Fortuna Yamaha Team riders Carlos Checa and Marco Melandri produced quick and consistent performances today during the hour-long provisional qualifying session for this weekend's Australian Grand Prix. Both factory Yamaha riders used today to find a neutral chassis geometry rather than pursuing an outright fastest lap, in preparation for Sunday's main event. Despite a provisional second row qualifying result of seventh position, Checa is openly confident with the M1's potential at the sweeping 4448m layout. Melandri recovered from an early tumble at MG Corner, which delayed this afternoon's session by 10 minutes, then traction problems prevented the young Italian from improving beyond 14th on the time sheets.
After setting the ninth fastest time during this morning's free practice, Checa focused his afternoon efforts on improving the front-end feedback on his machine through each of the high-speed Island sweepers. The 31-year-old then turned his attention to increasing drive off the turns, an essential element for a fast lap at the Phillip Island circuit. Checa went on to set the seventh fastest time of the day, with a lap time of 1'31.554.
"I feel much more comfortable here than I did last year," said Checa, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Wednesday. "Our Michelin tyres are working exceptionally well and everyone has improved by about two seconds. I think the tyres are what's making a big difference. We still need to improve in some areas and we will concentrate on fine-tuning the bike's balance for tomorrow. If we can work tomorrow at the same pace we did today then I think we have a strong chance."
In a less than ideal start to the opening qualifying session this afternoon, Marco Melandri brought proceedings to a temporary halt when he lost the rear end of his YZR-M1, exiting the tight right-hand MG Corner. The 21-year-old Italian walked away unhurt from the low-speed incident but his bike remained on the racing line, causing the red flag and session delay. Melandri returned to the pits and spent the rest of the session aboard his number two machine, before eventually finishing with a time of 1'32.627.
"It wasn't a great start to the afternoon with that tumble," said Melandri. "I lost the rear end but fortunately didn't hurt myself. I'm experiencing exactly the same problems that I had in Sepang. We have tried different things but at the moment it's not making any difference. The problem is a lack of grip both when accelerating and when braking. My crew are working very hard to solve this here, and hopefully tomorrow we'll find something that makes a difference."
Team Director Davide Brivio said, "Carlos has started the weekend quite well, and his hot lap time could have been even better but he was slowed down by traffic. His potential here seems good, and there's even further room for improvement tomorrow. Anyway, it's a good start. Marco still has to find a better set-up to solve this grip problem. He's not yet fully comfortable on the bike. It's just the first day so we'll try to make changes that help him feel better tomorrow."
Recently crowned 2003 MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi (Honda) set the benchmark during the early stages of qualifying, before the Ducati pair of Loris Capirossi and Troy Bayliss leapfrogged the Italian on the time sheets. The pair set times of 1'30.721 and 1'30.834 respectively. Then with just seconds of the session remaining, three-time MotoGP World Champion Rossi produced a time of 1'30.631 to retake provisional pole by a mere 0.090 seconds. Max Biaggi (Honda, 1'31.089) completed the front row.
PROVISIONAL FRONT ROW
1. Valentino Rossi (ITA) Repsol HONDA 1'30.631
2. Loris Capirossi (ITA) DUCATI Marlboro Team 1'30.721
3. Troy Bayliss (ITA) DUCATI Marlboro Team 1'30.834
4. Max Biaggi (ITA) Camel Pramac Pons HONDA 1'31.089
7. CARLOS CHECA (SPA) Fortuna YAMAHA Team 1'31.554
14. MARCO MELANDRI (ITA) Fortuna YAMAHA Team 1'32.627