MOTEGI, Japan — Casey Stoner’s hopes of clinching his first MotoGP world title at the Japanese Grand Prix suffered a setback when he struggled in Saturday’s qualifying.
The pressure seemed to get to the Australian, who had his worst qualifying session of the year in Motegi’s blazing heat, securing ninth place on the grid for Ducati. Spain’s Dani Pedrosa took his second pole of the season for Honda in 1:45.864.
Stoner leads multiple world champion Valentino Rossi, who will be second on the grid on Sunday, by 76 points and needs to finish in front of his Yamaha rival to claim the crown with three races remaining.
The 21-year-old Stoner was warned over his conduct after sticking his middle finger up at Honda’s Carlos Checa in Friday’s free practice and his frustration continued a day later. “I was frustrated because I think we could have improved my time with my second qualifying run,” Stoner told reporters after clocking 1:47.121. “But the change we’d made to the setting made braking difficult.
“When I came into the last chicane the bike wouldn’t go back a gear so I destroyed the last corner and lost more than half a second.”
Should Rossi hold up Stoner’s charge in Japan, the Ducati rider could wrap up the title at his home race in Phillip Island next week.
“If we can improve a bit in the morning, starting from the third row shouldn’t be a big problem,” said Stoner. “Normally we get good starts and with a few passes we can get to the front.”
Rossi, who kept his mathematical hopes of winning the championship alive with victory in Portugal last week, clocked one minute 46.255 seconds.
“I’m in good shape and very happy after the problems we had yesterday,” said Rossi, who suffered an engine blowout on Friday.
“We were struggling a lot but…today has been much, much better. I am really looking forward to the race. It’s going to be hard in this heat but we will do our best and see what happens.”
Pedrosa’s Honda team mate and defending world champion Nicky Hayden of the U.S. was third in 1:46.575.
Stoner’s Ducati team mate Loris Capirossi, who has won the last two races at the high-speed “Twin Ring” circuit, was eighth in 1:47.047.
Pedrosa, who trails Stoner by 99 points, was delighted at his performance in qualifying.
“It’s been a long time since I was on the front row,” said the diminutive Spaniard. “Let’s see if I can do the same in the race.”
Stoner is aiming to become the first Australian champion since Mick Doohan won the last of his five 500cc crowns in 1998 and the second youngest premier-class champion in history.