Valentino Rossi shrugged off his second crash in two days to give the new Honda RCV four-stroke a dream debut in Suzuka today when he grabbed pole position for the historic first MotoGP race.
The 23-year-old Italian crashed again in this morning’s free practice session when he made a mistake under braking for the Degner curve, and only had one RCV at his disposal for this afternoon’s crunch qualifying session.
It made little difference though as Rossi came out on top in a thrilling hour-long qualifying session that had the doom and gloom merchants eating their words as the predicted onslaught from the new generation four-strokes never materialised.
It was no shock to see red-hot pre-season favourite Rossi top the time charts with a brilliant last lap of 2.04.22, but less than a second covered the top 12 riders. That was much closer than last year’s grid when it was made up of just two-stroke 500s.
It was feared that the old two-strokes would be blown away by the 990cc prototype four-strokes, but Loris Capirossi ended up second fastest, just 0.1s behind Rossi.
Rossi said: " This morning I made a stupid mistake. I braked when the front wheel was just on the dirt. So to get pole position which is really important for Honda is great after two big crashes.
" On my last flying lap, I managed to get a tow down the straight off Max Biaggi and that helped. But there are eight riders under the 2.05 barrier so the level is very high. It seems that what we have seen from the winter tests isn’t exactly true and everybody is nearer the front than people expected. "
Capirossi was the only two-stroke on the front row, sandwiched in between Rossi, wild card Shinichi Itoh and Carlos Checa, who belied the apparent crisis in the Marlboro Yamaha squad.
Biaggi was fifth, while best Suzuki was wild card Akira Ryo in seventh.
British rider Jeremy McWilliams was 21st, despite knocking a massive 1.9s off the qualifying time that Jurgen van den Goorbergh managed on the Proton KR3 twelve months ago.
250 Grand Prix:
Spaniard Fonsi Nieto left it to the last minute to press his early claims for the world 250 championship when he grabbed pole position for tomorrow’s Japanese GP.
Nieto dashed the hopes of Frenchman Randy de Puniet when his time of 2.08.04 put him on pole by just 0.1s.
It was his maiden pole position and he said: " The bike is working really well. I was worried that traffic might prevent from getting in a fast lap but everything worked out ok. "
Third place went to the works Aprilia of Marco Melandri while yesterday’s provisional pole-setter Franco Battaini dropped to fourth.
It wasn’t a good day for the British duo of Jay Vincent and Leon Haslam. The Honda team-mates were languishing down in 24th and 25th places, split by just 0.2s. Their respective times left them four seconds off the pace of the leading bunch.
125cc Grand prix:
Spaniard Daniel Pedrosa scored his maiden pole position in today’s final qualifying session for the Japanese 125 GP.
The 16-year-old jumped to the top of the leaderboard with just over two minutes remaining after he’d been demoted down to sixth at one stage.
He was a full 1.3s faster than his best time yesterday, and beat out fellow countryman Pablo Nieto by 0.4s.
Veteran Lucio Cecchinello finished the 30-minute session in third place, while the front row of the grid was completed by Gino Borsoi.