Saturday July 9, 2005, has marked something of a MotoGP coming-of-age for Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden; the American converting his free practice domination into a first ever world championship pole position - in front of his delighted home fans - ahead of Sunday's US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca.

This morning's third and final free practice session had seen Hayden, who was also the fastest man on Friday, dominate most of the hour, in which he would set the first sub-1min 24secs two-wheeled lap of the Californian circuit.

That lap, of 1min 23.718secs, was recorded with 15-minutes to go and would stand to the end of the hour, by which time he held a slim 0.079secs advantage over a rejuvenated Troy Bayliss, although the Australian did suffer his second fall in as many sessions in the closing stages.

World Champion Valentino Rossi jumped from ninth to fourth with 1-minute to go, but then he and third placed man Alex Barros were knocked back a place when Suzuki charger John Hopkins claimed a late third.

In all, the top seven FP3 riders - Hayden, Bayliss, Hopkins, Barros, Rossi, Edwards and Biaggi - were separated by less than 0.5secs, setting the scene for what was expected to be one of the most unpredictable qualifying sessions of the season so far... and it didn't disappoint.

When the qualifying session began, it would take a mere 10-minutes before Hayden once again led the field back below the 1min 24secs mark, setting a 1min 23.951secs circulation to hold a solid 0.5secs early lead over Barros and Biaggi.

Rossi then briefly edged ahead of Barros, only for the Brazilian to respond, but Hayden was also continuing to improve and would soon all but equal his morning lap record and advance an eye-opening 0.629secs clear of the #4.

By the halfway stage, that margin still separated Hayden and Barros at the top, with Biaggi (+0.650secs), Roberts (+0.670secs), Rossi (+0.726secs), Bayliss (+0.794secs), Hopkins (+0.845secs), Edwards (+0.936secs), Nakano (+0.995secs) and Gibernau (+1.039secs) completing the provisional top ten.

Shortly after, Edwards closed Hayden's advantage to 0.49secs after cutting half a second from his previous best lap of the afternoon on the yellow Factory M1 - but another American would soon pick up the baton as Suzuki star Hopkins jumped to within 0.351secs of Nicky for a USA 1-2-3.

With 25mins to go Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano looked to be the first to fit a qualifying tyre as he gatecrashed the provisional front row with a sudden third fastest time, within 0.4secs of Hayden, while Barros continued the hunt of Hayden with a new second fastest lap.

Attention then flicked to Hopper, who was now back out on track and also on qualifying tyres - the aggressive 22-year-old making good use of the super sticky Bridgestone rubber to hurl his GSV-R just 0.083secs from Hayden's factory Honda, with just under 20-minutes still to run.

A brief lull then followed as most other riders pitted for qualifiers and when the action resumed it was, perhaps predictably, the on-form Hayden who was first to strike. The former AMA SBK champion was quicker than ever through all four sectors and duly steered his machine to yet another new lap record, the Kentuckian clocking a 1min 23.530secs as he cut the timing beam.

But much more was to come; Nicky - having had a lap to understand how best to use the increased grip - pushed even harder on the following circulation, shattering all previous sector bests to break the 1min 23secs mark for the first time... and not by a bit; Nicky's time was a 1min 22.684secs, enough to place him over 1.1secs clear of nearest rival Hopkins.

As the final five-minutes approached, it was again a USA 1-2-3 with Hayden, Hopkins and Edwards on the provisional front row and Rossi leading the best of the rest in fourth (+1.16secs).

The Italian superstar would emerge from the Yamaha garage with 7mins left to run to try and break the American stranglehold - but before he could start his first flying lap Checa had put Ducati into an out-of-nowhere second, only for Hayden to edge a little further away to keep his lead at over 0.9secs.

Rossi's own first flyer came with four-minutes to go, and would put him into second - 0.853secs from former team-mate Nicky - but he was still building speed and his following lap would see him effectively match Hayden through the first sector, then dip ahead in the second sector, only to lose time in the second half of the lap - putting the #46 within 0.354secs of pole.

That would decide the top two positions on the grid, but the fight for the final front row start would go right to the flag with Hopkins holding the position as the final minute began, only to lose it to Edwards, who in turn lost it to Bayliss!

But ultimately it would be another Pons rider that claimed the position with Barros nipping ahead of his team-mate on the very last lap. That also means an exciting second row of Bayliss, Edwards and Hopkins, with Biaggi, Checa and Tamada on row three and Nakano rounding out tomorrow's top ten grid positions.

If qualifying is anything to go by, Hayden and Rossi look set for a spectacular race day showdown, with home hero Hayden fighting for his first ever GP victory and Rossi out to mark Yamaha's 50th Anniversary celebrations in the best way possible.

Meanwhile, with third to ninth on the grid separated by less than 0.3secs there is no shortage of potential podium upsets. Indeed, with overtaking expected to be difficult, much may depend on who can best master the tricky uphill start and opening sequence of corners.

Full times to follow...

Qualifying:

1. Hayden
2. Rossi
3. Barros
4. Bayliss
5. Edwards
6. Hopkins
7. Biaggi
8. Checa
9. Tamada
10. Nakano
11. Melandri
12. Roberts
13. Gibernau
14. Capirossi
15. Hofmann
16. Xaus
17. Elias
18. Rolfo
19. Byrne
20. Ellison
21. Battaini