The entertainment value in MotoGP waxes and wanes through the years. One year, the races are all serial snoozers, each race settling into a procession a lap or two after the start. The next, everything is turned on its head, every race a tense battle to the line for a close finish. We are lucky indeed that this year falls very much into the latter category. There have been some classic races already, and tomorrow's race looks like being an absolute corker. The two title favorites and the most highly-tipped outsider are on the front row of the grid, two fast Ducatis and the best satellite rider at the moment are behind them on the second row, and one of the most exciting young talents in MotoGP will start from seventh, and is clearly competitive. Battle tomorrow is not just for victory, but for the momentum in the championship. And if the racing needed spicing up any more than it has been already, it might just rain.
The big surprise on the front row is Valentino Rossi. The Italian has been mediocre at best during qualifying, ending up all too often on the third row of the grid, and having to pull off miracles to fight his way to the front. It was clear that something was afoot this morning, when Rossi posted an exceptional time in FP3 to take him into second spot, and very safely into Q2. Clearly, he and his team had been working on something to find some speed on a single fast lap, in a bid to boost his qualifying position. It made qualifying an even more intriguing spectacle than usual, with the question at hand not just who would grab pole, but whether Rossi would be able to raise his game and put himself in a position to be competitive from the very first laps.
The answer to the first question was easy: Jorge Lorenzo had already broken the lap record for Brno in FP3, despite track conditions being worse than in 2013, when Cal Crutchlow set it on the way to pole. During qualifying, Lorenzo upped his pace again, shattering the pole record by half a second, and becoming the first rider ever to lap the circuit in the 1'54s. It was an astonishing lap, made all the more remarkable because Lorenzo said he felt he had made a mistake in the final corner, sliding a little too much there, and that he could have gone faster. Lorenzo was quick out the gate at Brno, and has only gotten faster since then. A Lorenzo pole seemed inevitable, but the way he took it was deeply impressive.
Marc Márquez starts from beside the Movistar Yamaha rider, the Honda RC213V clearly vastly improved over the start of the year. At Mugello, a track with very similar characteristics to Brno, Márquez suffered badly, capable of being fast for a single lap, but only at the cost of huge risks. Friday morning started out that way, but Márquez' team found a solution yesterday afternoon, and on Saturday, Márquez has been just plain impressive. There is still a question mark over how the bike will react once the tire starts to drop and the sliding under braking at the rear, the problem which has dogged him all year, but right now, Márquez is just plain fast, and consistent t o boot.
Could Valentino Rossi raise his game in qualifying. Absolutely he could. How? "We have a change in strategy so we avoid the traffic and I can concentrate better," Rossi said. He went out early with a used rear tire and a new front tire for a lap, to scrub in the front and get it to work better. He then pitted immediately, and then went out to do his two qualifying runs. The new strategy meant he shook off most of the traffic, had an out lap to get himself up to speed, and so could push for two fast laps. The first was good enough to get him onto the second row, the minimum requirement to be in with a chance of following Lorenzo should he break away at the front. The second moved him on to the front row, exactly where he needs to be. That paves the way for a real race on Sunday.
It may have been a great lap from Rossi, but he paid the price for it. On his flying lap, Rossi passed Márquez as the Spaniard was slowing after his, and Márquez immediately latched onto the back of Rossi to follow him round. It was a cunning move by the Repsol Honda rider, giving him a chance to assess Rossi's strengths and weaknesses by following him around. "In free practice it's impossible to follow [the top riders]," Márquez told the press conference. "But in qualifying I'd already done my fastest lap, then he overtook me and I tried to follow him to see which points he and Yamaha are faster. I already saw, but also I understand we are not far because behind him I felt comfortable. So we will see tomorrow in the race if I can keep this way." Rossi had to admire the ingenuity of his rival. "I think that it was something quite clever because I cannot stop, because I am in my lap," Rossi said. If it had been free practice, he would have backed off to force Márquez to either pass or go in the pits, but Rossi was committed, and needed to set the time. He had no choice but to show Márquez where he was strong, and where he is struggling.
Why did Rossi use this new strategy, of pitting immediately after putting a lap on a new front tire? What we know for certain is that the front tire takes longer go come good than the rear, so a new front tire works better on the second or third lap than it does on the first. A new rear, by contrast, has maximum grip from its very first flying lap, and starts to drop off after that. Using a new rear and a new front, the risk is that the rear pushes the front too much, and you either lose time or crash. Using a new rear with a front that has one or two fast laps on it is the ideal balance, allowing a faster time.
But perhaps Rossi's strategy of scrubbing in a new front gives him a chance to get up to speed mentally. One of the aspects he has struggled with in qualifying is getting up to speed immediately, and pushing from the very outset. By sacrificing a lap to a new front tire, Rossi can take an intermediate step to bring his mind up to speed. When he next goes out, he is prepared both mentally and physically to push to the maximum, and get himself closer to the front of the grid. Whether the reason is practical or psychological is frankly irrelevant. All that matters is that it works, and Rossi is in the best shape for the race since Assen. And we all know what happened there.
Who will prevail on Sunday? That is hard to say. If it stays dry – that is far from certain, it has already rained heavily on Saturday evening, and more rain is forecast for Sunday at some point – then it should be a close battle. Lorenzo has the best pace of the front runners, but Rossi is not so far behind, and neither is Márquez. Even Andrea Iannone, starting from fourth, showed excellent pace during FP4, and is a threat to the battle for the podium. If it's dry, the race could be wide open, and down to who wants it more. That would be Marc Márquez, as he has the least to lose, But if there is one track where taking risks in pursuit of victory could end badly, then Brno is definitely it.
The second and third rows on the grid make for fascinating viewing. Two Ducatis in fourth and sixth, Andrea Iannone at the head of the row, Andrea Dovizioso at the other end, with Bradley Smith sandwiched in between. Smith was a little unlucky not to get onto the front row, just over a tenth of the pace of Rossi, and looking set to put in yet another strong top six result, consolidating his position in the championship.
The Ducatis seem to have made a step at Brno, though where that is open to the new engine and new fairing parts which Ducati have brought is very much open to question. Iannone used them on the first day, then put them aside to concentrate on setting up his old bike and making it competitive. He already has a new engine, brought by Ducati to Indianapolis, but is using the old chassis package. Not because the new chassis and fairing is no good, but because he had other priorities.
Andrea Dovizioso did switch to the new set up, despite saying that the difference was only small. "It's not a big step, but it's positive," Dovizioso said, describing the changes. The engine had more power, but the point where the Ducati is weakest had still not been addressed. That was the middle of the corner, Dovizioso said, and the ability to carry corner speed. "The key point is the middle of the corner, if you don't have the front to push to make the speed, it's difficult to be fast."
Of the two, it appears that Iannone is the fastest. The newcomer to the factory team has matured a lot this season, perhaps reined in by his shoulder injury, but calmer and more focused and therefore faster than he was last year. Iannone's talent has never been in doubt, the question was whether he would find the calm necessary for it to come out. That's the way it looks this year, the Italian fourth in the championship with a very solid lead over Bradley Smith in fifth spot. Iannone is the only other rider who looks to have the pace at Brno to run with the front row trio, and could give Ducati a surprise podium.
On the third row sits the deeply impressive rookie Maverick Viñales. Putting a Suzuki GSX-RR with perhaps thirty horsepower less than the Ducatis and Hondas into seventh on the grid is quite an achievement, and a testament to how quickly Viñales has developed. Suzuki started the Spanish youngster off slowly, but have given him more and more responsibility as he has shown he has mastered MotoGP racecraft. "In the first races, I don't try more engine brake, less engine brake, more traction control," Viñales told us. "Now I'm all the time trying maps during the lap to make the job more easy." Brno's long, round corners play to the strengths of the GSX-RR, Viñales said. "Really, I feel good on the front, so I can keep the corner speed really good, and there is where I win. I was behind Iannone, and in the change of direction and going into the corner I am much more fast, but anyway we know where we lose." That would be the steep uphill sector, where the Suzukis lose out on sheer horsepower.
Viñales sits in seventh on the grid, where teammate Aleix Espargaro sits in fifteenth after a horrible qualifying session. Slowly but surely, Viñales is starting to match his teammate; the day he surpasses him is surely not too far away. Suzuki have another season to provide him with a bike which is truly competitive. If not, he will be poached, just about every factory on the grid is interested in having Viñales on their bike.
Qualifying in Moto2 and Moto3 threw up far fewer surprises than in MotoGP. Johann Zarco rules the roost in Moto2, and that domination looks set to continue. Tito Rabat is on a strong weekend, as is Alex Rins, but Sam Lowes had a shocking qualifying session, ending up down in 13th on the grid. Zarco looks set to extend his championship lead even further this weekend, though he will have to fight tooth and nail. Zarco's Moto2 campaign is starting to exude an air of invincibility. That is a very dangerous attitude indeed.
In Moto3 it is Niccolo Antonelli who took pole, but only just. The Italian edged Danny Kent by just two thousandths of a second, the championship leader bumped to second on the grid. He was unconcerned about this position, however, knowing that his pace was strong and that he starts on the front row of the grid. Kent also knows that his rivals are a long way down the order: Enea Bastianini qualified in fifteenth, and Romano Fenati qualified in nineteenth, but Fenati was punished even further after spending his time hanging around for a tow. He didn't get one; instead he got a penalty, bumped three places on the grid to 22nd, and he will miss the first ten minutes of Warm Up. Fenati continues to be his own worst enemy in the Moto3 championship.
With Bastianini and Fenati down the order, Kent should have the field to himself. He believed he could be faster than the rest, and is banking on the chasing riders to start working together. If they do, there is a chance they will catch him. If they don't, then Kent will escape and extend his lead. While Kent is riding like a Moto2 or even MotoGP rider, his rivals are all acting like the Italian schoolboys they are all young enough to be. Kent has completely deserved his position in the championship this year, but he has not done it alone. His rapport with his crew chief Peter Bom, and his welcome into the Kiefer Racing family has given him what he needs to rise above himself. It's almost as if he were made of luck.
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