US MotoGP: Stoner sets early Laguna Seca pace

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MotoGP world championship leader Casey Stoner made the perfect start to the American GP in Laguna Seca this morning by clocking the fastest time in opening free practice.

The Australian beat Marco Melandri by just 0.187s with a lap of 1.23.410 set with just three minutes of a red flag interrupted session remaining.

The 21-year-old, normally so fast out of the blocks, had to wait until 33 minutes had elapsed before he first jumped to the top of the timesheets with a 1.24.242 that moved him 0.110s clear of main title Valentino Rossi.

That came just moments before the session was red flagged to allow an ambulance to pick up injured German rider Alex Hofmann from the Corkscrew. Hofmann suffered a left hand injury when Frenchman Sylvain Guintoli hit him at high speed.
Once the action resumed, Stoner was the first rider to break into the 1.23 bracket when a 1.23.966 moved him 0.380s of Melandri on the Gresini Honda.

On his next lap the factory Ducati rider then posted a 1.23.666 to jump a massive 0.680s ahead of Melandri, who is expected to clinch a Ducati deal alongside Stoner for 2008 this weekend.

Melandri ended the session second quickest with a best of 1.23.597 that he set on his 30th lap of a 32-lap stint.

He had slipped out of the top three but grabbed second spot with just over a minute remaining on a huge weekend for the former world 250 champion. If he is placed in the top five of the championship standings after Sunday’s race, he automatically gets a Ducati contract for next season.

Third place went to home favourite Colin Edwards, who clocked a best of 1.23.692 in the dying seconds to get within 0.282s of Stoner.

The Texan had traded top spot with Fiat Yamaha team-mate Rossi in the early part of the session but his late surge was good enough to relegate compatriot John Hopkins to fourth.

The factory Suzuki rider jumped to second with 15 minutes remaining when he posted a 1.23.753 to get within just 0.087s of Stoner at that point.

Rossi, who trails Stoner by 32-points going into Sunday’s 32-lap race, was dominant early in the session but had to settle for fifth with a best time of 1.23.754 that left him 0.344s behind his Ducati rival. The Italian set that time with 15 minutes remaining which had put him second fastest and just 0.088s behind Stoner at the time.

Reigning MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden’s bid for a third straight Laguna success started with the 25-year-old finishing only eighth fastest. He was a massive 1.106s behind Stoner.

Younger brother Roger Lee Hayden, making a wild card appearance on a factory Kawasaki ZX-RR, was only two places further down the order as he clocked an impressive 10th best time of 1.24.584. That beat German MotoGP winner Dani Pedrosa and Loris Capirossi.

Canadian veteran Miguel DuHamel, replacing injured Gresini Honda rider Toni Elias, was 16th quickest. He posted a best of 1.25.550.

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Matthew Birt

By Matthew Birt