Valentino Rossi ended the first day of qualifying for Saturday's Rio Grand Prix fourth fastest with Repsol Honda team-mate Nicky Hayden, on the provisional third row having posted the 12th fastest time in the hour-long first qualifying session at the Nelson Piquet circuit.

Rossi, sporting vivid green hair matching the Brazilian football strip, admitted at the pre-event press conference that he initially hated the track after a disastrous 1996 weekend when he crashed his 125cc machine three times in his first GP season when he was just 17 years old.

However it didn't take long for the Italian to love riding at the 4.933km circuit and he has since won five races here and will be looking to continue his winning streak by securing 25 points in Saturday's 24-lap encounter in the hope of extending his championship lead that currently stands at 46 points over Sete Gibernau as the season reaches its climax, with only four races remaining after this weekend's contest.

Rossi started the day well, posting the fastest time in this morning's Free Practice in the final lap. With weather worries always an issue in Brazil at this time of year, the afternoon First Qualifying, run in dry conditions, was going to be critical in securing a good grid position for the race.

As has been the case all year it was a titanic struggle between the Rossi and Italian compatriots Loris Capirossi, Max Biaggi and the on-form Spaniard, Gibernau for the pole slot. All four headed the leader board at some stage in the session with it eventually finishing; Biaggi fastest, with Capirossi, Gibernau and Rossi making up the provisional front row. 0.446 seconds separate the four.

"A good day at a track I like," summed up Valentino. "We make good work and we are in good shape for the race on Saturday. The bike feels stable here but we still have work to do for tomorrow.

"Sometimes it is difficult for the rear to follow the front. We have to ride sweet with the throttle so we make little spin," he explained. "On some of the high speed corners we make a little slide at the edge but we are not a long way off with the settings. We hope for dry weather tomorrow to make more improvements."

Team-mate Hayden spent the Free Practice learning the circuit and finished the session 15th fastest as the 22-year-old American learnt his way round the bumpy and abrasive track. With 25 laps under his belt the reigning AMA Superbike Champion set to business in the afternoon qualifying session and eventually knocked just over 2.2 seconds off his morning time - and in doing so secured a provisional third row start.

"Pretty much like any day at a new track really," Nicky stated. "I was just tryin' to get comfortable and learnin' my way round. The track seems pretty bumpy but I enjoyed it. The tracks got a good layout. Need to work on findin' a bit more speed tomorrow. Today was pretty consistent; just not as fast as I'd like to be.

"We've got a few ideas for (Friday). At the end of the session we put on a soft Michelin. What incredible grip. That was a fun lap. Up to P6 at one time and in the end just two tenths off the provisional second row!"

The Honda RC211V's of both Rossi and Hayden have been quick down the 1km straight yesterday. Rossi and Hayden were first and second fastest respectively in the morning, with Rossi being quickest through the speed trap at 320.2kph in the afternoon.



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