Schizophrenic Phillip Island weather gives GP riders wet and dry practice sessions

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Australian MotoGP: Melbourne’s reputation for quickly changing weather has given teams two starkly opposed practice sessions to prepare for Sunday’s race. After a completely dry and warm morning session, the first rains started to appear at lunchtime - and conditions were atrocious by the time free practice session #2 started at 2pm.

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Stoner was typically dominant in the dry session, quickly planting himself nearly a second ahead of the field with an early 1:30.9 - still seemingly unhappy with his Ducati as he handed it to his team for adjustments, shaking his head. He returned shortly afterward to set a blistering 1:30.094 that stood as the best time of the session. Rossi, off to a slower start, could only muster a 1:30.7 - but this put him in second place as the only other rider to make it into the 1:30s.

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Behind these two came a parade of Hondas - demonstrating that the once-untouchable Japanese company could be ready to return to form in 2009 after a difficult 2008. You could have thrown a blanket over De Angelis, Dovizioso, De Puniet, Pedrosa and Nakano, separated by 16 hundredths of a second. Lorenzo, Capirossi and Toseland rounded out the top 10, just 1.2 seconds off Stoner’s pace.

When the wet second session began, the sophisticated traction control systems on the MotoGP bikes made an immediate impact, audibly cutting out through almost every corner and keeping rear tyres remarkably stable and in-line on corner exits until the Island’s 200kmh turn 12. The 250GP bikes, which lack such electrickery, were much less controlled, with a series of impressive highsides and a spectacular save or two being the result.

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Aussie ‘rain man’ Ant West quickly put his Kawasaki ZX-RR at the top of the table in the first few laps of FP2. Stoner then nailed a fastest lap that lasted for just a few seconds as Andrea Dovizioso knocked it off following Stoner down the straight. Dovizioso then proceeded to chip away at his own best effort, looking unassailable at the top of the table with a 1:39.575, until Nicky Hayden put in a scorcher on his second last lap, throwing his RC212V around with incredible confidence through the standing and running water around the track.

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Hayden’s final 1:38.820 was all the more astounding in context - that fast lap, in cold, humid, wet and windy conditions, was less than 10% slower than Stoner’s best time in dry practice - a testament to Michelin’s rain tyres and the American’s confidence on a sliding bike.

Predictably, Chris Vermeulen was at the pointy end of the field in the wet, finishing with the third best time, followed by an ominous Stoner, Lorenzo, Rossi, Sylvain Guintoli, Pedrosa, Elias and Edwards. By the end of the second session, Ant West had been demoted to 12th, with Marco Melandri struggling home last in the standings, a huge 5.69 seconds off the pace.

With possible showers forecast for Sunday’s race, doubtless the teams would have appreciated the chance to work on setup in such a range of conditions.

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Huge thanks to David Hale (JAFU) for the awesome photos!

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