Cal Crutchlow proved he more than deserves his place in MotoGP after qualifying in eighth place, ahead of the likes of Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards, for his grand prix debut at Qatar.
Despite a punishing pre-season of injuries and sickness, culminating in the loss of his left finger nail during a testing crash last Monday, the Englishman has continued to push hard and was rewarded with a third-row start for Sunday's season-opening night race.
“It feels great to have qualified eighth when you look at the calibre and record of some of the guys behind me, but I'm not going to be getting ahead of myself,” said Crutchlow. “It is just a shame it is not the four-rider per row formation because that would be a second row! But to be on the third row, I'm happy enough with that.
“A qualifying session like that is not like Superpole in World Superbikes at all. I'm normally used to the intense pressure and being hyped up for one lap, so to have an hour where you build up pace a bit slower felt a bit strange. But I'm really happy and my fastest lap wasn't a perfect one.
“I made a couple of mistakes but I think that's because I'm having a small issue with the front-end in the fast corners. But I still managed a 55.5 and I never would have imagined doing that pace a few days ago at the test when I was doing high 57s.
“I'm not going to make a prediction for the race. I'd be happy to get a few points and have a strong race. It will be tough to finish where I've qualified but with the help of my Monster Yamaha Tech 3 crew, it has been a really positive weekend so far."
Only two satellite riders lapped quicker than Crutchlow and one of those, Marco Simoncelli, has a full factory Honda. But Crutchlow out-qualifying vastly experienced team-mate Edwards was arguably the biggest surprise.
The Texan will start two places behind Crutchlow, although eighth to twelfth in qualifying was covered by just 0.146sec, suggesting some cut-throat racing in the mid-pack on Sunday.
“I definitely feel like I'm riding a lot better than tenth position, but that shows how competitive MotoGP is this year,” said Edwards. “As good as I'm riding, I feel like I should have been on the second row because all week I've been around sixth and seventh position. I just wasn't able to lap as fast as I needed to be on the soft tyre.
“It looks a bit like last year in that when the Honda has a soft tyre in they can drop the lap time by a big chunk. We improve but not by a big margin and that's something we need to work on in the future. But I'm really confident with the hard rear tyre and we've got the bike working great in race trim. I'm fast and consistent but I couldn't do anything more, I'm definitely getting the most of the bike.”
Karel Abraham, the only other 2011 MotoGP rookie, will start 15th for Cardion AB Ducati. The Czech rider was just over one-second slower than former World Supersport champion Crutchlow.