Brazilian Alex Barros was celebrating his very first grand prix pole position in Mugello this afternoon, after finding the speed to deprive home favourite Max Biaggi of a qualifying hat-trick.

The Emerson Electric Honda Pons rider threw in two quick laps right at the end of the one hour session to move, first, into fourth spot, and then to knock Friday pace-setter Valentino Rossi from the top of the pile. Biaggi's own late lap then pushed Rossi down another place, and left the Yamaha rider just 0.123secs adrift of his third pole in as many races.

''It's pole position and its OK,'' said an apparently underwhelmed Barros, ''I lost a little bit of confidence after my crash yesterday but, today, everything is coming better again. The team has done a very good job, and I am very happy to have my first pole position. It was dream of mine when I started. In the last GP, I started third and now I want to continue to push forward. I think I am in a good position for the championship, and I will keep my head down tomorrow and try for victory.''

Biaggi admitted that he had struggled with his bike for much of the session, even calling back into the pits with just minutes of the hour to go, and leaving himself with the task of making his one remaining flying lap count. The rewards were all the greater for giving the Roman the chance to push Rossi down the order and, in true Biaggi style, however, he pulled all the stops.

''After half an hour of trying one bike after the other, we made a small modification on the suspension, and that gave us a very good feeling,'' he reported, ''At the end, we put on a softer tyre, which was better for going for a time. I came back into the pits with four minutes to go, but I think a [1min] 52.09secs lap is not bad with just one try. Another lap and I think could have been on pole.''

Rossi, in turn, had no answer to either his Italian rival or pole sitter Barros, and slumped to third after failing to improve on his Friday benchmark. He didn't appear to upset, however, having secured a front row start for his first 500cc GP in his home country.

''I tried to change the settings this morning, but I had many problems,'' the youngster sighed, ''Then, this afternoon, I tried to return to the settings we had yesterday but, first, I had a problem with the rear and, then, when that was getting better, the front had a problem, which I couldn't get right. [Being on] the front row is important, and still I hope to get a good result here tomorrow.''

Barros' Pons team-mate Loris Capirossi completes an unusual front row, having followed Barros across the line on his pole lap. Capirossi had already laid down a marker at the start of the session, but had to wait until the closing stages to improve sufficiently to move up the order.

''I am happy, because I am again feeling the bike,'' Capirossi said, ''I worked all week to understand my settings and I think the bike is working well. I have good tyre settings too, and I hope the weather stays as it is today.''

Row two lines up Carlos Checa, Kenny Roberts and the Japanese duo of Tady Okada and Nobuatsu Aoki. Checa leapt into second spot on 25 minutes, but binned his Yamaha just seconds later. His second bike was never as good as his first and the Spaniard was helpless as he dropped to fifth. Roberts never featured in the pole battle, despite jumping to third at halfway, and finds himself off the front row for the first time all year, while both Okada and Aoki found improvements to make row two.

Okada's Repsol Honda team leader Alex Criville, however, will only start from row three after two crashes cut short his session. The Spaniard was uninjured in either tumble, but simply ran out of bikes when it mattered most. Likewise, Britain's Jeremy McWilliams binned his Aprilia minutes after taking an impressive fourth spot and, with the second machine not on a par with the first, slipped to an eventual eleventh. Norick Abe was another front runner to bite the dust, and lines up 14th on the grid.

Aprilia test rider Marcellino Lucchi repeated his feats of 1997 and 1999 to take pole for the 250cc GP. The 43-year old local broke the 1min 54secs barrier to pip Frenchman Olivier Jacque to top spot, as Yamaha threatened to ruin the Aprilia party. Jacque later dropped to third as injured Chesterfield team-mate Shinya Nakano found time to take second, leaving just one other front row position for the 'home' team.

''Everything was going well,'' Jacque said later, ''But the position is still good and we were doing consistent lap times. I think this will be the key for the race, and we worked a lot this afternoon on setting up the bike and the tyres. I may not have been the fastest, but I am happy to be on the front row, which is particularly important here.''

German Ralf Waldmann, pace-setter on Friday, looked on the ball at the start of the session, but faded to fourth as others found the improvements he lacked. Aprilia Germany team-mate Klaus Nohles almost stole the veteran's thunder, lying fifth overall until the dying minutes, before having to settle for a still impressive seventh.

Between the two Germans, Marco Melandri almost repeated his best qualifying position since graduating from the 125cc class over the winter, while Le Mans winner Tohru Ukawa kept himself in the frame for a second success of the season. Fellow Japanese Daijiro Katoh improved to eighth to start his first Italian GP on row two.

The three Britons in the field all performed respectably, with Jamie Robinson taking top honours in tenth place. Jay Vincent was 14th and Adrian Coates 17th when the flag came down.

Italy's domination of 125cc qualifying was broken during the second session at Mugello, but the foreign legion still could not prevent Vasco Rossi team-mates Roberto Locatelli and Simone Sanna from taking first and second places on the grid.

Sanna saw his near one second advantage from Friday erased by championship challenger Locatelli as the second, 45-minute, session moved into its closing stages. The local hero was powerless to prevent a similar gap opening out between the top two as Locatelli bounced back from a Friday crash to find two seconds and set an absolute class record for the circuit. Sanna still managed to improve on his earlier time, however, and the two Diesel bikes were the only ones to break the 2min barrier.

A third Aprilia will line up alongside the two red machines tomorrow, as Gigi Scalvini found a late lap to vault onto the first row, while winner last time out at Le Mans, Youichi Ui, became the only non-Italian at the front with a similar effort on his Derbi.

Biggest loser of the day was Mirko Giansanti, who dropped from second overnight to 13th overall, failing to improve on his best time until his very last lap. Among those to overtake the Italian were compatriots Gino Borsoi (fifth) and Lucio Cecchinello (eighth), and Y2K racewinners Nobby Ueda (sixth) and Arnaud Vincent (seventh). World champion Emilio Alzamora also failed to make the front two rows, and will start just ahead of title rival Giansanti in eleventh.

Briton Leon Haslam made the cut in 27th place, improving his lap time from Friday to ensure he complied with the 107 per cent ruling.