His streak had to come to an end one day, and it turned out to be at Barcelona. Marc Marquez' run of pole positions stopped at seven – Valencia last year, plus the first six races of this season – after he was forced to concede the place to his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa. For a change, the front row press conference on Friday afternoon did not feature a jubilant Marquez (well, actually, it did, but more that later) and a couple of dejected rivals, wondering what they can do about the Repsol Honda man. Both pole sitter Pedrosa and runner up Jorge Lorenzo were, if not exactly buoyant, at least rather perky. Hope has returned.
And rightly so. Pedrosa took pole completely on merit, posting a blistering lap that was only just off his own lap record set last year. Given how the track has deteriorated since last year – more bumps, less grip – Pedrosa's time was deeply impressive. So impressive that it forced Marc Marquez into a mistake. The Spaniard and his crew attempted a repeat of their strategy at Jerez, to attempt three runs for pole. It worked rather well, up until the very last run. Marquez was pushing hard, aware that Pedrosa had taken pole, but got into Turn 1 a little too hot, ran a little too wide onto the kerb, then had to push the front a little too hard to try to make the corner. He failed.
Marc Marquez suffered his first crash of 2014, and proved he was human after all. His ambition finally outweighed his talent, as one former rider might say. The consequences of attempting three runs is that at some point, you have to fit a new front tire, and that is not without risk. Unlike the rear tire, the front needs a little bit of time to get fully up to speed, and when it has a nice fat new rear pushing it, it can be a fraction harder to control. As Marc Marquez found to his dismay.
Marquez immediately owned up to the error. The strategy to attempt three runs had been the right one, but he was pushing just a little too hard on the final lap, knowing that he had both Pedrosa and Lorenzo in front of him. Not prepared to settle for the situation, he went for it all, and the front folded on him.
So why attempt three runs? It was simple, Marquez explained. They had seen that on the soft tire, the best lap was always the first fast lap, after which the tire dropped off enough to seriously impact lap times. The team, led by crew chief Santi Hernandez, had put their heads together and decided to once again try the strategy which worked so well at Jerez.
They were not the only team to contemplate it. Valentino Rossi admitted that it is something he and his team had thought about it, but been able to pursue it. 'Is a strategy that can have a better potential,' admitted Rossi, 'but everything have to go at the maximum, and is a little bit more risky. In Jerez, it worked very well for Marc, and he did a fantastic position, here he did a small mistake and he crashed, so you can have better or worse.' The most important factor was having enough tires, however. 'The key is saving the tires during the weekend, and usually you can save the tire during the weekend if you are very fast. If you have to recover, in this case against Marc, you have to use all the tires, and pay something in the qualifying. So it's something you can do if you are very strong in the other practices. And also the Honda and especially Marc can usually use the hard more than the Yamaha can. I tried the hard yesterday, but it was very difficult, so we are forced to work with the soft. And in the qualifying we don't have any extra tires.'
Jorge Lorenzo's team had also considered it. Wilco Zeelenberg discussed the strategy with me in some detail, explaining that in their eyes, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages, as Marquez had so elegantly demonstrated. Like Marquez and his crew, Lorenzo, Zeelenberg and Forcada had seen that the first lap on the soft rear tire had the most potential on its hot lap, the tire dropping off too much to push a poleworthy lap out of it. At most tracks, this was not too much of a problem, as you could still get a lap good enough for the front row out of the tire if you make a mistake on the hot lap. At Barcelona, where the combination of poor track surface and blistering heat are sucking performance out of the tire almost by the meter, the second lap is a wasted lap, often several tenths slower.
So if you want three full shots at pole at Barcelona, you have to go for three tires, Zeelenberg explained. But to do so means taking a lot of risk. Everything has to go perfectly, and at some point, you will have to use a new front tire, which you risk crashing on by pushing too hard. If you stuck with the two-tire strategy, you could concentrate your effort in your two fast laps, and be confident of either a front or second row start. The difference between pole and 3rd is pretty much irrelevant during the race, and so risking a crash and possible injury to move up one or two places on the grid was simply not worth it.
In the same vein, there were limited gains to be had from chasing a faster lap time during free practice. The difference between a 1'41.9 and a 1'41.8 was pretty much irrelevant when they would be doing 1'43s during the race, Zeelenberg explained. Better to be safe, grab a front row and wait for the race. Barcelona is a very strange track, and much can happen over the course of a race. Spend your effort working on race pace, Zeelenberg commented.
And Lorenzo's race pace is good. Not just his race pace, his fitness as well: during FP4, Jorge Lorenzo went out and did 17 straight laps, over two thirds race distance, nearly all of which were in the mid to high 1'42s. The bike was easier to ride, his fitness was good, and he was confident of his competitiveness, Lorenzo said. Lorenzo is looking ominous, starting to get closer to the form he had in 2013, and with a bike that is much improved in braking – Zeelenberg would not divulge details, but did explain it was the entire package, chassis, engine braking set up, suspension set up and more – Lorenzo could well be the rider to break Marquez' win streak.
Going on the pace in FP4 – still the best marker of real pace, as the only session where riders are focused solely on race pace – Lorenzo, Marquez, Pedrosa and even Valentino Rossi are all on the same pace, and will all be a factor at the end of the race. Rossi himself was less than confident, saying that he needed to improve in the final sector if he was to run with the three Spaniards at the front. Marquez was less worried about Rossi being missing, the Italian veteran always fining a little more pace on race day.
Of course, all this could go out of the window if it rains. Every single rider I spoke to – from Bradley Smith to Valentino Rossi to the three men in the press conference – all said the same thing. Rain would turn the race into a gamble. Anyone could win, the Ducatis would be closer, and even the Production Hondas would be a good deal closer. A wet race is a complete crapshoot, was the consensus of opinion.
The Barcelona circuit offered complications enough, Tito Rabat suggested. The Marc VDS Racing rider has ripped up practice and qualifying, never less than half a second faster than the man behind him. Yet Pol Espargaro had an even bigger advantage last year, and still found himself battling with Rabat to the very end of the race. Right now, though, it seems foolish to put your money on anything other than a Rabat whitewash.
Even the Moto3 race will be a little different. Unlike Mugello, it is possible to break away with a smaller group, Alex Marquez suggested at the press conference. It was certainly what he would be trying for, given the recent races in the class, where the top five, sometimes the top ten, are covered by just a few tenths of a second. Marquez is the man to watch, the Spanish youngster taking his first career pole. His teammate Alex Rins was unlucky, the young Spaniard suffering a big highside and fracturing a number of bones in his feet. Yet Honda look close to their first victory in Moto3, after a year suffering from the seriously downgraded perforance of the Honda engine.
Of course, we can theorize all we want, but the weather looks like playing a major role. Right now, just a few hours ahead of the race, it's anyone's guess. Rain is forecast, but every time you look at a forceast it changes, meaning the air is unstable and rain is extremely likely. All we know for sure is that weather will be involved, though exactly what kind of weather – hot, cold, wet, dry – remains to be seen. If the race is wet on Sunday – and that's a big if – then all bets are off.