US MotoGP: Late charge fires Casey Stoner to Laguna Seca pole

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Casey Stoner produced a brilliant last two laps in today’s MotoGP qualifying session to claim his third pole position of the year in Laguna Seca.

Having dominated the three free practice sessions, Stoner was only lying in sixth position when a lap of 1.22.361 rocketed him ahead of German MotoGP winner Dani Pedrosa.

That lap set with 45 seconds remaining put Stoner in pole by 0.140s, and just for good measure to underline his authority at the California circuit, he went even faster on his last flying lap on Bridgestone’s qualifying tyres.

A 1.22.292 moved him 0.209s clear of Pedrosa in the final reckoning, though Stoner will have to become the first rider in 12 races to win from pole position as he tries to extend his 32-point series lead over Valentino Rossi in tomorrow’s 32-lap race.

Stoner, who has been impressively fast and consistent on race tyres throughout practice and qualifying, might not have needed his late burst of speed had it not been for a mistake on his first qualifying tyre.

With eight minutes remaining he was 0.209s up on Chris Vermeulen through the first two times splits when he ran off track on the approach to Turn Six where Rossi suffered a 110mph crash this morning.

He got back and stayed out and through the first three splits was dead level with Vermeulen, but lost 0.377s in the last section.

Stoner was happy to seize pole but was apologetic to second placed Pedrosa after he inadvertently baulked the Spaniard on his last flying lap.

The Ducati rider said: “I did at least race distance on the tyres so I’m feeling pretty confident. I was using all old tyres for a lot of the day so we could get a better set up for the last part of race and I was still doing high 22s. On my out lap on the last qualifier I held up Dani. I looked behind and there were maybe 10 riders waiting for a two and I wasn’t sure who was coming through fast and couldn’t get out of the way so my apologies to Dani. My first qualifier I made a big mistake. I went up too many gears where Valentino crashed so it didn’t go to plan. I wasn’t feeling too good on my second tyre because I’d had a couple of front end tucks on the first one but we got pole and I’m really happy.”

Pedrosa was content to settle for a place on the front row as he’d jumped to the top of the timesheets with four minutes remaining with a best of 1.22.501.

Third and the last place on the front row went to Vermeulen, who admitted he had clocked his best time of 1.22.590 on Bridgestone’s race rubber.

The Aussie, who was on pole position at Laguna Seca 12 months ago, said: “The bike is working really well. I really enjoy this track and that’s obvious from last year with pole and a good race until I had a problem. Touchwood I haven’t had that same problem since. I actually qualified on my race tyre and I could do a lot of laps at that pace so I’ll be looking to get a good start and see what happens.”

Reigning world champion Nicky Hayden finished fourth with a best time of 1.22.624 as he bids for a third straight success on home soil tomorrow.

He finished one place ahead of Rossi, who ended up fifth fastest despite the aggravation of left hand and right wrist injuries he suffered in a massive crash at Turn Six this morning.

Heroic Marco Melandri will start 10th on the grid after he suffered a massive crash just ten minutes in. He’d just gone to the top of the timesheets with a 1.23.530 when he was forced off track after nearly slamming into the back of a cruising Kurtis Roberts. Melandri swerved but clipped Roberts’ KR212V and was sent hurtling into the gravel trap. With trackside air fencing fast approaching the former world 250 champion threw himself from his Gresini Honda machine before tumbling end over end in the gravel trap. The session was delayed for over 20 minutes though Melandri was able to resume on his spare bike despite limping badly on his left leg. His best time of 1.23.018 was just 0.726s off pole and it was cruel on the Italian who had been in impressive form all weekend.

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Matthew Birt

By Matthew Birt