Former 125 and 250 World Champion continues to dominate premier class at opening European GP World Championship leader Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) fired an ominous warning shot to his rivals in the Spanish sunshine this afternoon, ending day one of qualifying 0.718 seconds ahead of closest rival Norick Abe (Antena 3 Yamaha-D'Antin-Michelin). The dazzling Italian youngster, who won the opening two GPs of 2001 in thrilling style, took over the running from Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons-Michelin) halfway through the session and kept cutting into his own lap times from there.
"I'm very happy," said Rossi. "I managed a 43.5 before I even switched to soft tyres at the end of the session, that made me four tenths faster than anyone even with a normal race rear. But I expect more competition tomorrow when lap times could drop towards the times we were doing when everyone tested here during February."
Rossi led the way with a 1m 42.322s best during that all-teams pre-season session, when temperatures were slightly cooler, offering more grip around the Jerez circuit, which has always been highly temperature sensitive.
"In fact we're very close to the track temperature from the tests but the times aren't as good yet because the track wasn't totally dry today," said Michelin Grand Prix manager Jacques Morelli. "There was still some moisture coming up through the surface after last night's rain, that's why some riders reported getting a strange feeling from their bikes. If it stays cool and dry for tomorrow, I think we should get close to February's times.
"Most of the top guys are staying with 16.5in rears. Suzuki and Abe tried 17s this morning but switched back this afternoon. Of the fastest guys, only Max (Biaggi, Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) is still trying 17s and he will have another go with them tomorrow."
Abe, who ran outside the top ten during pre-season tests here, is delighted with his current form. "I feel good and so do the bike and tyres," he said. "A few people had some chatter with the 16.5 back in February here, so I wanted to see how the 17 felt, but I prefer the 16.5 for race-long grip."
Impressive 500 rookie Shinya Nakano (Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3-Michelin) was just one hundredth shy of his compatriot, with the next nine riders all separated by hundredths and seconds, only Rossi out on his own. Capirossi claimed the final spot on the provisional front row, just seven hundredths of a second ahead of Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin), who bounced back after sliding off this morning. In fact Biaggi came into the pits on his quickest lap this afternoon, the first three splits putting him just one tenth down on Rossi, but he decided to abort the lap to make chassis adjustments.
Capirossi's team-mate Alex Barros (West Honda Pons-Michelin) was looking good in sixth, the Brazilian returning to form after a difficult start to the season in Japan and South Africa. World Champion Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin) also struggled at the opening two races, claiming two seventh-place finishes and is determined to up the ante this weekend.
"We've seen some improvements since South Africa, with better chassis settings and some engine work," said the Australian, seventh quickest so far at Jerez. "As a result we should be able to produce more consistent lap times, and a better performance over race distance. On Sunday we'll see how that works over race distance."
Sideways hero Garry McCoy (Red Bull Yamaha WCM-Michelin) was next up in eighth, just ahead of rookie Tohru Ukawa (Repsol YPF Honda-Michelin) and former champ Alex Crivillé (Repsol YPF Honda-Michelin), winner of this race in 1997, 1998 and 1999.
Sunday's Spanish GP is round three of this year's 16-event MotoGP World Championship and the first of ten consecutive races in Europe.