The last of the 990cc pole records finally went at Valencia, along with the last record held by Valentino Rossi at any of the tracks currently on the calendar. Dani Pedrosa’s astonishing last lap was inch perfect, and put him 0.158 seconds faster than Rossi’s time, set in 2006 at the infamous season finale in which Rossi got a dismal start, then fell off trying to catch Nicky Hayden, handing the American the world championship in the process.
Pedrosa’s lap really was something special, though the Spaniard was not as impressed as the onlookers. He had had a few good laps in his career, he told the press conference, and this was definitely one of them. Pedrosa has looked ominous all weekend – actually, since Indianapolis – and if it were going to stay dry, then you would be hard put to think of anyone who could beat the Repsol Honda man.
Jorge Lorenzo is keen to try, and is fast all the way round the circuit to the final sector, but is losing a couple of tenths just in the acceleration out of the final corner and towards the line. The Hondas dominate there, good round the long left before the final corner – both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were hanging the rear out all round that turn, showing a hint of the old tire-smokin’ 990 days – but absolute missiles on acceleration.
That has been Lorenzo’s complaint all year, not sufficient acceleration and not the wheelie control which the Hondas appear to have. If Lorenzo arrives at the final corner with a Honda behind him, he will fear for his position.
This year’s Malaysian round of the MotoGP series has offered a glimpse of the future, for those with an interest in seeing it. While the series is locked in a series of arguments over the future of the technical regulations, the massive economic problems in its key television markets, and the Spanish domination of the sport in all classes, Sepang pointed the way forward, and that way is definitely east.
It starts with the crowds. Where crowd numbers have been falling almost everywhere at the European rounds, Sepang is seeing record attendances this weekend. Grandstand tickets are selling out fast, and despite the rain, fans are turning up in large numbers.
How much those numbers are being inflated by Australians flocking to the circuits they can fly to affordably to see Casey Stoner ride the last few races of his career is uncertain, but that they should be packing the grandstands in Malaysia seems unlikely. There are also plenty of local fans, coming to see riders from the region threaten the top of the time sheets for the first time in history, and not just make up the numbers at the rear.
They have had a treat this weekend. On Friday, local wildcard Hafizh Syahrin topped an admittedly wet session of Moto2 free practice by getting out early when it was relatively dry, but he had sufficient competition for his result to have been noteworthy.
On Saturday morning, Japanese rider Takaaki Nakagami topped Moto2 FP3, once again by judging the conditions correctly. And on Saturday afternoon, the fans were in for a massive treat, when Zulfahmi Khairuddin bagged his first ever pole position in front of his home crowd, becoming the first ever Malaysian to start from pole in a Grand Prix. And on his 21st birthday too.
Another Brno, that is the hope of every MotoGP fan around the world after qualifying sessions like the one at Motegi on Saturday. The breathtaking battle in the Czech Republic, which saw Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo on each others’ tails all race long and the result settled in almost the final corner, was the natural outcome of two equally-matched men on very different, but equally-matched machines. There was nothing to choose between the two during qualifying at Brno, and there was nothing to choose between them during the race.
Motegi is shaping up to be similar. Both Lorenzo and Pedrosa have very similar pace, and both have the consistency, the talent, and the desire to push to the end. Jorge Lorenzo may have taken pole – the 50th of his career and one of his finest, with a blistering lap in near-perfect condition to destroy the existing pole record – but Pedrosa’s race pace is fractionally faster than that of the polesitter. Where Lorenzo’s near-robotic consistency has him lapping in the low 1’46.1s, Pedrosa is posting high 1’46.0s. The two men are separated by hundredths of a second only, and appear to have the measure of each other.
The wildcard in all of this is chatter. The problem, which has plagued the Honda all year, reappeared with a vengeance in the middle of qualifying for Pedrosa, leaving him struggling to get up to speed and to mount a serious challenge for pole. “Suddenly I had some big chatter,” Pedrosa said at the press conference, “I was in and out of the box trying to change things.”
The problem was all the more unsettling for being so unexpected. “It’s a bit strange,” Pedrosa said. “We didn’t have chattering in the morning or yesterday, just today in the qualifying. Not even in the first part of the qualifying.” Whether the issue is being caused by the setup Pedrosa uses when chasing a qualifying time remains to be seen, but if Pedrosa’s crew cannot eliminate it in tomorrow’s warm up, the Repsol Honda man’s title chances could be over.
Finally it stopped raining. The light drizzle that has plagued the Misano circuit since Friday morning petered out around lunchtime, making way for the sun to dry the track out. Though the riders were glad to see the back of the rain, it left them with an awful lot of work to do. The set up work from the three lost sessions all had to be squeezed into the single hour of qualifying, leaving space for the mad fifteen minute scramble for grid positions. “It was a pretty tight session,” Dani Pedrosa said after qualifying. “We had to test tires, set up, and get a feeling for the bike in just 60 minutes.”
Up until the start of MotoGP qualifying, it looked like Dani Pedrosa had the race at Brno just about wrapped up. The media center joke was that they might as well start writing his name on the trophy, so much faster was the Repsol Honda man. And then he crashed in qualifying, and started going an awful lot slower, in a tale that has echoes of Casey Stoner’s time at Ducati.
The crash was relatively simple – “maybe I was on the limit too much,” Pedrosa said, and Brno with its long corners, some flat and some downhill, means the riders are pushing the front for a lot of the time at the circuit – but the consequences were serious. Pedrosa returned to the pits, got on his second bike, and immediately had much worse chatter than before. Despite the setup being identical on both bikes. This is the kind of thing that Casey Stoner used to suffer at Ducati, two identical bikes that felt different, an issue that he never suffered at Honda. But the problem with hand-built prototypes is that apparently, even tiny deviations can cause a difference in feel, especially when pushed to their very limits by riders as sensitive as Pedrosa.
The issue highlights just how close Honda are to a solution. One apparently tiny difference between machines, and the difference is massive, from a bike that is almost impossible to go fast on to a bike that has some chatter, but is still rideable. Casey Stoner told reporters at the test at Catalunya that progress had been made by switching out a “two-dollar part”. There aren’t that many two-dollar parts on the bike, which means that somewhere a bushing or a spacer or an insert could be part of the solution. It also means that small variations in two-dollar parts – not known for requiring massive precision in manufacturing – could also be part of the problem.