"It's just nuts to be separated by one second over the 5 km around this place." It is hard to argue with Eugene Laverty's assessment of just how close the times are after free practice for MotoGP. Laverty is either really close to Marc Márquez, or a long way behind Marc Márquez, depending on how you measure it. The Irishman had a solid day of practice to come up just over a second shy of Márquez' best time on Friday evening. His problem is that as impressive as his time was, there are eighteen riders ahead of him.
It is, quite frankly, ridiculously close. "I don't know when was the last time you saw down to 21st was inside 1.3 seconds," Jack Miller said in awe. "It's almost like we're in Moto3 again." The closeness of the field was a frustration for everyone on the grid. Miller, Scott Redding, Nicky Hayden, even Valentino Rossi cannot believe how tough the field is. "This practice is unbelievable, because there are ten bikes in three tenths!"
That does not make it any easier to pick a winner, however. Marc Márquez is the least troubled of the riders on the grid, fast both in race trim and on a single lap. The Repsol Honda man spent the day working on his race pace, dropping his lap time to around 1'55.3. He could not make the same step for his single lap pace, but as Márquez has topped every session so far, that should not be too much of a concern. It is too early to be handing him the pole, however: with Aleix Espargaro managing fourth on the soft tire, Andrea Iannone getting to within two tenths of Márquez while still running the medium tire, and Cal Crutchlow and Dani Pedrosa showing some real pace on a single lap, the front row is not a given. Márquez fears the Ducatis and Pedrosa most, but warned also against writing off the Yamahas. "In one lap, they can be there," he said.
Why is it all so close at Qatar? The most frequent answer given was that the class has never been so equal, and so competitive. "I don't think I could have picked a more competitive year to come into MotoGP over the last 6 years or so," Jack Miller lamented. Nicky Hayden couldn't remember it being this close in his twelve years in the class. "I think it's Dorna, manufacturers, the teams, have all done a good job. There's a lot of good bikes, good equipment, good teams, good riders, and hopefully we can put on a show for the fans this year. I think it's pretty cool." The downside was it made it difficult for everyone to grab a position. "On the one hand I love it, I think that's how MotoGP should be, but it does make it tough," Hayden said.
The most intriguing part of the second day was the amount of juggling with tires that went on. Tire choice is proving confusing, topsy turvy even, with the Yamahas pursuing the hard tire, while the Hondas look to be sticking with the soft. Normally, those options are reversed. Yet there is also some sense in what seems entirely irrational. On Thursday, Rossi had complained that they were destroying the rear tire, and the harder compound could be a solution for this. The hard was very consistent, Jorge Lorenzo agreed, and easily capable of doing a hundred or more laps of 1'56.1. "But that is too slow," he added, Lorenzo preferring to work with the medium rear tire.
The problem with the medium is that there is a major drop in performance after just a few laps. "There is a big drop after two or three laps by about half a second," Scott Redding said. Tire choice will come down to whether the pace on used tires can be fast enough to last the entire race, or whether to fit the harder rear, and hope to reel in the riders starting on the medium as the race progresses. With the Open class riders all likely to race the medium (their harder option), that will put most people on the same tire. Except for those few brave souls willing to risk running the hard.
While it looks like a Honda/Ducati whitewash – especially given Iannone's time on the medium – the Yamahas cannot be discounted. Lorenzo and Rossi are only 8th and 9th after the three practice sessions, but Rossi is just 0.370 behind the fastest man Márquez. Rossi made a big step forward with race set up, but he is one of the riders considering the hard as a race option. There is work to do for the Movistar Yamaha rider in FP4. As for Lorenzo, he struggled with an electronics problem on the second day, which prevented him from keeping his smooth style. Still, to be less than three tenths behind Márquez leaves him optimistic for race day.
With the field so tight, qualifying will be crucial. But such a tight field makes qualifying extra difficult. A single mistake can lose you a place on the first two rows, Marc Márquez said. Getting everything perfect will be key. Timing when to go out and push and not making mistakes will be the difference between getting a free run at the first corner, and having ten riders ahead of you.
Cal Crutchlow feared that his second position in free practice would not translate into a spot on the front of the grid. The soft tire the Open class and other factories have is 'a disaster', according to the LCR Honda rider, as it is worth a second a lap. He still predicted that Marc Márquez will take pole on Saturday, but the riders with a soft tire will be right at the front. Crutchlow was at least pleased to have fixed the braking problem he had struggled with on Thursday. The replaced some parts of the braking system with older parts, ironically, borrowed from Ducati. That meant the feeling with the lever was not as good, but at least the bike braked when he squeezed the lever, and gave him back some feeling.
The Qatar track also claimed a few victims. Turn 2, especially, saw Marco Melandri, Loris Baz and Andrea Iannone go down. That corner is particularly treacherous, because of the layout of the track. The left side of the tire has a lot of time to cool down, with the previous left hander at Turn 15, nearly a kilometer and a half before. Between Turns 15 and 2 are the right handers of Turns 16 and Turn 1, and a straight of over a kilometer. The front tire cools, and the front folds as the rider pitches in to Turn 2. It is a vicious and unforgiving corner.
As well as commenting on how close the field were in MotoGP, Eugene Laverty also gave an indication of just where the Open Hondas were losing to the rest. For Laverty, he was losing most in exiting the final corner, and driving on to the straights. It wasn't down to the engine, as there was little difference in power between the Open and the factory Hondas. "We've got to figure out how the hell to launch the thing out of the last corner," Laverty said. They were ending 10 km/h slower along the front straight, all due to drive out of the last corner. To lose about a third of the lap difference in a single corner was frustrating.
Laverty led a general improvement by all the Open Hondas. Jack Miller was pleased to have cut his gap to just 1.3 seconds to the leader, in his first race weekend on the bike. Miller was looking forward to actually racing, as he felt that was where he would gain most. So far, he has been riding mainly on his own, but when he does so, he brakes too late and too hard. "I push the front tire too hard, I squash it too much, and I can't turn." With a rider ahead of him, he can use their brake points as a reference, and get the bike to turn more easily.
Things may have been less close in Moto2, but if anything, it proved to be more exciting. The single session turned into something resembling a qualifying battle, with Sam Lowes and Johann Zarco pushing each other to ever greater heights. Lowes managed to hold on to the top spot, but to do so, he had to post a 1'59.541, two tenths faster than his lap record from Thursday. Zarco came up a tenth short, but still beat Lowes time from FP1. Even Tito Rabat got into the act, becoming the third Moto2 rider to break the two minute barrier at Losail. The three riders look like settling the season opener between them, promising a very hard opening race.
Further back, Alex Márquez started showing some pace, moving up the order from Thursday to end the day in eleventh. The Estrella Galicia Marc VDS rider is not adapting at the same rate as his former teammate Alex Rins, but he is showing that he may well catch Rins later in the season.