Casey Stoner stormed to the first pole position of 2010 in Qatar tonight and will start the opening race as a red-hot favourite for his 21st MotoGP victory.
Fastest in free practice yesterday and earlier tonight, the 24-year-old continued his love affair with the Losail International Circuit to claim his third pole position in the last four races.
A best lap of 1.55.007 on his penultimate lap of 19 secured Stoner pole by 0.355s from reigning world champion Valentino Rossi on board the Fiat Yamaha YZR-M1.
Aussie Stoner led for much of the session having deposed early Dani Pedrosa after 15 minutes had elapsed.
Stoner reeled off a series of quick laps on hard compound Bridgestone race tyres to move over 0.6s clear before he came under intense pressure from Rossi, who hasn’t won the opening race of the season since 2005.
Stoner though he won’t need reminding that the last time he started from the front of the grid in Valencia, he inexplicably crashed out on the warm-up lap.
The 2007 world champion said: “This is the best way we can start off because we’ve been slowly improving the bike in testing and we’ve been getting faster and faster and understanding this (Big Bang) engine a lot more. We’ve been able to get the most out of it since the beginning and getting used to a few things that were quite a lot different to the old engine.
"We’re definitely getting more comfortable with the bike but we’ve arrived at a point now where I’m happy and we understand how we need to set the bike up. For this race everything is working perfectly and we couldn’t ask for a lot more. You always have some more issues to get rid of but we’ve got to be happy with pole position and quite a good set-up for the race. The good thing is that we’ve got the same chassis from last year and we can understand how that works and it seems to be working very well.
"We’ve got a full carbon chassis now and with this engine the carbon swingarm works a lot better too. We’re very happy with the position we’re at and throughout the season we’re going to be a lot stronger than in the past."
Rossi looked on course to snatch pole from Stoner on his last flying lap on soft compound Bridgestone tyres. He was marginally quicker than Stoner’s Ducati GP10 through the first three sections of the Losail International Circuit but lost over three-tenths in the fourth and final sector.
The seven-times MotoGP world champion admitted it would be difficult to mount a challenge against a formidable Stoner and he said: “I think it will be difficult but I’m happy about my work in the practice and I have a good rhythm with the hard tyres, so it is good for the race. Unfortunately with the soft tyre I slide a bit too much and we have a little bit more of a problem than I expected.
"I wasn’t able to improve enough to battle for the pole position with Casey but we are quite ready and we try to improve some problem for tomorrow. It will be very important to make a good start and push from the first lap. After it will be a long race and very tough for us to try and beat Casey, but we will try.
Rossi still claimed a 12th front row start in his last 13 races to edge out Fiat Yamaha team-mate Jorge Lorenzo.
The Spaniard logged a best lap of 1.55.520 on his last lap to finish just 0.158s behind Rossi to complete a replica of the 2009 front row of the grid.
The 22-year-old though doubts whether he will be capable of challenging Rossi and Stoner having encountered some rear grip issues with Bridgestone’s hard compound race tyre.
Lorenzo said: “The position is very good and I’m really happy about this. What I’m not so happy about is the performance of the bike. We lost a lot of grip on the rear so for me it is quite difficult to be fast. I think for tomorrow the best thing to do will be to finish the race as the best I can and try to improve the bike tonight. For me I think the rear grip is more of a problem than the hand. The hand is not perfect and on the braking I felt a lot of pain, but to be fast the bigger problem is the rear tyre. To finish on the podium will be a perfect result.”
The second row of the grid will be headed by French rider Randy de Puniet, who was again in impressive form on the LCR Honda to clock a best time of 1.55.831 as less than a second split the top eight riders.
Loris Capirossi took full advantage of a two from compatriot Rossi to bolster his hopes of a leading finish in his record-breaking 300th Grand Prix appearance tomorrow night.
Capirossi was just 0.064s faster than Repsol Honda rider Andrea Dovizioso with RC212V team-mate Dani Pedrosa in seventh.
The Spaniard had threatened a big shock early on when he led the timesheets but he slipped down to the second row. Pedrosa, who ran off at the first corner with 24 minutes remaining, posted a best time of 1.55.990 to finish just 0.027s adrift of Dovizioso.
Pedrosa at least saw a dramatic improvement on his 2009 grid position after he was left languishing down in 14th on the grid last season.
Colin Edwards was as high as third place at one stage before the veteran Texan had to settle for eighth place on the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 YZR-M1 machine.
Fellow American Ben Spies had a somewhat disappointing session. He will start his first full season in MotoGP from 11th on the grid after clocking a best time of 1.56.271.
The reigning World Superbike champion admitted he just didn’t get the best out of Bridgestone’s soft rubber in the final stages of the session.
The 25-year-old said: “It wasn't a good session really and I never got to use the advantage of the soft tyre. I didn't get it done and I never really put in a clean lap. But I am happy with the lap time we put in on race tyres. The positive is I did my fastest time on race tyres that had a lot of laps on them. The top four guys are obviously a little bit quicker on hard tyres.
"But the majority of the people that were quicker than me were on soft tyres, so we've just got to try to get a good start. I think the race pace I've got is still good, but I'm going to have a hard time passing people down this long straight. I'm right behind Colin on the grid and hopefully jump in behind him and go.”
Hiroshi Aoyama ended up the leading 250GP graduate with a best lap of 1.56.227 giving him a morale-boosting tenth on the grid.
It was an eventful night for fellow rookies Marco Simoncelli and Alvaro Bautista.
Gresini Honda rider Simoncelli’s tough spell continued as he ended up only 15th fastest after he crashed his RC212V machine at the first corner after just seven minutes. He walked away unhurt, as did Mika Kallio after he tumbled off his Pramac Ducati just moments later.
Simoncelli said: “Unfortunately the session didn’t start well with the crash, which meant I needed a few laps to regain my confidence and set back the whole programme. It is a shame because we really needed to get through a full session. I just went into the corner too hard - trying to avoid Aoyama I braked too late and lost the front when I tipped it in.
"I’m disappointed because I had a good feeling in free practice. Now we have the warm up to try and sort a few things out, then it’s a case of giving my best in the race. ” Factory Suzuki rookie Alvaro Bautista was 13th on the timesheets and he too escaped injury when he crashed his GSV-R machine in the final minute.