The key to success in motorcycle racing is about controlling as many variables as you can. There are two variables which riders and teams cannot control, and which they fear for that very reason: the weather and crashes.
The weather spared both MotoGP and Moto2 at Brno on Saturday, but played havoc in Moto3. Crashes, too, made life difficult, both for MotoGP and in Moto3. It made for an intriguing day of practice.
The day started under leaden skies, with the threat of rain ever present throughout the morning. Dark clouds rolled in, then rolled right out again, chased deeper into Moravia and away from the track. They broke only briefly in the afternoon, the Moto3 qualifying session the main victim.
Standing at trackside, the rain came and went so quickly that by the time I posted an update on Twitter, the weather had changed, immediately contradicting me. In the end, a red flag saved my blushes, Phillip Oettl crashing and damaging the air fence, causing the session to be halted while the air fence was repaired.
Is Indianapolis really a Honda circuit? With four Yamahas on the two front rows of the grid, you would have to say it wasn’t any longer. There is a Honda on pole, but as that’s Marc Marquez, that doesn’t really count: alongside his perfect nine wins from nine races, he now also has eight poles from ten qualifying sessions.
Any discussion of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different manufacturers at a circuit really needs to disregard Marquez at the moment. In 2014, the Spaniard is just too much of an outlier, as his ability to put a couple of tenths or more on the opposition at will demonstrates.
After he missed out on pole at Barcelona, and then again at Assen, people were starting to wonder if cracks were starting to appear in Marc Marquez’s hegemony in MotoGP. His performance in qualifying may have faltered, but his reign remained intact when it counted, winning the first eight races in a row.
On Saturday, Marquez hammered home his supremacy once again, taking pole by three tenths of a second – an eternity at the short and tight German circuit – and breaking Casey Stoner’s pole record for the circuit from 2008, a record set on super-sticky qualifying rubber, tires which disappeared with the introduction of the spec tire a year later.
Once again, Marquez moved the bar, posting the first ever sub 1’21 lap of the Sachsenring.
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.
Those who fear a Marquez whitewash at the Circuit of the Americas could draw some comfort from the raw numbers on the timesheets as Saturday progressed.
Marquez’s gap from Friday was cut dramatically, first to under a second in FP3, then to a third of a second in FP4, before being slashed to less than three tenths in qualifying. Is the end of Marquez’s dominance at Austin in sight?
But raw numbers are deceptive. Sure, the gap in single lap times is small, but there is still no one who can get close to the reigning world champion. Marquez’s four flying laps were faster than the best laps by any other rider on the grid.
Second place man Dani Pedrosa’s fastest lap was still slower than Marquez’s slowest. In FP4, Marquez punched out four laps in the 2’03s, while the best anyone else could do is lap in the 2’04s.
During the morning FP3 session, Marquez racked up five 2’03s, while only Pedrosa could manage two 2’03s, Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Bradley Smith managing only a single solitary lap under 2’04.
Where the others took eight or nine tenths off their best time during qualifying, Marquez only improved on his previous best by a quarter of a second.
“It looks like Marc always rides at qualifying pace,” Jorge Lorenzo’s team manager Wilco Zeelenberg quipped. Given the string of 2’03s Marquez hammered out on hard tires in race trim during FP4, that bodes ill for the rest of the riders.
A measure of just how confident and comfortable Marquez is at Austin – a local journalist finally got the Spaniard to admit that the circuit favors the Honda, a small triumph in itself – came during FP4, and then again during qualifying.
In Q2, Marquez lost the front in the tight left-hander, saved it, nearly lost it again, then got on the gas again as if nothing had happened. In FP4, while testing a change to the weight distribution, Marquez found himself running straight on at the end of the back straight three laps in a row.
On one lap, the rear came up as he hit one of the few bumps on the circuit, and instead of struggling to regain control, Marquez tried to control it and carry it on as far as possible. He grinned as he recounted the experience to the press conference. This young man is in his element, which bodes ill for the competition.