahead of him, a young Spaniard was matching the Australian's times, in the shape of Fiat Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo could not quite match the time of Stoner, nor the time of his team mate Rossi, but got a firm grip on third. His deficit to Stoner grew,though, as Stoner pushed his Ducati to improve his time once again, taking it down to 1'55.286, just over a tenth off the existing race lap record, the pole record gone with the demise of the qualifying tires.
In the dying minutes of the session, both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo improved their times, though neither could get close to Stoner, and the Australian claimed first blood of the year, taking pole for the season opener at Qatar. Beside him, but nearly half a second behind, sits Valentino Rossi, with Rossi's team mate Jorge Lorenzo just a couple of hundredths behind.
Andrea Dovizioso heads up the second row, ahead of Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards, while Randy de Puniet will start from seventh, and the third row of the grid, ahead of Chris Vermeulen and Marco Melandri.
Dani Pedrosa finished respectably, setting the 14th fastest time, but will be focused on getting a few valuable points tomorrow, rather than charging through the field for victory. The Repsol Honda rider's knee is still causing him pain, and Qatar is very much a damage limitation exercise, rather than an assault on the title.
Unluckiest man of the weekend is Nicky Hayden. In FP1, the American suffered first a clutch problem, and then an electrical issue, losing him both pace and time. Then in FP2, Hayden had an engine blow up on him, forcing him onto his second bike once again. And in Qualifying, a difficult session saw Hayden slowly improving, until a huge highside just a few minutes from the end left him banged up and questionable for tomorrow's race. Hayden was taken to hospital for further x-rays, to look for broken bones, and no official word on his condition has been forthcoming. Though beaten up, the Kentucky Kid is not too badly damaged, as he was joking with Casey Stoner after Qualifying finished.
So what conclusions can be drawn, after the first MotoGP qualifying session without special, sticky qualifying tires? First of all, that not all that much has changed. With everyone at Qatar going to race the harder compound tire, the softer of the two available compounds served as the qualifier, allowing riders to put in a fast lap. But though the tire is soft, it is not that soft, and so riders could actually put in three or four fast laps, rather than just a single lap. The grid, though, is still settled in the dying minutes of the session.
Whether this will be the case when we get to a track were the riders will be racing the softer of the two available compounds remains to be seen. That could end up more like the World Superbike Superpole, with some riders opting to use up their soft tires, while other save their tires for the race proper.
But the loss of the qualifying tires has meant that the ability for the grid to be shaken up by a rider capable of putting in a single fast lap on super-soft rubber - a trick Nicky Hayden excelled at - has disappeared. The grid broadly reflects the strength of the riders in qualifying, and probably the relative strengths of the riders in tomorrow's race. Casey Stoner is clearly the fastest rider at Qatar, though Valentino Rossi's cat-and-mouse antics may have gotten under his skin, responding every time Stoner bettered his time. If Rossi can prevent Stoner form escaping, we could well see a good close fight, with a dash of Jorge Lorenzo thrown in for good measure.
The rest of the field, though, are completely outclassed, though Marco Melandri's good showing is worthy of note. Andrea Dovizioso, Colin Edwards, Loris Capirossi, Chris Vermeulen, even Randy de Puniet, could all run at the front early on in the race, but we have to doubt whether they can match the breathtaking pace set by Stoner and the two men capable of following him. The front three should be gone quite quickly, the field falling into groups. But in each of those groups, leadership will be hotly contested, with close racing to entertain the fans.
Stopping Casey Stoner is going to be extremely hard. But you can be sure that both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo will be giving it their best shot.