Valentino Rossi took his first ever Phillip Island pole today in a frantic finale to a slow starting session, which eventually saw the Italian lead an even Honda/Ducati split of the front row for tomorrow's Australian Grand Prix.

Yesterday, Rossi clocked a new pole record just hours after seeing his young friend and Honda colleague Dani Pedrosa break both his ankles in a nasty practice crash.

First qualifying for the MotoGP class was also interrupted by a crash, for Marco Melandri, which saw the session red-flagged for around ten minutes. However, the Italian was uninjured and quickly returned to the track to try and keep up with an electric pace being set by home rider Troy Bayliss.

The gritty Australian battled for top spot with recently re-crowned World Champion Rossi, with both riders dipping under the pole record set at one year ago by Jeremy McWilliams on the two-stroke Proton KR3. Bayliss' brave effort was foiled with just minutes left when his Ducati team-mate and renowned last lap specialist Loris Capirossi and, ultimately, Rossi edged to the top of the time sheets to deny a memorable home provisional pole.

Max Biaggi completed the provisional front row with fourth, edging out Honda rival Sete Gibernau by just 0.002 seconds. Nicky Hayden was sixth fastest ahead of Carlos Checa on the Yamaha, whilst Garry McCoy enjoyed his best session of the season so far with the eighth quickest lap in front of his home crowd. Kawasaki team-mate and fellow Australian Andrew Pitt also performed well for the locals, setting the twelfth fastest time and provisionally qualifying on the third row.

Last year's pole setter McWilliams, now riding the Proton V5 four-stroke, came within one tenth of his previous best at the circuit to clinch ninth on the grid in the absence of his team-mate Nobuatsu Aoki - the Japanese rider was taken to a local hospital for x-rays after injuring his neck in a practice crash this morning.

Into today and Rossi ended the final free practice session just 0.112secs clear of home hero Bayliss, with Capirossi a substantial 0.5secs behind the pair in third, giving the Aussie fans hope of a home pole from 'Baylisstic' this afternoon.

In a pattern seen in the preceding 125cc session, Rossi's record breaking Friday pace was never threatened in the first 50 minutes - perhaps due to an increased breeze - indeed by that time Tohru Ukawa was top improver, having risen to sixth (behind Rossi, Capirossi, Bayliss, Biaggi and Gibernau) after finding 0.7secs overnight.
But the early part of the session certainly wasn't without incident as Nakano fell harmlessly in the first five minutes, then - 20mins later - the Aussie fans were left holding their breath as Bayliss fell from his V4 after losing the front at high-speed.

Troy was fortunately unhurt in the incident, in contrast to his destroyed Desmosedici, and was soon being whisked back to the pits on a scooter where his spare machine was already being prepared by the Ducati mechanics. He would be back out on track within ten minutes.

The session would ignite with 10mins to go when qualifying tyres were thrown on, which would finally send the Friday times tumbling. First to shine was none other than Rossi himself, who immediately knocked 0.3secs off his provisional pole time after a superb final sector - then returned for another new rear tyre.

Next came an attack from Rossi's rookie team-mate Nicky Hayden, who matched the #46 through the first half of the lap - but was crucially held up by Gibernau as he reached Lucky Heights. Unable to pass the Spaniard, the American was forced to follow for the remainder of the lap, but would use the #15 to gain a good run down the home straight and at least take fourth, with 6mins to go.

But by then Rossi was back out and going as fast than ever: The Repsol matched his own pace for the first part of the lap, went 0.2secs under through the middle section, then grabbed a further 0.32secs on the rest of the field to be left just a few hundredths from the first 1min 29secs lap - before returning for yet another new tyre.

Capirossi was still Rossi's nearest rival, but some 0.7secs adrift, however the tough Italian would cut that deficit in half with two minutes to go, while Bayliss and Biaggi also began to feature. The Roman, who'd ridden a quiet session up to that point, improved to fifth, before having the position taken from him by Hayden, while Troy took a front row start for the home fans with fourth.

Gibernau was also flying and would take third on his penultimate lap - he will surely be in contention if it does rain tomorrow. However, no-one could get closer to Rossi, who takes a confidence boosting 0.4secs lead into Sunday's main event and, in contrast to the day before, the Repsol rider wouldn't even need his final lap.

Behind the top six, Melandri produced a storming performance after struggling yesterday to take top Yamaha honours in seventh, just ahead of Ukawa and his Fortuna Yamaha team-mate Checa.

2002 pole sitter McWilliams was unable to hold his Friday position, but produced more heroics by finding 0.7secs for tenth on the grid, the Proton V5's best ever qualifying performance. Returning team-mate Aoki was 20th.

Nakano recovered from his early fall for 11th, one place ahead of Aussie hero McCoy, who lapped 0.5secs quicker today to take a third row start in twelfth, putting him nine places ahead of team-mate, and countryman, Pitt.

John Hopkins pipped his team-mate Kenny Roberts to lead the Suzuki challenge on his GP 'comeback' in thirteenth, while Gauloises team-mates Olivier Jacque and Alex Barros also finished in formation, in 15th and 16th.

After his Friday problems, Edwards improved considerably right at the start of the session, but would slip down the order to 18th, just ahead of Aprilia team-mate Nori Haga. Honda rookie Ryuichi Kiyonari and Harris WCM riders' David de Gea and Chris Burns complete the grid order.

Full times to follow...

1. Rossi
2. Capirossi
3. Gibernau
4. Bayliss
5. Hayden
6. Biaggi
7. Melandri
8. Ukawa
9. Checa
10. McWilliams
11. Nakano
12. McCoy
13. Hopkins
14. Roberts
15. Jacque
16. Barros
17. Tamada
18. Edwards
19. Haga
20. Aoki
21. Pitt
22. Kiyonari
23. de Gea
24. Burns

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