Fancy a challenge? Try finding a MotoGP fan who is surprised that Marc Marquez claimed pole position at Sepang on Saturday. It was the Repsol Honda man's thirteenth pole of the season, setting a new record for the most poles in a season. It was a blistering lap, making him the first rider to set an officially timed lap under the two-minute mark, the clock finally stopping at 1'59.791. That time has been bettered only a couple of times during the winter tests at Sepang, when cooler temperatures make for a faster track. But to do it now, when ground temperatures got close to 60°C, making the already slippery surface of Sepang even more greasy, is astonishing. Those kinds of track temperatures are almost, but not quite, enough to cook an egg1.
Marquez' record thirteenth pole also offers an insight into exactly what the secret of his success is. He not only holds the record for the most poles in a season, he is also the current leader in pole position frequency. Marquez has secured 50 poles from 113 qualifying session, giving him a strike rate of just over 44%. The only rider to get near to his domination of qualifying was Mick Doohan, who started from pole from 42.3% of his Grand Prix races. The nearest of Marquez' current rivals is Jorge Lorenzo, who has been on pole for 26.4% of his career in Grand Prix.
Why the emphasis on pole position? This is what Marquez does best: find the absolute limit of the performance envelope of his Honda RC213V, and balance right on the edge of it. Because he can do that for one lap, he perhaps has a better understanding of just where the limit lies over the distance of a race, and how much he has to risk when making a pass. This, perhaps, holds the key to why he currently has the best win rate in all classes of all of the current riders in MotoGP, just edging out Valentino Rossi by 38.4% to 34.8%. Then again, Rossi was racing before Marquez even started riding a motorcycle, and so has had more time to strike a run of bad luck. And of course, there were those two seasons at Ducati as well...
Does Marquez' thirteenth pole mean he will finally equal Mick Doohan's record of twelve races in a single season? In the press conference, Marquez pointed out that qualifying is not the race. Yes, setting the record was nice, he admitted, because it meant you were the fastest rider over a single lap. "That doesn't mean you will be fastest in the race," he emphasized. What happens on Sunday is what counts.
The win certainly won't come as easily as pole position did. Dani Pedrosa has won at Sepang for the last two years, both wet and dry, and has been setting the fastest race rhythm all weekend. His name hasn't always been at the top of the timesheets, but outside of qualifying, and in the dry, he has never been more than a few hundredths behind his rivals. Pedrosa is clearly the man to beat at Sepang, as Marquez was keen to point out. Pedrosa would be the hardest nut to crack in the second half of the race, while Jorge Lorenzo would be strongest at the start.
Pedrosa's biggest challenge could be himself. The Spaniard has struggled all year at the start of the race, uncomfortable with the bike with a full tank of fuel. His pace has improved as the race goes on and his tires start to wear, but all too often this year, he had already lost the race by then. In FP4 – the real test of race pace, now that the new system of qualifying has been introduced – Pedrosa was immediately quick, setting the fastest time of the session on his second flying lap. Starting from the front row, Pedrosa could be a tough nut to crack.
Jorge Lorenzo will fight Pedrosa all the way, and is in an ideal position to try to make a break from the beginning, starting from the front row of the grid. Sepang was one of the worst tracks for Yamaha, Lorenzo insisted, despite the fact that Valentino Rossi has won here four times on the M1, and despite the fact that so far this weekend, Lorenzo has been able to match the pace of the Hondas with relative ease. His race pace is right there with both Marquez and Pedrosa, and in the end, it could come down to who wants it more. We could then see just how determined Marc Marquez is to take that other record from Mick Doohan, for the most race wins in a season. If Marquez is to beat Doohan, he has to win the last two races, starting tomorrow.
In Lorenzo's favor is the fact that for once, he seems to be happiest with the tires. The new hard front, modified by Bridgestone to provide extra edge grip, is working very well for Lorenzo, while others are less confident of its performance. Marc Marquez crashed on the tire in FP4, before switching back to the medium front. But while Lorenzo and the two Hondas can use the hard front, Lorenzo's teammate Valentino Rossi just can't get it to work. Rossi has struggled all weekend to find the right set up, saying he is not comfortable with the bike and can't ride it as he wants to. He would like to race the hard front, but he hasn't been able to get it to work. The medium works well, and provides better grip, Rossi said, but it would be pushing it to the limit to race it all the way to the end. Rossi did make an improvement during qualifying, but he needs another step during warm up to finally nail down a setting that will make him competitive.
If Rossi can't find an extra couple of tenths, he could find himself embroiled in a tough old battle for fourth. Stefan Bradl has found some real speed round Sepang, and heads up the second row of the grid. His race pace is on a par with Rossi's, and not far off the pace of the front runners, and Bradl will be looking to end the season on a high. Rossi and Bradl could also get company from Andrea Dovizioso, whose pace also looks good. But the Ducatis are struggling with rear grip after a few laps, and neither Dovizioso nor Cal Crutchlow can carry the lean angle they need to get a strong exit.
Dovizioso and Crutchlow will be the only factory Ducatis on the grid on Sunday. Andrea Iannone has been forced to withdraw, suffering badly with a suspected fractured elbow, the consequence of a collision yesterday with Marc Marquez. Iannone is on his way home to Italy, for treatment on the elbow. Pol Espargaro is also injured, but he hopes to ride on Sunday. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider fractured a metatarsal in his left foot after a massive highside during FP3. His radiator was punctured by a piece of glass, which left fluids pouring over his rear tire. Other riders tried to warn Espargaro, but when he slowed down to see if he could see a problem, the white smoke from his bike disappeared. He pushed on, and paid the price. Espargaro will try to race on Sunday, but changing gear will be very difficult indeed.
Though Marc Marquez' record-breaking lap of Sepang was astonishing to behold, it wasn't quite the highlight of qualifying. That came in the first session, Q1, where the riders who were outside of the top ten after the first three sessions of free practice all battled over the chance to go through to Q2, and make it onto the front of the grid. The disadvantage suffered by the Honda RCV1000R riders is very obvious, giving away 10 km/h or more to the RC213V machines. To minimize that disadvantage, the Open Honda riders were all looking for tows. Hiroshi Aoyama set a brilliant lap to get through to Q2 by following Scott Redding, and getting the most out of Redding's slipstream.
The sight which lingered after Q1 was not Aoyama's hot lap, but the antics of Aoyama, Scott Redding and Karel Abraham in the last few minutes of the session. With three minutes to go, Redding, Abraham, Aoyama, Alex De Angelis and Nicky Hayden all slowed almost to a stop on the pass down the back straight before the final corner, looking for a tow. With no one willing to lead, Hiroshi Aoyama dived into the pits, hoping to meet faster traffic after his slow pass through the speed-limited pit lane. Redding and Abraham followed, but to no avail. They all exited pit lane in time to make just a single attempt at a fast lap, and without a tow to give them some speed, they found no real benefit from their antics.
If the lingering for a tow was bad in MotoGP, in Moto3 it was absolutely egregious. At one point, a group of some ten or twelve riders pulled all the way over to the right wall on the back straight, none willing to lead, all hoping to get a tow off other riders. It was an incredibly dangerous thing to do, or at least it would have been, had there been anyone on the track actually riding at full speed. I was expecting Race Direction to be handing out penalty points like candy at a kids' party, yet none were forthcoming. The only explanation is that there were so many riders loitering on the line that there was nobody to actually cause a problem by riding at full speed on a race track – which, I vaguely recall, is more or less the main idea behind motorcycle racing – and thus no one to be hindered by the slow riders.
However, by not acting, Race Direction are making the situation worse. Clearly, a tow is vital at Sepang – Jack Miller, who snatched pole in Moto3, estimated it was worth 0.4 seconds at the track – but it has to be obtained safely, without putting other riders in danger. A handful of points may have helped, but perhaps the best remedy would be to punish the culprits with a drop of grid positions, as the rules allow under section 1.21.2. If riders loitering for a tow in the hope of improving their grid positions are forced to start from the back of the grid, the benefit of waiting for a tow disappears completely. It would be harsh, but it would be effective.
In the end, Miller secured pole almost without a tow. Launched at the start of his lap by Romano Fenati, Miller chased round the track on his own, catching Zulfahmi Khairuddin just as they entered the back straight and using the Malaysian as a slingshot to maintain his advantage. Miller deposed John McPhee from top spot, taking his eighth pole position of the season. That was tough on McPhee, who has been strong all weekend, building on a string of good results recently. If McPhee can get his tactics right, he should be in the running for a podium on Sunday, his first in Moto3.
With slipstreaming so important at Sepang, the race is likely to see a large group once again battling down to the last lap. All things being equal, Miller will be there, along with Efren Vazquez, Alex Marquez, Danny Kent, John McPhee, Romano Fenati, Jakub Kornfeil, and the Mahindras of Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira. Alex Rins only qualified down in seventeenth, and lost a lot of set up time after a crash in FP3, making him unlikely to join the melee. It will come down to who leads out of the final corner; unlike many other tracks, you can win it from the front at Sepang, Jack Miller told the press conference. He has spent his time studying the 125cc and Moto3 races held here in the past, so he should know.
While Miller took his eighth pole of the year, Tito Rabat secured his tenth pole of the season in Moto2. Between the three of them, Marc Marquez, Tito Rabat and Jack Miller have taken 31 of the total 51 pole positions contested in all three classes. That is a total of 60.8%, a deeply impressive statistic.
Of course, the main protagonist in MotoGP could still end up being the weather. At the moment, the forecast is for heavy rain around the start of MotoGP, and perhaps even affecting Moto2. In the wet, the race could be a completely different kettle of fish, with all the current bets off. Jorge Lorenzo was most impressive in the soaking conditions, but at the speed the track dries in Malaysia, even that could be rendered meaningless. We are in for an intriguing set of races on Sunday at Sepang, whatever the weather decides to do.
1According to the American Egg Board, eggs need to be heated to between 144°F and 158°F to be cooked, which is between 62°C and 70°C in the more sensible temperature units used by 95% of the global population.
Note: As Summer Time ends in Europe this weekend, the clocks will be put back an hour. To avoid confusion, you can check to see what time the MotoGP race starts at your local time on this page on the Time And Date website