If Casey Stoner wants to wrap up his first MotoGP world title in Japan tomorrow, the Aussie will have to do it the hard way after he slumped to his worst grid position of 2007 in today’s qualifying session.
The factory Ducati rider will start only ninth on the grid for the 24-lap race, in which he only needs to defeat closest rival Valentino Rossi to win his first world title.
Stoner’s previous worst qualifying result was fifth place in Jerez and Donington Park, but signs that he was feeling the pressure emerged today as he finished a massive 1.257s behind dominant Spaniard Dani Pedrosa.
Rossi’s hopes of prolonging to the world championship fight at least until Stoner’s home race in Phillip Island next month were boosted when he qualified second as Michelin took a clean sweep of the front row on Bridgestone’s home track.
Rossi though was powerless to stop Pedrosa from claiming only his second pole position of the season as he continued his impressive form in the Twin Ring Motegi.
The Repsol Honda rider topped the timesheets in all three free practice sessions and his best lap of 1.45.864 easily secured him pole position by 0.391s from Rossi.
He was the only rider to break into the 1.45 barrier with his best lap coming with just over a minute of the session remaining. He had continued his good run earlier in the session on race rubber when he first moved to the top of the timesheets after 14 minutes with a 1.48.042 moving him clear of Randy de Puniet.
The Frenchman was the first rider to throw in soft qualifying rubber after 25 minutes which inevitably moved him back to the top of the rankings with a 1.46.643 moving him nearly a second ahead of Pedrosa.
Eight minutes remained when Pedrosa made his move on his first Michelin qualifying tyre. A lap of 1.46.543 opened up a 0.100s advantage on de Puniet, before Rossi hit the top of the timesheets with a 1.46.309 in the final three minutes.
Pedrosa responded with his best time of 1.45.864 moving him 0.445s clear of Rossi. The Italian had one final shot to claim his fifth pole of the season but a lap of 1.46.255 left him 0.391 adrift of Pedrosa.
Pedrosa’s only other pole position of the season saw him cruise to a commanding victory in the German GP and he said the race was crucial.
“I’m happy to be on pole position but the race is much more important. We have to now try and take profit of this front row. We will see if we can get a good start.”
It was a good recovery though from Rossi who at one stage earlier in the session on race tyres had been left trailing way down in 18th place. He was also happy to be back in the mix after a disastrous first day when he was only 14th and the victim of a spectacular engine blow-up with Yamaha’s new pneumatic valve YZR-M1 motor.
The Fiat Yamaha rider, who hasn’t won in Motegi on a four-stroke machine, said: “I’m in a good shape and very happy about today because yesterday was a disaster and we struggled a lot. I have to say thanks to all my guys because we modified the bike in some different way and now I am able to use the throttle and the grip of the tyre is a lot better. Dani is a little bit faster with the rhythm compared to us but I am happy about the second position because starting from the front row is the target.”
American Nicky Hayden continued his impressive run of qualifying performances when he secured his fourth successive front row start. The reigning world champion was third with a best of 1.46.575 and he said: “We made some good progress today thanks to my guys yesterday. It was quite difficult, but this morning toward the end we found some stuff and were able to improve a lot. I wasn’t really happy with my second lap and I hardly improved. Between my first and second lap I made a little mistake in T4 and that won’t cut it with these boys, but nonetheless, that’s four front rows in a row, so our qualifying is definitely coming better. Turn one is quite interesting, so I’m really happy to be on the front row and the bike is working a lot better today and we’ve got some ideas to improve settings for tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to the race. Hopefully get a good start and, yeah, I’m happy to be on the front row here at Honda’s home race and just hope to get a really good result tomorrow.”
All eyes though were on the struggles of Ducati rider Stoner, who was red-hot favourite to clinch the title tomorrow. With Bridgestone and Ducati winning the last two races in Motegi, most people thought it was a formality for Stoner.
But he will start way down on the back of the third row behind team-mate Loris Capirossi, Colin Edwards, Anthony West, Toni Elias and de Puniet.