"To get one tenth here is so difficult," Cal Crutchlow said after qualifying at Jerez. The timesheets bore witness in black and white to the wisdom of the LCR Honda rider's words. In FP3, there was less than four tenths between fourth place and thirteenth place. In FP4, there was less than half a second between second and ninth places. And in Q2, just 0.117 seconds separates second place from seventh place. The field is tight because the track is tight. And twisty.
Whether that makes for a close and exciting race is yet to be seen, however. There hasn't really been a close race for victory since 2010, when Jorge Lorenzo was so elated after beating Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi in a tight battle that he jumped into the artificial pond used to store water for firefighting, and nearly drowned when his leathers became waterlogged. Times are often very tight at Jerez, but if you lose a tenth to the rider in front of you, it becomes almost impossible to get it back.
So qualifying well is crucial. And qualifying well is a question of strategy. Choosing the right time to go out, choosing the right front tire to manage the stresses of a qualifying lap, choosing the right number of stops, getting a perfect lap in when the tire is at its best, all of this has to come together just right if you are to have any hope of a front row start.
That different riders were employing different strategies was evident from the start of Q2. Jorge Lorenzo headed to the exit first in the hope of getting a clear track to make a flying lap. Cal Crutchlow followed, though not to get a tow. Meanwhile, back in the Repsol Honda garage, both Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa waited for the rest of the Q2 field to disappear, to allow them to chase a lap with an empty track ahead of them.
Getting it right
In the end, the strategy of Crutchlow and Lorenzo proved to be the right one. By going out early, they managed to fit two stops in, and use three new tires. Lorenzo's best lap put him up into fourth, and the second row. But Cal Crutchlow timed his laps to perfection, exiting on one bike, then coming back in after one flying lap and jumping onto the second, before coming in to swap a rear tire for his final attempt. By then, he already had provisional pole, before breaking the pole record again on his final run, and sealing his spot in pole position.
It was an outstanding lap, and could even have been faster. "I got into Turn 5 and nearly aborted the lap because I thought I’d lost too much time," Crutchlow said. "Then I got down the back straight and there’s a sector timing loop there, and I saw I was still up on my own best time. So I thought, maybe it’s still possible to keep going, and I did. But if I had nailed that turn five, I would have had another two tenths sure. My run before was actually faster that sector. But hey, I made the mistake and that was it."
Mistake or not, Crutchlow was much quicker than the opposition. Second on the grid was Dani Pedrosa, but the Repsol Honda rider was a quarter of a second slower than Crutchlow. That is in itself impressive, riding as Pedrosa is with a right wrist still swollen from surgery after Argentina. "I wasn’t sure I can do so well because you have to be very explosive for this short run, and with the hand in this condition normally it takes me some laps to get going and get the good feeling," Pedrosa told the press conference. "I was surprised as well because the lap times were very, very tight in all sessions, but especially in qualifying. Everything was really, really pretty much the same lap time."
Johann Zarco made it two satellite riders on the front row, taking third on the Monster Tech3 Yamaha. That was a major step forward for the Frenchman, as he had struggled throughout FP4, ending the session in sixteenth spot. Zarco had struggled with the lack of grip as track temperatures rose, but a switch of tires had solved a large part of the problem. Instead of chasing grip with soft tires, he and his team went back to the medium rear, and he cut nearly three quarters of a second off his time. Without that improvement, he would have been starting from the fourth row, not the front row.
He had been quick when it was colder, Zarco explained. "Since Friday all is going well, I feel good on the bike and I can control well the practice to be at least in the top ten," he said. "But in FP4 when began to be wrong temperature - it was quite hot - we got problems. We did many laps and was not easy to ride the bike. In qualifying the lap time was not coming easy. So, I was wondering what I can do but I feel some good points on the bike and then some weak points. On the last two laps I really try with the medium tires that for me was working better to do even more. I’m happy because I found some new limit on the bike. Thanks to that, catch the third position. I think it’s pretty important for tomorrow."
Marc Márquez was left a little frustrated to be in fifth, but still confident for the race. "Of course I expect more because the target was try to fight for the pole position," he said. But he only had himself to blame for missing out on pole. "The real potential of the tire was on the first lap, and with both tires I did a big mistake in the first lap and I lose many tenths," The Repsol Honda rider lamented.
Qualifying is one thing, but the race is another, and Sunday's race will be all about maintaining consistency. The picture in terms of race pace looks a little different, though the three factory-spec Hondas are very much in the frame. Cal Crutchlow was a little wary of getting ahead of himself before Sunday's race, however. "I don’t know, honestly," he said. "I think we have a great pace. I think we can be competitive for the podium. But you know Dani around here is something really special, but Marc is a better racer than Dani."
The outcome of the race will be determined by where everyone towards the end of the race. There were a lot of riders who were competitive, and a lot of riders both eager and in the frame for victory.
"At the end of the day, I don’t think Marc will want to let a win go this weekend," Crutchlow speculated. "He definitely won’t want Dani to win, that's for sure. That’s the three Hondas. Then you have Iannone that’s got the pace, Zarco has got the pace, Dovi has got the pace. Lorenzo maybe has the pace, maybe not, but he will be there I think. I hope it’s a better race than last year. Actually I don’t - I hope that I’m in the same position as Dani and just can ride away. But at the end of the day it’s not that easy."
The other blues
The two surprises of the day were the Ecstar Suzukis. While Andrea Iannone had been fast all weekend, Alex Rins had been a little lost on Friday, only finding his feet again when his team fixed the front end of the bike. "We changed a little bit the adjustment on the front wheel. We adjusted, I don’t know if it’s the angle or something. I don’t remember. I’m feeling better on the slow corners, where yesterday we struggled a little bit."
It was all the more remarkable because this was the first time Rins has raced a MotoGP bike at Jerez, though he had tested here back in November of last year. "From now until Montmelo will be new tracks for me with the MotoGP," Rins pondered. "But I’m confident I have the best bike I can, and also the best team. They bring me the best. I will try to give my best."
Both Rins, who starts sixth, and teammate Andrea Iannone, who starts from seventh, remarked on how little separated them from a front row start. "For sure it was difficult because there are many riders on the same lap time," Rins said. "I am starting on the sixth position, but it was possible to start second. I did about the same lap time as Dani."
Iannone was happy because he felt he was getting close to full potential out of the Suzuki GSX-RR. "We tried the best in qualifying and I think more than this is, not impossible, but really difficult. I think we tried to use at the best all the potential of the bike. In any case, I'm really happy about this because throughout the weekend we are very close from the top. I think this is a really interesting situation at the moment for us. The most important is the pace for us is not bad."
The devil is in the details
The race will be won in the second half, Iannone said. "I think for all the race, 25 laps, I don’t know what happen to everybody. We have a drop, and I think from half race to the end, I think the electronics side is really important." For Crutchlow, the race could have been longer. "I wish it was 27 laps so people would crack at the end of it!" he joked. "I think tomorrow is a lot harder race. A lot harder race to manage the situation. You make a mistake here… Just say you run out in turn six, like run out and you come back on the track. To get one tenth here is so difficult. To get a tenth in Argentina is no problem. Here is a really, really tight circuit, and to pass here is really difficult."
If there are three Hondas are on the podium, where does that leave Andrea Dovizioso? The factory Ducati riders is not as far off as his eighth position would suggest. The Italian had made a strategic – and risky – decision to change his mind about using the aerodynamic fairing, an idea he had discounted ahead of the weekend.
"I’m happy how we have worked this weekend," Dovizioso commented. "We started with one idea but we understood, especially after this morning, it wasn’t right. We kept calm and took the right decision. If you start to go in the wrong direction, it’s difficult to change in the weekend and come back strong and make a good race. I think we’re in that situation."
Wings comeback tour
The decision to start without the fairing had turned out to be the wrong one, but instead of chasing their tails, the team had decided to change approach and switch to the aero fairing. That had been the right choice in Austin, and it looked like being the right choice in Jerez as well.
But the reason the aero fairing was better differed between Austin and Jerez, however. "There it was a different story," Dovizioso said. "The track was bumpy, windy, with no grip - there was a different reason. But here the effect was good. Before we came here you always speak about whether to put the fairing or not at the beginning of the weekend but we decided to not put the fairing after the test here in November. There I was really fast about the pace and the best lap."
That proved to be the wrong choice. "At the end, when we studied the data in the details, we saw a different condition than the test. The grip is a little bit less than the test. I couldn’t ride aggressively, like the test, today or yesterday. We studied all the data from the other Ducati riders and the other riders had the fairing. It was quite clear the way. But it’s always very difficult to make that decision after free practice three because you have one practice and you have to pass through Q1. But we did it the right way and I’m really happy about that."
The fairing helped in similar ways to Austin as well. "We improved the braking and the first part of the entry because here, in Jerez, there is a lot of fast corners where you have to enter without touching the front brake. The fairing helps in that point, always," Dovizioso asserted.
So who wins tomorrow? Even the riders don't know, in contrast to most other tracks. Sure, the Hondas look strongest, and in these conditions, you wouldn't be against Marc Márquez unless you were a glutton for punishment. But the pace of the Suzukis is strong. The pace of Dovizioso is strong. The pace of Johann Zarco is not that far off, though whether he can find the tenth or two needed to stay with the front runners is yet to be seen.
Even Jorge Lorenzo is confident of having a shot, if he can get everything right. "Anyway, the tires, the concentration, the motivation will be important tomorrow. It's not only about the bike tomorrow, so let's hope to make a good race and fight for the podium at least."
The only riders who most probably won't be up at the front are the two Movistar Yamahas. While the satellite Monster Tech3 bike of Johann Zarco starts on the front row, Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales could qualifying no higher than tenth and eleventh respectively.
Valentino Rossi spoke for both of them when he said that it had been a difficult day. "More or less the feeling is the same as yesterday," Rossi explained. "In the morning with less temperature, we are more strong with better pace, nothing fantastic but closer to the top guys. Unfortunately in the afternoon when the temperature goes up I suffer a lot and everything becomes more difficult and the gap becomes bigger."
"It’s true I am not that far from the guy in front but the race will be hard because I am not strong with race pace, especially in the hot. We need to work from today to tomorrow. We worked a lot and changed many things and tried a different balance. I also tried the hard tires but unfortunately nothing gave us the right speed to fight with the top guys. It will be a hard race but we have to try the maximum and make the best as possible."
What were Rossi's problems? "In the morning we lose in acceleration and we cannot exit the corner fast enough, the Italian said. "It can be mechanical a little bit. In the team we have different ideas but for me it is more from the electronics side. It looks like the other factories can make a bigger step. In the hot conditions, the tires – front and rear – are too soft. I have a lot of movement. We tried the hard but I lost too much grip. At the moment we don't have the answer."
He and his team have but a few short hours to look for it.
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