Over the past two years, Marc Márquez and his team have proven to be a master of strategy. They have found a number of innovations, most notably the two-stop, three-run strategy during qualifying, and the bunny hop bike swap during flag-to-flag races. Santi Hernandez has earned his reputation as a brilliant crew chief, and as a strategist capable of finding advantages in places where other teams simply haven't thought of looking.
So for Márquez to first miss out on going straight to Q2, and then make a fatal error again in Q1 leaving him in thirteenth is frankly shocking. Two major blunders in one day is unlike Márquez' side of the Repsol Honda garage, and their worst mistake since Phillip Island in 2013, where they miscounted laps for the compulsory pit stop and Márquez found himself disqualified.
What caused them to mess up like this? Concern about the championship, and then a touch of hubris. Márquez spent FP3 working on set up for used tires, looking at pace later on in the race. That meant he had little time at the end of the session to push for a fast lap, and found himself bumped out of the top ten as the pace hotted up. He missed out on Q2 by a very narrow margin: just 0.009 separated him from Maverick Viñales in tenth, and less than a hundredth of a second from Bradley Smith in a very safe eighth spot.
Trying to make good in Q1, Márquez went out late and tried to push hard, but a lack of feeling with the rear tire meant that he could not set a fast time. The plan was to use just one tire, and save an extra one for Q2 when he was through. The mistake was to assume that he would automatically go through, without much trouble from the opposition. Nobody told Yonny Hernandez about this, and putting in a blistering lap late in the session, he fired past Márquez and took top spot in Q1, bumping Márquez out of the last place in Q2. Márquez was left out in the cold.
Wanting to save a tire is understandable, but what is less understandable is the decision to wait until late in the session to make your first run. The strategy should be to go out early, post a lap, then sit in the pits waiting to see if anyone gets close. Instead, Márquez sat in the pits for a couple of minutes before going out, and by the time he had messed up a couple of laps, it was too late to come back in and try with fresh rubber. The otherwise brilliant team was felled by hubris, by the assumption that they would automatically get through to Q2. Nothing is a given in MotoGP; the level is simply too high. You always have to work, and always have to be aware of possible pitfalls. The road to hell is paved with simple assumptions.
So does starting from the fifth row of the grid mean Márquez can put any thoughts of a podium out of his mind? That, too, would be a rather rash assumption. His rivals have certainly not written him off. "Pay attention to Marc," Valentino Rossi told the media. Márquez had the race pace, and was capable of a good start, the Italian warned. Cal Crutchlow went even further. "Marc will be on the podium," the LCR Honda man confidently asserted. A peculiar prediction? Not for those who can remember what Márquez did in 2012. At Motegi he didn't put the bike into gear properly at the start, finding himself standing still as the rest of the grid fired past him at the start. He was ninth by the end of the first lap, and went on to win the race. At Valencia, he was forced to start from the back of the grid after a rather egregious bumping of Simone Corsi during practice, causing the Italian to crash. He went on to win that race too. San Donato, the first corner at Mugello, is the Repsol Honda's weakest point on the circuit, Márquez struggling to get the bike stopped and falling there during FP4. But if he gets through there and has gained a handful of positions, a podium is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
There are signs that the stress is starting to get to Márquez, though. The Spaniard flew into an uncharacteristic rage when he saw he had missed out on Q2, and would have to start from thirteenth. Then, during his media debrief with the press, he was a little less cheerful than usual, answering a couple of questions with a mix of irritation and exasperation in his voice. These are tough times indeed for the world champion.
Though the grid is fascinating in its mix of riders in unexpected positions, it is not a fair reflection of race pace. Andrea Iannone took a brilliant pole, his first in MotoGP, putting in an astounding lap to stay ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, the man who has been unstoppable all weekend. It was a record-breaking effort, the first time an Italian took pole on an Italian motorcycle at the Italian GP since Giacomo Agostino put the MV Agusta on pole at Imola in 1972. Whether Iannone can convert that into a result remains to be seen: the Ducati man is suffering with a fractured humerus, and lasting a full race will be tough. Iannone has always been a rider who is fast over a single lap, but his pace over race distance has often been found wanting.
Beside Iannone sits Jorge Lorenzo, who is looking ever more like the Terminator. Robotically regular, unstoppable, laying down a searing pace that no one else can follow. Lorenzo is clearly back on form, and at a track that he loves, he will be tough to beat. His consistency through FP3 and FP4 was devastating, his one lap pace fearsome.
The main threat to Lorenzo comes from Andrea Dovizioso, who has been running similar race pace to him. Where Iannone always looks fast on one lap, Dovizioso looks deceptively slow, until you see on the timing screens that he is the fastest man on track. For Dovizioso, only one thing counts, pace on used tires. That is where the Ducati is weakest, and so the Italian is working on a strategy for the race. The plan, he said, was to get in front of Lorenzo, prevent him from escaping, then try to use the speed of the Ducati down the front straight to control the race. It will come down to how close Dovizioso is at the start of the final straight: if he is within half a second of Lorenzo, he can close the gap using the outright ponies of the GP15. Ducati unsealed a fresh engine for each of the factory Ducati men at Mugello, said to be an evolution of the old engine with more horsepower. Dovizioso registered 361 km/h on the onboard telemetry during qualifying, a terrifying speed indeed. The Yamaha has made big steps forward in terms of top speed, Jorge Lorenzo told the press conference. But are those steps big enough to hold off the Hondas?
Cal Crutchlow was also confident of a podium at Mugello, and disappointed not to have done better than the second row of the grid. He lost a couple of tenths in one corner, he said, and that bumped him down to fourth. In terms of race pace, he felt he was close enough, and capable of challenging for a podium. Again, it comes down the start. Get off the line, and latch onto Lorenzo, and you are in with a shot.
Aleix Espargaro and Michele Pirro both made commendable efforts to finish on the second row of the grid, especially as Espargaro is suffering with a hand injury. The Suzuki is a good deal slower than the rest of the bikes – though faster than Jorge Lorenzo's bike, the Movistar Yamaha rider pointed out – and is losing several tenths on the front straight alone. Michele Pirro has proven to be a superb test rider, but he has not raced in MotoGP for some time, and must be assumed to be a little rusty.
On the third row of the grid are Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi, both of whom are likely to be a factor. Pedrosa is still recovering from arm pump surgery, but feels stronger than expected. Rossi, on the other hand, is looking menacing. On race pace, he is very close to Márquez and Lorenzo, and believes there is more to come from the bike. He starts from eight on the grid: as Rossi's many fans like to point out, the last two times he started from eighth, he won the race, at Qatar and in Argentina. You cannot write Valentino Rossi off until the checkered flag drops.
The Moto2 race looks like being between Sam Lowes, Tito Rabat and Tom Luthi, with question marks over whether Johann Zarco can join the party. Lowes showed his calm today, crashing early in qualifying, getting back to the pits, the waiting patiently for the moment to go out again. That he did, and he was rewarded with his second pole of the season.
In Moto3, it is Danny Kent who once again looks invincible. The Kiefer Racing rider put three tenths over on his teammate Hiroki Ono, and three quarters of a second over on third-place man Romano Fenati. What was most impressive about Kent's lap was that he made it on his own, however. Kent will be trying to escape on Sunday, and hoping the chasing pack get tanged up with one another for long enough that they cannot close him down. If they do, then he will be practicing his runs to the line on every lap.