Armed with a new chassis rushed to the Le Mans circuit by his Camel Yamaha team, the world champion, Valentino Rossi, bounced back from his dismal start to the season to take second place in provisional qualifying for the French round of the MotoGP championship yesterday.
His American team-mate Colin Edwards claimed pole, indicating that the Japanese company may have finally cured the wheel-chatter and handling problems that have plagued its four-cylinder YZR-M1 this year.
Edwards lapped the 2.6-mile track in 1min 35.170sec, and Rossi - who languishes in sixth place in the championship table - was just over 0.1sec slower. They were followed by Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano, who bumped Rizla Suzuki's John Hopkins and the Australian rider Casey Stoner out of the top three.
Apart from the 20-year-old Stoner, Honda's young lions, who have snatched success and headlines from Rossi this year, were in subdued form. The Spaniard Dani Pedrosa, 20, who won last week's Chinese round, was ninth, the Italian Marco Melandri was 10th, and the championship leader, Nicky Hayden, was 11th best.
"We've still got a bunch of chatter, but we've eliminated as much of it as we can," Edwards said. "I can go out there and do my fastest pace, but if I try to push any harder it just slows you down."
Rossi confirmed: "I used the old chassis in the morning and the new one this afternoon. I think Yamaha have found an improvement."
Loris Capirossi, winner of the opening round of the championship, finished eighth fastest, though he was less than half a second slower than Edwards.
The forecast suggests that today's qualifying session for grid positions will take place in a window of dry weather between showers, but if the rain affects tomorrow's 28-lap race, much of the teams' painstaking set-up work may be rendered useless.
Whatever the conditions, Rossi must produce a performance that claws back his 32-point deficit over Hayden in this fifth round of the 17-event championship.
The French race is the first of six consecutive rounds in the European heartland of the MotoGP series, and if Yamaha cannot resolve its technical issues, Rossi may leave for the American round on July 23 feeling that his five-year run as undisputed MotoGP champion is slipping away.