After he and his teammate Jorge Lorenzo had looked well in control of proceedings after the first day of practice at Brno, Valentino Rossi warned the media against drawing premature conclusions. "I think it's just Friday, it's a long way to Sunday," he said. We in the media ignored his warnings, of course, and painted a technicolor picture of a race where the Movistar Yamaha riders took back a hefty bunch of points from Marc Márquez, reigniting the championship.
Then Saturday happened, and Valentino Rossi turned out to be right again (and not for the first time, I might add). Friday had been just Friday. It was indeed still a long way to Sunday. Saturday, a stepping stone on the way to Sunday, helped turn a lot of things around. Jorge Lorenzo is still fast. So is Valentino Rossi, though not quite as fast as he had hoped. Andrea Iannone is a genuine threat for the podium, or even his second win in a row. Maverick Viñales could still get up front and complicate things, though he has a hill to climb after a problem with the brakes saw him qualify on the third row of the grid.
But any illusions the Movistar Yamaha men had of clawing back points from Marc Márquez will have to be shelved. Not only will the Repsol Honda rider start from pole on Sunday, but he also has the race pace which was missing on Friday. All thanks to a breathtaking lap of Brno, and a large set of wings which helped cure some of the worst problems with the Honda RC213V.
First, to Márquez' pole. It truly was one of the most remarkable laps of the Brno circuit ever seen, taking two tenths of a second off the already blistering lap set by Jorge Lorenzo earlier on Saturday. Márquez has been fast in the second sector all weekend – by roughly two tenths of a second every lap – but now he managed to be quick in every single section of the track. Márquez took pole despite (or even because of, perhaps) running into Valentino Rossi and Pol Espargaro in the final part of the track. The surgical precision with which he sliced past Rossi and Espargaro in the final chicane was a marvel to behold. He probably still lost time, but it was hundredths of a second, rather than tenths.
Márquez was honest about how his encounter with Pol Espargaro and Valentino Rossi had actually helped him grab pole position. "Maybe with Pol I lose some time in the last corner," Márquez told the press conference, "But the time what I gain in all the lap with the small slipstream was much better. Normally I’m a rider that I go alone, but this time I found a good slipstream and maybe this slipstream give me the pole."
Márquez' pole position was remarkable in more than one way. It was the 63rd pole of the Spaniard's career, tying the record for the most poles in Grand Prix racing since statistics on pole positions started being recorded in the mid-1970s. The two riders he shares the record with? Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. Márquez is 23 years old, has made 142 Grand Prix starts, and has started from pole in 44% of them. Jorge Lorenzo is 29 years old, has started 242 Grand Prix, 26% of which were from pole. While Valentino Rossi is 37 years old, has made 340 Grand Prix starts, 18.5% of which were from pole. For Márquez to start from pole in more than two of every five races is simply astounding, whichever way you look at it.
(And to preempt arguments over the relative merits of poles versus podiums, the statistics for Márquez, Lorenzo, and Rossi in full. Márquez has 142 starts, 53 wins (37.3%) and 86 podiums (60.6%). Lorenzo has 242 starts, 64 wins (26.4%) and 141 podiums (58.3%). Rossi has 340 starts, 114 wins (33.5%), and 215 podiums (63.2%). All of those numbers boggle the mind, for all three men. All of them have finished on the podium in around 60% of the races they have competed in. And between them they have won 87.5% of the 64 races they have started in together. This is an incredibly talented trio of riders.)
An orange surprise
Very few had expected Márquez to take the pole after Jorge Lorenzo's astonishing performance in FP3. The Movistar Yamaha rider took two tenths off the existing pole record in the morning session, and looked set to hit a low 1'54 in the afternoon. That didn't happen, however. Higher temperatures and a little too much aggression meant that he could barely match his lap time from the morning. Even then, it looked good enough for pole until Márquez pulled the pin.
It will not be Márquez' pole position which is worrying Jorge Lorenzo, however. Instead, the Movistar Yamaha rider will have cast a worried eye over the Repsol Honda rider's pace in FP4. After being half a second or so off during FP3, Márquez realized that the larger winglets which Honda had brought to Brno could help make the difference. That brought gains in acceleration, where the Honda has been suffering most. It also allowed Márquez' crew to modify the set up and chase more grip on used tires. With the tires sliding less, Márquez could then slot the final piece of the puzzle into place, trying to change his riding style slightly to be a little bit more like Jorge Lorenzo, and carry more speed mid corner.
While Márquez made giant strides forward, Valentino Rossi made a small step backward. The front tire he had been working with on Friday started to suffer as the track changed overnight. "That tire is the good one, but unfortunately yesterday, it looked good also after a lot of laps," Rossi said. "This morning I tried to push, but after seven laps on the right, it was already destroyed. It means that we cannot race with that tire." Conditions will need to change for Rossi to be able to use that tire, while the other two tires are not an option for the Movistar Yamaha rider.
Progress, but not forward
Rossi really needs to finish ahead of Márquez to get back into the title race, but he must fear losing more points to both the Repsol Honda rider and his factory Yamaha teammate. Andrea Iannone has taken the new-found confidence after his win in Austria, and is setting a serious pace in Brno. The Ducati works well up Horsepower Hill, the last section of the track after Turn 10 through the double chicanes and across the line. But it also works well round the more flowing sections in the first couple of sectors which are all about carrying corner speed. Iannone's gap to Márquez and Lorenzo in qualifying is deceptive: in terms of race pace, there is nothing in it.
Maverick Viñales could also be a fly in the ointment for the championship. His pace is strong too, though he has an awful lot more work to do. An issue with his front brakes on his second run meant he could not improve his time. During his pit stop in qualifying, there was a problem with the brake lines, leaving Viñales without full braking power. "They had one problem when they put the tire in and then I didn’t have all the pressure on the brakes," the Suzuki rider told the media. "The bike was not braking at full power. It was impossible. When I exited from the box I already know that something was wrong. I tried on the first lap and I nearly went out at the first corner."
Qualifying is not easy
That problem leaves Viñales qualified down in eighth. Though he has the pace of the front runners, he first has to make his way forward. That is not as easy as he might hope. When I asked him how his starts were, he joked, "In practice they are incredible!" His race starts did not quite live up to his practice starts, however. "Tomorrow I’m going to try and do the same as in practice."
If he can get a good start, then the Suzuki rider has every hope of staying with Rossi, Iannone, Lorenzo and Márquez. "In FP4 we did a really good pace," he told us. "Really good. I was happy with how the bike was working. Behind Valentino I was quite comfortable. The only problem was we were losing a little bit in acceleration but we were really strong on the brakes so I’m quite happy. Also I know I can pass quite well in tomorrow’s race."
Viñales was not the only rider with a technical problem during qualifying. Andrea Dovizioso lost most of qualifying with an issue with his front tire. When he went out on it, he immediately felt a massive vibration. He blamed the problem on the tire, though it is not easy to pinpoint the exact cause. The tires are all balanced and inspected on a laser measuring rig before being handed to the teams. The problem is, of course, that inspection rigs and MotoGP bikes are two very different creatures.
Suzuki finds traction, Barbera finds a target
The second row of the grid for tomorrow's MotoGP race is very interesting indeed. While Rossi starts from sixth – remarkably, his second-worst qualifying performance of the season – he has Aleix Espargaro and Hector Barbera beside him. Espargaro had come away from Austria frustrated at being forced to pull out of the race with injury, and at not being able to be competitive. That had all been turned around in Brno, the Suzuki rider feeling competitive and with a bike that was much improved. Espargaro once again thanked his crew chief Tom O'Kane for helping to get the bike to where it was, with at lot more traction than he usually has in the rear.
The key for Espargaro would be tire conservation, something he and his Suzuki crew had been focusing on all weekend. "The rider who is going to be able to save more tire in the first twelve laps is going to have a big advantage in the second half of the race. Traction will be much better," he said.
Hector Barbera lines up between Espargaro and Valentino Rossi, having once again made the lap time more or less alone. The Avintia racing rider has a reputation for using other riders to get a tow, but he has mended – or perhaps, amended – his ways. He still follows other riders, but now he is using them as a target, rather than benefiting from their draft. The Ducati is fast enough as it is, so it is more about judging speed than trying to suck the final kilometer per hour out of another rider's draft.
Why is the Ducati Desmosedici GP14.2 so quick? The Michelins have helped to cure the bike's biggest deficit, at least with new tires. The added rear grip of the Michelins means that riders on a GP14.2 can use the rear to help the bike turn, and overcome the bike's natural understeer. The problem for GP14.2 riders is that the extra grip goes away after a number of laps. Barbera should once again be able to hang with the front runners for a few laps. But sooner or later, he will have to let them go.
Barbera also managed to make himself persona non grata, though not for the first time. A couple of thoughtless and dangerous moves saw him cut up Dani Pedrosa, nearly taking him out and ruining a fast lap. Ever the gentleman, Pedrosa refused to be drawn into calling Barbera an idiot, though we journalists set him up to say so. Was Barbera riding like an idiot? "I've nothing to add to what you said," Pedrosa said, archly. "He usually does."
Heavy lies the crown
If MotoGP looks like a battle between Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo, Moto2 has all the makings of a duel between Johann Zarco and Sam Lowes. Lowes has turned up after two DNFs determined to make amends. The Gresini rider has been quick throughout practice, and looked to have qualifying firmly in his grasp. But Zarco was following behind him, and using the Englishman as a target. That was good enough for Zarco to take his third pole of the season, and his second in a row after Austria.
Starting from pole makes Zarco look very dangerous. The Frenchman has found a real run of form, having won four of the last five races. What had changed after the early races, where he was off the podium for three of the five? It had taken him that long to get used to the idea of being a World Champion, and racing with that responsibility on his shoulders. "I was just getting experience with the title," Zarco said. "Maybe this give me more pressure. It was necessary to do a few races to understand this position as a champion when you come on the circuit."
The pressure on a champion is something which fans don't understand, though they may see it without realizing. A world champion has more media commitments than other riders, is always singled out for special attention at media events, and even by fans. More fans gather around the champion's garage, whether that be in MotoGP, Moto2 or Moto3, than around other riders' garages. Champions are stopped more often in the paddock, are asked to sign more photos, t-shirts, and on occasion, body parts. Fans may not notice it, but riders surely do.
That kind of quiet pressure takes some getting used to, as Zarco found out. "After a few races I was able to enjoy maybe more on the bike and don’t think about the title but just think about what I’m doing in the right moment," Zarco told the press conference. "It’s not coming so easy. I think these guys [Márquez and Lorenzo] that have been champion many times they can understand it. I’m pretty happy that I was running [as champion in Moto2] this year because it makes you grow up as a motorbike racer, but in life also. I think hou have to accept being champion, and then work again to do the best job. If you have a good team you are in the position I can be now."
Brad Binder still has that pressure to come. The Moto3 championship leader took his third pole of the season, and has looked impressive all weekend. Brno is not a track where you can get away easily, Binder told me, so it was a question of trying to thin out the leading group and then positioning himself carefully in the final laps. With the disappearance of Romano Fenati, sacked by his team, only Jorge Navarro remained as a rival. But Binder was not satisfied with merely wanting to finish ahead of Navarro. He still wants to win, and is using that desire as motivation to push. Focusing on winning races made it much easier to stay concentrated, and not get distracted. Binder inches closer to the title every weekend, but he is being careful to ensure he doesn't throw it all away.
Whatever the weather
In all three classes on Sunday, the weather could turn out to be a key player. The forecast is unsettled, with rain a certainty on Sunday. Yet the Brno circuit's geography and topography may play to its advantage. Rain is due to fall in the morning, tailing off some time after 11am, producing a dry track around 2pm, just in time for the MotoGP race.
It was ever thus. Almost unbelievably, there has never been a wet MotoGP race at the track since the new circuit was added to the calendar. At over 400 meters above sea level, and nestling in some woods stuck on a hillside, rain seems to always disappear in the afternoon. That means that the Moto3 class may still struggle, while Moto2 could have a few problems. But for MotoGP, the smart money is on a dry track, and a fierce battle.
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