Gibernau sets dry pace as weather turns at Sepang

Sete Gibernau topped the time sheets on the opening day of free practice for the Marlboro Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix with a fastest lap just 0.046 seconds outside Valentino Rossi's current circuit record. The Honda rider cut through 33% humidity in the morning session to record a time of 2'03.299, holding off the challenge of his former Suzuki team-mate Kenny Roberts and Ducati's Loris Capirossi. Local weather forecasts predicting intermittent rain for the majority of this weekend proved to be disturbingly accurate in the afternoon as the grey clouds hanging over Kuala Lumpur briefly gave way before the start of the second session, meaning none of the riders were able to improve on the Spaniard's best time.

"We started off by basing our work on the information we gathered here in the preseason, which was a big help," said Gibernau. "We haven't made too many changes and the problems we have had with the front end at other circuits haven't been too bad here. It was a shame that the afternoon session was wet because we weren't able to continue with the set-up of the bike. The wet is no use to anybody so hopefully we can have some dry weather tomorrow to try and prepare for the race."

Gibernau's team-mate Marco Melandri made a surprise return to action just five days after undergoing surgery on the foot injury he sustained in a collision with Valentino Rossi at Motegi. Melandri has spent the week in a wheelchair but was bravely back on a motorcycle today, setting the fourteenth quickest time despite heavy stitching in his foot. Rossi was ten places above his compatriot with a lap time just 0.186 seconds short of Gibernau as he launches his second attempt to seal the MotoGP World Championship, with a top four finish the minimum requirement for the Italian.

Whilst Melandri looked certain to miss out on this round after the last race in Japan, Shane Byrne and Olivier Jacque were probably even more grateful to be involved here as they replaced injury victims Troy Bayliss and Alex Hofmann respectively. Byrne lapped 18th fastest in his first ever session aboard the Honda RC211V whilst Jacque, making only his third appearance of the season for Kawasaki, was two places higher up the order in 16th.

After demonstrating his dry pace in the morning session Roberts proved to be equally adept in the greasy conditions during the afternoon as he dominated the second session. The track did begin to dry midway through but was still extremely slippery in places and Roberts was unable to get within twelve seconds of Gibernau's morning effort, clocking a best time of 2'15.954. Shinya Nakano almost dislodged the American in the dying seconds but his flying lap faltered in the final section. Despite Michelin's dominance of this circuit in past seasons, the performance of Roberts, Capirossi and Nakano today suggests that rival tyre manufacturers Bridgestone could again be a force to be reckoned with after taking their first win of the season in Japan with Capirossi last Sunday.

The last time Alex de Angelis was on a racetrack he could not have come any closer to Jorge Lorenzo but today the fortunes of the two riders couldn't have been further apart. With Lorenzo suspended for his part in the collision between the pair at Motegi five days ago, De Angelis set pole position for the 250cc race at Sepang with a final lap that left him a convincing 0.754 seconds clear of his nearest rival. With the track conditions having fully dried out after the MotoGP session, De Angelis clocked a time of 2'08.195 to hold off the challenge of Andrea Dovizioso, who clinched the 125cc title at this track last year. Casey Stoner and Sebastián Porto complete the provisional front row, with series leader Dani Pedrosa lapping seventh fastest.

Having been the first class to ride in the afternoon the 125cc riders also benefited from completely dry conditions as they battled for positions on the provisional grid until the heavens opened just moments before the end of their first qualifying session. Mike Di Meglio saw his place at the top of the time sheets effectively converted to provisional pole position as the riders took cover, the French teenager being joined on the provisional front row by Marco Simoncelli, Tomoyoshi Koyama and Mattia Pasini. Thomas Lüthi, who leads the World Championship by three points from Mika Kallio, was sixth fastest despite dislocating his shoulder five days ago whilst Kallio provisionally lines up in tenth.

Photo: Honda Pro Image

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