Dramatically fluctuating weather conditions marked the start of the Australian Grand Prix today as MotoGP returned to Phillip Island for the 16th round of the world championship.
The first practice session, held after a prolonged morning downpour, saw the riders head out on to the 4.45km track with Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet and Anthony West showing early promise ahead of Sunday's 27 lap race. Both were soon featuring at or near the top of the time sheets before the heavens opened again, prompting virtually the whole field to return to the pits to sit out the worst of it.
The afternoon session was run on a dry track and de Puniet took his 800cc Ninja ZX-RR to fifth fastest on combined times by the end of the hour, fractionally behind Valentino Rossi with a gap between them of a mere 0.062 seconds. The 26-year-old Frenchman's time was also within a second of the day's leading rider, newly-crowned world champion, Casey Stoner.Encountering only a few, minor problems during practice, de Puniet ended the day in positive mood. Already confident in the dry-weather tyres he used, he hopes that during the rain forecast for tomorrow, he'll be able to define a wet set up too, leaving him fully prepared for the race.
Australian, Anthony West, enjoying the first day of his home Grand Prix, also seemed pleased with progress made, despite the changing conditions. Small issues with grip, a common feature of the circuit where the abundance of long left-handers can prove problematic, failed to prevent a very substantial improvement in his lap times and he completed both sessions confident of further advancements to come.
The 26-year-old from Queensland's Gold Coast managed a best time of 1'32.459, beating nearest rival, John Hopkins' time by 0.815 seconds. He also clocked a top speed of 310.8kph, just behind de Puniet's peak of 311.1kph: a good sign that both Ninjas are on the case for Sunday.
Randy de Puniet, ';I rode about 15 consecutive laps on the same rear tyre this afternoon and my times were pretty good. I'm in fifth position at the moment, which isn't bad but, with a new tyre, I feel I could improve by half a second straight away. The bike's feeling good. Today, we worked mostly on tyre choice because we never know what the conditions are going to be like here, which makes things quite difficult. However, if tomorrow is wet for qualifying, then we'll be prepared whatever the weather does on Sunday. We had a bit of movement in the rear tyre today but nothing too bad; every year we have this problem but we all have to deal with the same thing. The chassis feels okay: we tried some different settings, and I'm happy with it, but still, tomorrow we can improve the bike and the lap times, I'm sure.'
Anthony West, 't;We had some problems with the tyre spinning but I think it was just the cold track and there wasn't much we could do about that. Then we had that rain in the middle of the last session, as well as the rain this morning, so we've lost a bit of time to perfect our set up for the race, but I'm feeling good so far. Also, I've been taking it fairly steady, not pushing it 100 per cent yet, so I'm comfortable with times we're doing, considering I'm not on the limit. The wind's blowing us around on track quite a bit, so it's hard to judge the set up sometimes, but yeah, we're doing okay!'