It has been four-and-a-half years, or 87 races between Valentino Rossi's 49th pole position and his 50th. The last time Rossi started a race from the first spot on the grid was at Le Mans in 2010, where he just pipped his teammate Jorge Lorenzo into second by 0.054 seconds. At Valencia on Saturday, he was two tenths faster than Lorenzo, but this time, he had Andrea Iannone and Dani Pedrosa between him and his teammate.
There were plenty of parallels to the 2010 season visible at Valencia. Just as five seasons ago, Rossi is engaged in a struggle with Lorenzo for supremacy in the championship. Back in 2010, it was just the third race of the season, and a fierce battle was emerging as Jorge Lorenzo started to gain the upper hand in the team, and in the championship. Now, the fight is over second in the championship, rather than first, but it has grown increasingly intense over the past few weeks. Signs of tension have been starting to emerge in the last couple of races, but they became a little more public after qualifying at Valencia.
The reason for the dispute is simple. On his second and final run in qualifying, Valentino Rossi made a slight mistake, and was forced to slow down to restart a final run at the pole. At that moment, Jorge Lorenzo flew past on his fast last lap, and Rossi slotted in just behind him, not so much benefiting from Lorenzo's slipstream, but using Lorenzo as a target to aim for. Lorenzo couldn't improve his time, but Rossi did, demoting his teammate to third. Less than a minute later, Dani Pedrosa added insult to injury by bumping Lorenzo off the front row and into fourth. Lorenzo did not realize he had missed out on the front row until he arrived in Parc Ferme, only to be pushed back to his garage.
Lorenzo did not take the ignominy particularly well. Lorenzo trails Rossi by 12 points in the championship, and if he is to take second, and finish ahead of Rossi, he must win the race, and Rossi must finish off the podium. Before the weekend, Lorenzo was the clear favorite, coming to a track where the Spaniard dominated last year, and where Rossi has suffered badly in recent years. Rossi getting pole thanks to a tow from Lorenzo, and Lorenzo down on the second row was not a part of the plan at all.
That he was not on pole was entirely his own fault, Lorenzo conceded. "I did one fast lap but I made a mistake in the second, I went wide and I lost one or two tenths of a second." But he was a good deal less sanguine about Rossi taking pole using a tow. "The other problem was that Valentino was waiting and he took profit from being behind me to improve his lap time," Lorenzo said. "It is something some riders are doing. He did it today and other times this season."
Lorenzo then launched a more barbed comment. "It is something you can do. I would prefer that nobody did this, but some riders are doing it. Surprisingly Valentino is doing it. You don't expect Valentino to do this kind of thing. But everyone can do it and sometimes when it happens you can lose some positions."
In the press conference, Rossi relished the discord. "Sincerely I was just lucky to be in the right place and I'm happy if he is a little bit nervous for this!" he joked, before agreeing that it is just part of racing. "It happens, and it's happened a minimum 100 times to me. It helps, especially with just 15 minutes in qualifying, it is very strategic." Rossi's own explanation was that the slower lap he did after his mistake helped bring his rear tire back in. With so many left hand corners, the left side of the tire is stressed very severely, especially when pushing during qualifying. Rossi's tire was starting to lose its grip, but when he backed off, it cooled enough to get back inside the optimal performance envelope. That he had his teammate ahead acting as a target was the icing on the cake.
Qualifying was one thing, but the race is another, and though Rossi had improved his pace a lot through FP4 and qualifying, he felt he needed another step to be able to compete with Lorenzo during the race. Rossi and Galbusera have managed to do just that in recent races, so despite the fact that this is Valencia, you can't write him off on Sunday. A win looks to be very difficult indeed, but he may still be able to do enough to secure second place in the championship. Rossi's goal for 2015 is to improve on his results this year, Silvano Galbusera, Rossi's crew chief told me on Thursday. Given that Rossi looks like wrapping up second, that only leaves one place to go.
Despite grabbing pole, it is possible that Rossi's best hope of hanging on to second place in the championship lies with the Repsol Honda riders. In terms of race pace both Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa were faster than Jorge Lorenzo during FP4, the only real session left for riders to work on race set up. Marquez and Pedrosa were running laps between 1'31.4 and 1'31.6, while Lorenzo was a tenth slower than the Hondas. Marquez, in particular, looks to have the pace to beat the Movistar Yamaha of Lorenzo.
Whether he can translate that pace into his thirteenth win of the season remains to be seen. It is a very different Marc Marquez who walks the paddock at Valencia. The Spaniard looks tired, and has shown signs of frustration. The spring has very definitely gone out of his step. It showed in two crashed on Saturday, falling in identical ways. A small error as he got off the brakes and ready to open the throttle again saw him touch the brake lever and go down. "I was just braking, then when I released the brakes and came back to open the gas, that moment, both times I touch a little bit the front brake," Marquez explained. "With carbon brakes which are braking lot, if you touch just a little bit with full lean angle, you lose the front."
The first crash in the morning was unfortunate, the second during qualifying caused Marquez real problems. It happened on his final run, and left him stranded down on the second row of the grid. Already a poor starter, having to start from fifth will make his life very difficult on Sunday. The realization struck Marquez immediately, the world champion grasping his head in his hands as he walked towards the marshals. Marquez himself was all too aware of his problems. "This is maybe a mistake that I'm riding too relaxed, and you know I maybe did that step [releasing the brakes] too soft or something," he reflected. "I need to pay more attention on that area tomorrow."
Where does this lack of attention come from? Marquez looks tired, having had a heavy schedule filled with promotional activities. The pressure appears to be coming not just from Honda, but from his commitments to personal sponsors, as organized by his management team. There is also the stress of watching and trying to help his brother Alex win the Moto3 title at Valencia. All in all, the burden Marquez carries seems to be approaching his capacity to bear it. Marquez looks like a man badly in need of a vacation. He still has a couple of weeks of promotional events to go once the season is over, before he can finally take a break.
Dani Pedrosa could prove the greater challenge of the two Repsol Hondas. All year long, Pedrosa's problem has been a slow start, a consequence of the set up direction his team have tried to push him this season. Pedrosa's trademark lightning starts have disappeared, sacrificed to allow him to go faster at the end of the race. That change has gone against his natural instincts, and been a source of constant friction in his team. The end result of that friction has been a parting of the ways with long-time crew chief Mike Leitner, along with several of his other mechanics. Whether his new crew chief – his current data engineer Ramon Aurin – will do any better, or attend more closely to his preferred race strategy remains to be seen. If Leitner and co give Pedrosa a bike he can be fast off the line with, then he will have the chance to give his Austrian crew chief a parting gift.
The key to the race will come down to tire management. With so many left handers and so few rights, the left side of the tire is severely stressed. Despite the fact Bridgestone have brought an asymmetric rear (and an asymmetric front as well), tire performance still drops off badly after the first six or seven laps. The rider who manages that best, and can conserve his tires to the end of the race, has the best shot at victory.
The drop in tire performance is what most concerns the Ducatis. Andrea Iannone is the only Ducati rider at the front, the Pramac man bumped down to second spot by Valentino Rossi. Iannone had been struggling with the arm injury he suffered at Sepang, but intensive physiotherapy has made a huge difference to the Italian. Just how well he will hold up during the race remains to be seen, especially once the tire begins to drop and he has to work harder to control the bike.
Fortunately for the front runners, Iannone is the only Ducati up front, the two factory riders down on the third row of the grid. Neither Cal Crutchlow nor Andrea Dovizioso were particularly pleased with their qualifying position, though there was some small pleasure for Crutchlow in being ahead of his teammate. Both men felt they could have done more with their qualifying laps, but tire vibration put paid to that. The race should be better, at least until the tire goes off, and from then it is a case of nursing the bike home as fast as possible. Cal Crutchlow believes the MotoGP race could be a very close run affair. Normally, he told reporters, the race at Valencia was fairly strung out. But with so many riders so close together, this could be a much more hard-fought race.
By Moto3 standards, even a hard-fought race can look pretty tame, and Sunday's race looks to be no exception. Both Jack Miller and Alex Marquez line up on the front of the grid, confident of being able to fight for the win, and try to take the title. Alex Marquez just has to finish on the podium to be sure of the being Moto3 champion, while Jack Miller needs to win and make sure Marquez does not get on the box. The scene is set for a vicious battle between the two, a war of nerves as much as riding.
Who looks to be in the best shape? Marc Marquez was adamant that brother Alex was on track exactly as they had planned. Yet Alex does not appear to exude confidence, a general sense of nervousness surrounding him. The championship is Marquez' to lose, always a situation which somehow exerts more pressure than being behind your rival.
Jack Miller, on the other hands, looks confident, relaxed, and itching for a fight. The young Australian's chutzpah is standing him in good stead, looking ready to do battle. Behind the scenes, KTM staff are rubbing their hands with glee. Their man, they believe, has got into his rival's head, and made him extremely nervous. That is already half the battle in the final race for the championship, and Miller has already shown he can do what it takes when it comes to putting riders between himself and his rival. With the KTM of Niccolo Antonelli on pole, a couple more behind him on the second row, Miller seems ideally placed to launch his final championship challenge. His main issue will be ensuring he doesn't get caught out in the final corner, as he did at Sepang.
There is everything to play for at Valencia. And that always makes for an excellent day's racing.