His streak had to come to an end one day, and it turned out to be at Barcelona. Marc Marquez’s run of pole positions stopped at seven – Valencia last year, plus the first six races of this season – after he was forced to concede the place to his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa.
For a change, the front row press conference on Friday afternoon did not feature a jubilant Marquez (well, actually, it did, but more that later) and a couple of dejected rivals, wondering what they can do about the Repsol Honda man. Both pole sitter Pedrosa and runner up Jorge Lorenzo were, if not exactly buoyant, at least rather perky. Hope has returned.
If you thought that Barcelona could be a track to throw up a few surprises, the first day of practice proved you right. Not in Moto2, of course: Tito Rabat’s dominance was crushing, making Marc Marquez’s earlier reign of terror look like a close fought battle.
In Moto3, Finnish youngster Niklas Ajo topped the timesheets, putting the Husqvarna name at the forefront. That was unexpected, though given the fact that the nominally Swedish Husqvarna is nothing more than a rebadged KTM straight from the factory in Mattighofen, Austria, it should be less of a surprise.
The biggest surprises were perhaps in MotoGP. That Aleix Espargaro would be quickest in the morning is to be expected, especially as he put on the super soft tire available to the Open bikes to set his time. But for Bradley Smith to go fastest in the afternoon was a major change of fortunes, and just reward for the effort Smith and his crew have been putting in over the past few weeks.
His fast time was set with a fresh soft tire, but given that this compound – Bridgestone’s medium tire, the hard being the other option available to the Factory Option teams – has real potential to be the race tire, it is not quite as simple as Smith having pushed in qualifying trim.
Smith’s time, and the way he set it, was emblematic of the conditions at the track. It was warm in the morning, but in the afternoon, track temperatures rose to their highest of the year, reaching 55° C / 131° F. It made the track treacherous to ride, front and rear wheels sliding out everywhere.
The circuit was already in far from ideal state, with riders complaining about the bumps left by Formula 1, and the surface showing more signs of wear. Throw in extreme temperatures, and there is very little grip at all. All of the riders complained of the drop in tire performance after two to three laps.
It is becoming customary for any MotoGP preview worth its salt to begin with a single question: can anyone beat Marc Marquez this weekend? That same question was put to the riders during the pre-event press conference, to which Valentino Rossi gave the most obvious answer. Of course it was possible, he said.
“It is nothing special. What you have to do is do your maximum and improve your level.” The only trouble is, every time Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, or Dani Pedrosa improve their level, so does Marc Marquez. But it is still possible, Rossi believes. “We are not very far. It is not easy, but nothing special.”
Barcelona, like Mugello, is one of the tracks where Marquez is perhaps more vulnerable. It is a circuit where the reigning champion has always struggled – though for Marquez, “struggling” means only managing podiums rather than wins – and where the Yamahas, especially, have been strong.
Valentino Rossi has won here nine times, and Jorge Lorenzo has been either first or second at the track for the past five years. The track flows, and has a little bit of everything.
A long, fast front straight, some elevation change climbing up into the two stadium sections, the two “horns” of the Catalunya bull which the Montmelo circuit most resembles, a couple of esses, and long, flowing combinations of corners. Those corners more than compensate for the front straight.
Jorge Lorenzo reckoned that the Yamaha had a top speed deficit of perhaps 4 or 5 km/h on the Honda, but that at Barcelona, this was less of an issue than at other tracks. After all, he pointed out, there are some 3.7 kilometers of corners in which to catch a Honda ahead of you.
With his wrist continuing to give him trouble, Nicky Hayden ultimately had to miss the Italian GP at Mugello, much to the dismay of MotoGP fans around the world. Never fear though, after a successful surgery in Italy, Hayden hopes to return to action this weekend, as his hand is feeling greatly improved after the operation.
Hayden is cautious to call this race weekend a comeback though, and the Kentucky Kid might still sit out the Catalan GP if it appears the sessions will further aggravate his still healing wrist. Still, the news of Hayden getting back on the bike so quickly after an operation shows the determination of the American rider. We hope to see him on the starting line come Sunday.
Pity poor Jorge Lorenzo. Once again he comes to a test and tops the timesheets, and everyone is talking about someone else. This time, though, he will probably not mind, as he was not really out for glory at the test, just to work on settings before heading to the next test at Aragon on Wednesday. If it isn’t rained off that is.
Lorenzo chose to skip the morning session, preferring to rest after an impressive win on Sunday, but once underway he was quickly up to speed hitting the top three after just a couple of laps, and ending the day on top.
The Factory Yamaha man had been working on setup, but had also tested a new fuel tank. The new tank does not change the weight balance from the current version used by the factory riders, but it does have a slightly different shape to fit under the seat more comfortably and allow Lorenzo to position himself better on the bike.
On the other side of the garage, Valentino Rossi was once again pursuing weight distribution changes to improve his feel with the bike, especially to help him in braking. A more radical change was planned for the afternoon, but a fast crash at Turn 3 left the bike damaged, meaning that plan had to be abandoned.
Rossi returned to the track at the end of the day to test the new rear tire Bridgestone had brought, and was positive about the feel of the tire. The new construction hard rear tire was a clear improvement, Rossi said, and it was good for the hard rear to once again be an option.
So far this year, the only tire that has worked at most tracks has been the softer option, leaving the riders with a de facto rear allocation of just seven rears for a weekend.
Suzuki broke some hearts today by announcing that the company’s MotoGP team would not return to the premier class until 2015, instead of 2014 as was rumored.
Telling perspective riders last week about the decision (so they could make alternate plans for next season), Suzuki was still at the Circuit de Catalunya for MotoGP’s post-race test, joining Yamaha Racing (which elected not to go to the rain-sodden Motorland Aragon circuit), Ducati Corse, and a bevy of satellite and private teams.
Shaking down its inline-four GP race bike, codenamed the Suzuki XRH-1, Nobuatsu Aoki was first-up on the machine. But the day’s real work was done by Randy de Puniet, who put in an impressive 1’42.676 lap time near the end of the day — just over three quarters of a second off the top time set by Jorge Lorenzo.
However, despite the impressive debut for the XRH-1, Suzuki’s official reason for its delay back to GP racing is the pace of development on the project.
Part of that development process surely is for the electronics, as Suzuki is currently using an electronics package from Mitsubishi, though the company expects to switch over to the spec-ECU from Magneti Marelli later this year, in the autumn.
If that all whets your appetite, our favorite Hungarian Photographer/Journalist Niki Kovács (be sure to follow her on Facebook & Twitter) has sent us nine more photos of the Suzuki XRH-1, which are after the jump for your viewing pleasure.
Be sure to note the XRH-1’s staked gearbox (a very Yamaha design), which is mated to the “big bang” four-banger. The twin-spars of the aluminum chassis looks likes like an evolution of the GSX-R platform, which shouldn’t be too surprising — though when Satoru Terada talked to GPone, he said that Suzuki hasn’t begun work on a new WSBK machine.