SUZUKA, Japan, AP
Italian Loris Capirossi set the fastest qualifying time in his final lap Saturday, taking pole in the 500cc class for Sunday’s season-opening Motorcycle Grand Prix of Japan. Capirossi was in fourth before he sped Honda’s NSR-500 around the recently revised 5.859-meter (3.662-mile) Suzuka Circuit in the closing minutes of the second and final qualifying session, run on a econd day of sunny conditions. With a time of 2 minutes, 04.777 seconds, the 28-year-old from Bologna moved up to the top of the board past three leading Yamaha riders — Australian Garry McCoy, overnight leader Max Biaggi of Italy and Japan’s Shinya Nakano. Newcomer Nakano, known as a technician in negotiating curves, was a 50cc star through last season. With his second fastest time of 2:05.588 Saturday, the 23-year-old was to sit next to Capirossi in the starting grid’s front row. Biaggi was to start from the third best position Sunday, followed by McCoy. For Capirossi, who has had an injury-prone season, it will be his second career 500cc pole and 30th overall, including five in the 150cc and 23 in the 250cc divisions. Capirossi seeks his third career 500cc victory and 23rd overall. At Suzuka, however, he has yet to win. “I am very happy to get the first position in the grid,’’ said a delighted Capirossi. “But I knew I could do it. The last time I got to the box I told my mechanics to keep the set-ups, change the tires and keep their attention on the screen. Everything has gone as I thought.’’ World champion Kenny Roberts Jr. of the United States bettered his time by nearly half a second to 2:06.469 on a Suzuki, holding on to ninth position. “The bike got better again today, with some good development for the race,” said the 27-year-old son of three-time world 500cc champion Kenny Roberts Sr. “Obviously as a rider and a team we should be higher than where we are, and that is very frustrating for us.” At Suzuka last year, pole-starter Roberts placed second to Yamaha’s Norick Abe. Six months later, Roberts came back to Japan as a new world champion, this time to Twin Ring Motegi, leading from start to finish like he was doing a solo test. He outraced Honda’s Valentino Rossi of Italy and Biaggi. In the 250cc class, overnight leader Daijiro Katoh of Honda bettered his time by over a half-second to 2:07.414 for his fifth career pole. Katoh, the favorite at his home Grand Prix after winning the last three races at Suzuka, dominated pre-season testing. The 24-year-old from Saitama seeks his seventh career win. The next five positions went to Aprilia riders. They were second-placed Marco Melandri, followed by his Italian compatriot Roberto Locatelli, the 125cc world champion last year, Spain’s Alex Debon, Jeremy McWilliams of Britain and Italian Franco Battaini. In all, eight Aprilia racers were in the top 10 positions, with Yamaha’s Naoki Matsudo of Japan placing seventh in between. Aprilia rider Katja Poensgen of Germany, the first woman to race in a 250cc Grand Prix, placed 30th with 205.821 and qualified for the race Sunday. In the 150cc competition, overnight leader Youichi Ui of Japan bettered his time by 0.648 seconds to 204.686 on a Derbi bike for his 10th career pole. Sitting next to Ui in the front row were to be South African Gilera racer Manuel Poggiali, Italian Lucio Cecchinello of Aprilia and Japan’s Masao Azuma, a Honda rider. Poggiali was in a distant 23rd with 208.960 overnight. He surged past 21 racers with a lap of 204.832. “I’m very happy because of this first pole of the year and because this is my home GP,” said the 28-year-old Ui from Chiba. “But it hasn’t been easy… During the afternoon, I haven’t gone that well and I haven’t found a good setting. I think I can improve and fight tomorrow for the victory.” Ui won the event at Suzuka last year, setting up a tremendous battle throughout the season for the overall world championship with Locatelli. But he crashed often and had to settle for second place. The 16-event championship series ends in Brazil on Nov. 4.