2013 Qatar MotoGP Friday Round Up: Qualifying Heats, Rain In The Desert, and Race Pace

Racing at the desert at night, in the false noon created by the astonishingly efficient lighting system at the Qatar circuit, is always going to be a weird experience. But on Friday, events conspired to take it from the merely odd into the strangely surreal. The culprits? The weather was one, the odd fleetingly brief shower of thick rain drops sending everyone scurrying into the pits and scratching their heads over what to do. The other thing that had many people confused was the new qualifying rules. Though not necessarily particularly complex, like all rule changes, the effect they have on the system, the way the weekend operates, only becomes apparent once the changes are put into effect.

But before I get to that, some attention deserves to be paid to Marc Marquez. In his very first MotoGP weekend, he topped his second ever session of free practice, and followed it up by being fastest in his third session of free practice as well. He has now been quickest in the majority of the official MotoGP sessions he has ever taken part in. OK, that's only two out of three, and the conditions have been a little unusual, but to be this fast this early is astonishing.

Marquez is an engrossing rider to watch. Veteran Dutch journalist Henk Keulemans, who had been out shooting photos at trackside, commented that he didn't understand how Marquez didn't crash in every corner. The young Spaniard is intensely physical with the bike, Keulemans describing Marquez as throwing the bike around like it was a 125, especially through some of the more complicated sections. While everyone is impressed with his speed, the question is, does he have the physical endurance to fling the bike around so much for twenty laps? That could be a different kettle of fish altogether.

Qatar has traditionally been kind to rookies. In 2008, Jorge Lorenzo took three sessions to top the timesheets at his first ever MotoGP event, going on to take pole, while two years earlier, Casey Stoner was fastest in FP1. For Stoner, Qatar was his second race, the 2006 season having started in Jerez, where Dani Pedrosa - Marquez Repsol Honda teammate now - had shared top three places with Casey Stoner during practice. Lorenzo and Stoner both went on to take two world championships each, while Dani Pedrosa has come tantalizingly close a couple of times. Marquez' first two days at Qatar should be regarded as an unmitigated success, whatever happens during the race.

Back to the weather: a front in the Persian Gulf had been threatening to blow across the circuit all day, but in the end it just glanced the track, creating incredibly powerful gusts of wind, and the occasional heavy shower which was thankfully over in the blink of an eye. But the showers consisted of big, thick drops of rain, fat as ripe figs, which exploded onto every surface at the track kicking up a wall of dust. The desert heat meant that the water they contained evaporated minutes after hitting the ground, so the track was never wet enough for sessions to be postponed or canceled.

Don't they bring rain tires, I hear you cry? No, they do not. By the time the surface gets wet enough to require rain tires, the wet track is reflecting so much light from the overhead spotlights that it is impossible to see anything. If it rains hard enough, all and any action is simply canceled, or as it was in 2009, put back a day and run in the dry.

Then there was the new system of qualifying. Yes, qualifying isn't until tomorrow, but dividing qualifying into two groups has (predictably) had an (unpredictable) knock-on effect on free practice as well. A lightning recap of the system:

1. At the end of FP3, the MotoGP riders are ranked in order of the best lap time posted in any of the three free practice sessions they have contested.

2. The fastest 10 riders automatically go through to QP2, and are assured a spot in the top 12 starting positions.

3. The remainder of the field have to take part in QP1, and the two fastest in QP1 will join the 10 previously selected to battle over the front four rows of the grid.

QP1 and QP2 are now 15 minute sessions, which is preceded by a 30 minutes FP4 session, now ironically the only truly session of free practice left during the weekend.

Before the riders had turned a wheel, most were claiming the new system would not change their approach. But come Friday night, and the heat of FP3, the action started hotting up into something resembling a real qualifying session. Not so much for the top four or five riders, confident enough in their own abilities of not having to worry about not making QP2, but riders between, say, 6th and 18th place turned it into a real contest. Some were caught napping - Stefan Bradl was one, nearly being dropped out of the top 10, only saving his bacon with a fast lap at the very end.

Opinion on whether the new system was a good thing or not was divided. The fans appeared largely to love it, as it gave them an extra contest to get excited about. Riders having to step up their game to stay in the top 10 made for much more of a show than an ordinary FP3 session, which last year was run in a much less competitive atmosphere. Most of the riders either liked it or were indifferent - the riders at the front completely unaffected, though Valentino Rossi did complain of riders hanging around hoping for a tow. Some were less impressed, with Stefan Bradl's boss Lucio Cecchinello complaining that having just 15 minutes of qualifying was not enough. At a long track like Qatar, with a lap time close to 2 minutes, he may have a point. Crutchlow reckoned he would get 4 laps in during QP2: an out lap, two fast laps, an in lap for a new tire, then an out lap and two more - maybe three, depending on the timing - and that's it, the session would be over.

The new qualifying system left journalists puzzling over the best way to describe the system, with TV commentators struggling more than most, having to sum up a relatively complex system in just a single phrase or simple explanation which won't confuse their audiences. My own personal favorite was put forward by Dennis Noyes: while the rest of us were tripping over whether this was now prequalifying, and whether that was actually a word, Noyes chipped in "It's simple, free practice now becomes a qualifying heat." Noyes' background in dirt track - he raced the four-wheeled version in his distant youth, and son Kenny raced flat track when younger, and now has a dirt track school at the Motorland Aragon circuit, called Noyes Camp - prompted the use of the phrase. He is essentially correct: Free practices 1 through 3 are now essentially qualifying heats, the winners going through to QP2, while the losers hope for a second chance in QP1.

The new qualifying system also distorted the results, a little. Several riders put in a fast lap at the end, while their race pace is of a different magnitude. Disregarding single fast laps, Jorge Lorenzo seems to hold the best cards. Lorenzo is consistently fast, his race pace a tenth or more better than anyone else. Only Cal Crutchlow is in the same league as Lorenzo, though he will have to fight to try to keep up with the Spaniard. Valentino Rossi is not far behind - but still behind - another tenth or so slower than Lorenzo, and maybe around the same pace as Marquez.

Two big names caused some surprise. First came the failure of Dani Pedrosa to get closer, though the Spaniard did make a good deal of headway on the second day. His problem remains the same as it was yesterday: the difficult surface meant that Pedrosa doesn't have any grip, and with no rear grip, he can't get the bike to turn. The RC213V is helped to turn by using the power to slide the rear just enough to point the front wheel in the right direction, while still getting enough drive to go forward. Without the grip, Pedrosa can't get the drive, and without the drive, he can't get the bike to turn.

The other name which surprised many was Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian is doing exceptionally well on the Ducati, contrary to the expectations of most. Though most of Dovizioso's laps were a good deal slower, he did two laps in the high 1'56s, achieved all on his own. Dovizioso's problems may come as the race progresses, as the Ducati is still heavy on tires. His fifth spot during the three FP sessions may be promising, but making the tire last for 20 laps is going to be hard.

Not so much a big name, but certainly a surprise was Bradley Smith. The young Briton had not just made it into QP2, which was the goal he had set himself, he had also got within a second of the front runners. "That's always something I've been edging towards," Smith told the press, "but I didn't realize how hard you have to ride to be within that second. I thought it would come easier, but you have to be absolutely wide open to be within a second of these guys, it's made me realize that the job's a lot harder than I very first thought. Definitely riding 20 laps at that type of intensity as well, hats to these guys, and, yeah, it's opened my eyes to MotoGP." Throughout testing, Smith has not looked brilliant strictly on the basis of position, but if you compare Smith to where Stefan Bradl was last year, Smith is pretty much matching him.

So, who will win? For Cal Crutchlow, it will come down to whether Jorge Lorenzo can keep Dani Pedrosa - or Marc Marquez, the other Repsol Honda man - behind him. The two contrasting styles of the bikes - the Yamaha's majestic, sweeping lines, versus the square point-and-shoot style of the Honda - mean that once he gets behind a Honda, it may be impossible to pass. The Hondas have the straight line speed and especially the drive out of the corner to keep the Yamahas at bay, while the Yamahas can't exploit their strength - the 250-like corner speed - to pass the bikes. Lorenzo needs to get away at the front. If he finds himself behind Dani Pedrosa or Marc Marquez, it could be a very long night.

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We are busy at our jobs working and have FP3 piped through the sound system, made for an exciting work day.

Like Dennis Noyes said, its a heat race. Making QP1 the equivalent to US Supercross LCQ (Last chance qualifier) Where top 2 make it into the main event, or QP2 (the pre main event before the race). All of a sudden all the free practices have somewhat more of a meaning. Guys will be pushing harder, finding a better pace or setup and hopefully you end up with a better show!!

Cut costs here, cut hosts there. Maybe all motogp needed was a restructured qualifying procedure?!

I am anything but a rossi fan, (and on second read it was framed from CC's viewpoint) but leaving him out of the last paragraph is a pretty epic oversight. He's been hosing down his chances ever since going back to Yamaha and has been helped by the Marquez phenomenon, but I'm really surprised that journos of the world seem to have all but written him off.

Rossi will be going all out to replicate his "other" first race on a Yamaha - Welkom 2004 - where nobody really expected him to win either. He desperately needs to rebuild brand Rossi, and a win first time back on the Yamaha will be woven into the VR folklore faster than the Ducati nightmare will be glossed over. When VR is in a win at all costs mood, look out anyone in front.

2013 seems like it will at least be interesting, and hopefully exciting too. While Lorenzo and Pedrosa are -barring injury - expected to be up front, Rossi and Marquez are the big question marks, and it'll be fascinating to see how it all pans out. I'm expecting plenty of fireworks.

Great to have the season underway.

breganzane is right. Rossi has been downplaying himself and playing up the other 3. He keeps saying his target is the podium. While I wouldn't bet on him winning I also wouldn't bet against him either. He's as hungry right now for a win as he was when he was first on the 500.

If I were betting I'd bet on Lorenzo for the W. And I'd also bet on Marquez running off the track going into turn 1. He's done it every session so far. He is a definite threat but exceptional rookies like him (ex. Lorenzo, ex. Stoner) get overconfident quickly then start highsiding. I'd be really impressed if he doesn't do a Shanghai Lorenzo this season. If he can avoid the big crashes he'll fight for the title this year.

The new qualifying? I think it's a mess. Rossi said people were trying to get a tow. How is than any different than QP last year? IMO, the dangerous problem of CRT vs. Factory bike is only going to get shifted from QP to FP3. And I think at the longer tracks, with only 15 minutes, some riders are going to get caught out. If you want to have this QP1 and QP2 because of CRT's, fine, but the qualifying session should be 30 minutes long IMO.

One more day and the lights are finally going to go out, or on in this case. It's been a long winter.

Rossi's times are not far off, which implies he will be in the mix. I'm quite unsure why anyone would count him out.

However, I can think of one element that can work against him winning:Lorenzo's pace over the early laps, since I would expect Rossi to neither qualify higher than 4th nor get a fast start.

Assuming 'normal' conditions: unless Lorenzo generates a nice gap in the first few laps Rossi will be right there at the end.

Lorenzo has a setup which will work his tires fast right from lap one. By logic, that will work against his pace in the latter half. So unless he gets away and builds a good enough lead, we might see him being caught towards the end.

If you look at 2009/2010, Lorenzo always used a setup in the opposite direction; his initial laps were never that hot but he gathered steam towards the end.

Lorenzo is usually guaranteed to qualify well, start decently, and put in a few hot first laps. To win this race, Rossi will have to overcome two of his weaknesses: bad qualifying, bad starting.

In 2006, Stoner was fastest at Qatar in FP1, FP3, QP and WUP. And fifth (beating out Pedrosa by 3 seconds) in the race, which Rossi won. Hayden was second, and two Ducatis - Capirex and Gibernau - third and fourth.

Marquez has the benefit of a team that is as honed to perfection for a rider of his style as one could have, so set-up and tyre selection are not likely to be much of a gamble there (and Pedrosa's seeming struggle to get the set-up right appears to confirm that Marquez's team is right on the money) but if he manages to buck the portents and auguries of history and win, emulating only KR Snr., it will be a debut performance that ought to send shivers down the spines of the rest of the field. If he makes the podium here, that will place him with Pedrosa and Lorenzo, both of whom did that in their first premier-class race (it took Stoner 3 races to bag a podium and Rossi 4 in their respective first premier-class seasons).

We could see modern history being made. - or we could see the apparent verities of racing reinforced. Either way, it promises to be fascinating. One thing is certain - Dorna is being handed a fresh new story and potential hero to carry the sport forward in the future on a plate; if it fails to capitalise on that, then its owners and shareholders are going to be very, very displeased with the management.

I agree; the charge to the first corner may tell the tale. We've all read about how Lorenzo brakes earlier than other riders and carries more mid-corner speed. That don't work so good when you've got another rider on your line, especially if said rider has a bike that's got more exit acceleration than you do. Interesting to find out how many passes Jorge put on Stoner or Dani last season when everyone's bike and body was working right.

And it would also be interesting if someone could confirm this: I think that Dovi's performance in FP3 is the closest a Ducati has come to the front in any non-soaking-wet session - practice, qualifying or a race - since the end of 2010.

Bring on qualifying.

I think the biggest news here is that the Ducati has put its nose above the water level finally, not because the bike it's any better, as we see poor Nicky Hayden in it's usual place and Spies doing a "Melandri" but because Dovi looks like he could do a "Stoner"

Dovi is quick on the duke, he deserves full credit for that, no doubt. But he's nowhere near as quick on it as stoner was. Not yet, anyway.

David, I think you really should have included Rossi in "Who will win" paragraph and generally, take it easy with Crutchlow. I guess it's a big thing to have a Brit in championship but you are putting him ahead of Rossi for a quite some time. How many races did he win? And Rossi?
You have great texts, really great, but lately Cal is given a lot more credits. Last year Dovi was 4th on the same bike. Even pathetic Ducati/Rossi combo was one spot ahead of him.
But maybe I'm wrong thinking that this years best will be Lorenzo, Rossi and Marquez.

Will be interesting to see if all 12 bikes attempt to start QP2 at the same time - could be like a race start from pit lane. All 12 pit stops will similarly be condensed into a really small window - maybe not as safe as the old format?

Definitely agree with Henk Keulemans. Even on tv it feels like Marquez is all over the place going into the corners. The bike is sliding so much ! Just think about how fast he's going to be when he rides a bit smoother... Maybe that what Rossi meant with "scary"!

I wouldn't be so quick to say the Yam needs to get out in front or they will struggle. The benefit of higher corner speed is that you come onto the straight bits quicker, so Jorge will be able to slipstream the Hondas because in actual fact there's not a lot of difference in top speed.

And Dani simultaneously lacking grip yet being unable to slide the rear to turn the bike doesn't make much sense to me. If he was hugely sideways everywhere due to no grip It would make sense, or if he had loads of grip but understeer issues maybe but both?

To slide the rear effectively to turn you actually need a lot of grip. Front grip to point the bike and stop it folding, rear grip to grab the lateral movement as the wheel steps out and maintain speed with a controlled slide. Look at drifters, they actually use hugely grippy tyres on their cars.
Dani can't slide the rear to turn the bike because he doesn't have enough grip front/rear to have confidence to wind the gas on hard and get the bike to step out and hook up coming out of the turn.

I really enjoyed yesterday's action, but I can't help worrying about the lack of time which is now available for bike setup, development, testing, and for the riders to learn tracks and to build an understanding of their equipment. The big money has already had a private test at Texas. Guess that is an even bigger advantage than I first realised.

If we get the sort of weather disruption of last season where whole practice sessions were spent in the garage waiting for the weather to improve, the lack of setup time will be a major issue, not for the established high spending teams, but with the rookies, CRT bikes and (if they try to develop in a new direction) Ducati.

I hope this doesn't discourage Suzuki and others from coming back.....

Agree with above it's massively disappointing to see only 15 minutes for final qualifying this is not F1..But it would mean an extra session for the faster riders if it was longer(kneejerk?) Do we know what tyres everyone was on?? How many soft tyres do they have for this race, will it affect the tyres they have available for todays sessions and of course QP, if it's the right tyre for the race(Rossi suggested it was yesterday) will they have to start with a scrub set(F1 again)...:-) Copying F1 rules doesn't directly compute onto bikes, but the sport could learn alot in terms of level of detail available for the fans. All part of dragging the sport into the 21st century I guess..
Excellent work Bradley Smith get in lad..

How can anyone be seduced by Dovis single lap pace? Going through the MotoGP analysis PDF its clear that his actual race pace is in the 1.57-1.58 category which means come the end of the race he will be around 15-20 secs behind and in around 5-7th. He should just concentrate on his race pace. Dovi is a guy who's sense of entitlement exceeds his talents somewhat. He seems to forget that he ran a full factory Honda for 2 years and did squat with it.

This race will be between Lorenzo and Rossi with Cal close behind. All can run 1.56's comfortably. Pedrosa and Marquez are really struggling and will inevitably take to the astroturf at the end of the straight at least once in this race. Will they take anyone else out whilst running up the inside in the first 3-4 laps?

Whilst Marquez is spectacular, can he really run like that for a whole race? Looks unsustainable to me