After free practice at Laguna Seca, things looked pretty well sewn up. Marc Marquez was on another planet, with his fourth pole position a mere formality. Alongside him on the front row would be Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi, with Crutchlow looking like having the stronger pace after free practice, while Rossi possessing more sheer outright speed. The rest? Well, they were irrelevant, and would be even more so once qualifying had proved the pundits right.
Only it didn’t quite work out that way. A hectic and eventful qualifying saw Stefan Bradl take his first ever pole position, ahead of Marc Marquez and another surprise package in Alvaro Bautista. Rossi and Crutchlow were left on the second row, just ahead of the walking wounded pair of Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda rider heading up the third row.
How quickly things change. Yesterday, it looked like Jorge Lorenzo had handed the 2013 MotoGP championship to Dani Pedrosa on a plate, by crashing unnecessarily at Turn 10, and bending the titanium plate he had fitted to his collarbone after breaking it at Assen.
Today, Pedrosa did his best to level the playing field again, by pushing a little too hard on a cold tire at Turn 1, and being catapulted out of the saddle in a cold tire, closed throttle highside. He flew a long way, and hit the ground hard, coming up rubbing his collarbone much as Jorge Lorenzo had done.
He was forced to miss qualifying, and for most of the afternoon, it looked like he too could be forced to miss the Sachsenring race, and possibly also Laguna Seca.
At the end of the afternoon, the medical intervention team – a group of experienced Spanish emergency doctors who spend their free weekends hooning around race tracks in hot-rodded BMW M550d medical cars – gave a press conference to explain Pedrosa’s medical situation, and what had happened that afternoon.
Dr. Charte and Dr. Caceres told the media that Pedrosa had a huge crash, had walked away feeling dizzy, and had been rushed to the medical center. There, he had one X-ray on his collarbone, but just as he was about to have a second X-ray, his blood pressure dropped dramatically. The second X-ray was immediately aborted as the medical staff intervened to stabilize Pedrosa.
He was then flown to a local hospital, where he had a cranial MRI scan and a CT scan of his upper body, which showed that he had sustained no major injuries, apart from a partially fractured collarbone.
A neurological test turned up no signs of concussion, and the drop in blood pressure was probably just due to the force of the impact, a typical symptom of shock. He returned to the track, where he was examined again, and nothing abnormal showed up in that exam.
Will Pedrosa race tomorrow? That will be decided in the morning, firstly by Pedrosa himself, who must decide whether he wants to undergo a medical test, and then by the doctors performing the fairly full medical test, including an extensive neurological exam, aimed at ruling out any signs of concussion or nerve problems.
What an intriguing weekend the 83rd running of the Dutch TT at Assen has turned out to be. (Well, I say weekend, it’s still Friday, but in any racing paddock, the weekend starts once bikes roll out for the first practice, and ends when the final press conference of the day is completed.) The story lines are plentiful, made possible by mixed conditions, low grip and a barrel load of ambition.
First, there’s the MotoGP polesitter. Cal Crutchlow took his first ever pole in the class on Friday, with a perfectly-timed lap to blast ahead of Marc Marquez and earn himself a Tissot watch. He left it to the very last lap, but cut it very fine indeed.
He crossed the finish line with just three seconds left on the session clock, giving him a final attempt at pole. He had worked out he would make it across the line for one last shot by looking at the sector times displayed on the digital dashboard, but when he exited the GT chicane, and saw the starter already out with the checkered flag, he had gotten a little nervous.
Marc Marquez is just starting to let the mask slip. Asked in the press conference about the fact that he will start from pole at Le Mans, despite this weekend being the first time he has ridden a MotoGP bike at the French track, Marquez admitted he always has to play down his chances ahead of each weekend. “On Thursday, I always need to say something similar,” he said.
His modesty is very becoming, and throughout the pre-season and the early races, he has continued to dampen down overly-inflated expectations. Yes, pole is nice. Yes, winning is fantastic. No, he is not even thinking of the title yet.
But everything about Marc Marquez screams ambition, the desire to win, to do what it takes to beat his rivals and prove to everyone what he believes, that he is the best rider in the world, a (self-)belief that motivates every top level athlete.
The last-corner lunge inside Jorge Lorenzo at Jerez will be cited as evidence, but more than that, the desperate attempts in the preceding laps were proof enough, if proof were needed. Is Marc Marquez thinking of winning the MotoGP championship in his first year, a feat previously only achieved by Kenny Roberts?
No, it is not chief among his concerns. Is he trying to win as many races as possible, an objective that will bring him the 2013 title if he succeeds? Of course he is. He may not be thinking about the championship, but he is definitely trying to win it.
One record down, one to go. By qualifying on pole in just his second MotoGP race, at the age of 20 years and 61 days, Marc Marquez becomes the youngest premier-class pole-sitter in history, deposing the legendary Freddie Spencer of the crown he has held for 31 years.
On Sunday, Marc Marquez will go after the next target: the record as the youngest winner of a premier class Grand Prix, also held by Spencer. If he fails to win on Sunday – a very distinct possibility – he still has until Indianapolis to take Spencer’s record, making it very far from safe.
Marquez’s pole was the crowning glory of an utterly impressive weekend so far. The Repsol Honda youngster has dominated most of practice, leading his teammate by a quarter of a second or more in every session but one. He was immediately fast, but his race rhythm is just as impressive.
In FP3, as grip on the track improved, Marquez cranked out 2’04s and 2’05s like they were going out of style. He was consistent, too. Not quite Jorge Lorenzo consistent, but he was running a pace that would have let him build up a lead, with only Dani Pedrosa able to stay close.
Marquez continues on the meteoric path blazed by the fastest riders in the world who went before. Casey Stoner always said about that truly exceptional riders are up to speed almost immediately, and this is exactly what Marquez has done. On the podium in his first race, on pole for his second, and a strong favorite for the win, this is the mark of a true “Alien”, to use a much-denigrated, but still useful phrase. His first MotoGP victory can’t be far away.