On Thursday night, it looked like a revolution had been unleashed in MotoGP. After qualifying on Saturday, that revolution has been postponed. Three Spaniards on pole, two Spaniards on the front row for both MotoGP and Moto3. No prizes for guessing the names of any of the polesitters, all three were hotly tipped favorites at the beginning of the year.
So what has changed to restore order to the proceedings? In a word, track time. When the riders took to the track on Thursday, the factory riders had a lot of catching up to do. They had been down at Phillip Island, a track which has lots of grip and puts plenty of load into the tires.
The heat resistant layer added to the 2013 tires really comes into its own, the track imbuing the riders with confidence. Qatar is a low grip track, thanks in part to the cooler temperatures at night, but the sand which continuously blows onto the track also makes it extremely abrasive, posing a double challenge to tire makers.
Use rubber which is too soft, and the tire is gone in a couple of laps. Make it hard enough to withstand the abrasion, and it’s hard to get the tire up to temperature.
Coming to Qatar is always tricky, riders needing time to build confidence and learn to trust the tires. Coming to Qatar from Phillip Island is a culture shock, and takes a while to get your head around. Riders need to throw away everything they have just learned, and start again.
After losing the first day of practice at Motegi to the weather, Race Direction has announced contingency plans for a schedule to allow practice, qualifying and the races to be run at the Japanese circuit however the weather turns out.
With rain set to continue on Saturday morning, but clear up on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, schedules have been drawn up to take account of all the possible combinations of weather.
The problem is not the rain, it is the fog and low-hanging clouds, Race Director Mike Webb explained in a press conference at Motegi. Because of the location of the Twin Ring circuit, set in a bowl up in the hills in the Tochigi district in Japan, the combination of heavy clould and relatively weak winds saw the surrounding hills cloaked in cloud.
That cloud, and the reduced visibility it caused, meant that the medical helicopter, which is required to transport injured riders to the nearest hospital, was not allowed to fly, Japanese aviation law preventing helicopters flying in such circumstances. The helicopter had not yet arrived at the circuit, being stationed a few minutes flight time away.
Without the medical helicopter, practice could not be run safely, as the hospital designated by the chief doctor at the circuit is an hour away by road. Should a rider sustain a severe or life-threatening injury, they could not be transported to the hospital quickly enough to ensure proper care, Webb explained.
The lack of visibility was why Friday practice had been postponed all day, rather than canceled right away. Practice could not go ahead without the helicopter on site, but it was waiting on standby for permission from the Japanese aviation authority, ready to fly to the circuit as soon as they were given clearance. The cloud never lifted enough for the helicopter to be allowed to fly, however, and in the end, practice had to be called off.
After the eventful Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island, the MotoGP paddock heads to Japan, hoping for a slightly quieter weekend. It looks like they may well get their wish, thanks to the weather predicted for the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi.
Typhoon Francisco, an intense tropical depression, is set to hit the Islands of Japan this weekend, blowing through on Friday night and departing by Saturday afternoon. With Francisco forecast to dump large quantities of rain in the region around Motegi, free practice could well be a washout, with the rain only letting up on Saturday afternoon.
If Saturday at Sepang taught us anything, it is that if the new qualifying system for MotoGP is exciting, the new qualifying system with a little rain mixed in is utterly breathtaking. A brief shower at the end of Q1 left the area through turns 6 and 7 very wet, while the rest of the track was still mostly dry.
Add in the searing tropical heat which dries the surface quickly, and the color of the Sepang tarmac which tends to disguise wet patches, and qualifying becomes even more tricky. And then there’s the fact that Sepang is a long track, the two-minute lap time leaving the riders precious little time to turn laps while waiting for the surface to dry out.
Strategies went out the window, and already stressed mechanics were forced to work themselves into even more of a sweat as they rushed to set up two bikes, one dry and one wet, just in case the rain returned. Some riders went out early and despite being warned, found themselves thrown out of their seats and given a proper scare.
With qualifying being just fifteen minutes, the most likely scenario was that the last rider to cross the line would be the fastest, unless it started raining again.
Qualifying at Aragon showed that the fourteenth round of the season could turn out to be a turning point in all three Grand Prix championships. Momentum shifts, sometimes suddenly, sometimes slowly, and before you know it, title races can open up again.
Foregone conclusions are shown up for the illusions they are, and the words of every championship leader – “I won’t start thinking about the title until Valencia” – are brought into keen focus.
Half a second at Misano is a very, very long time. At a short track like this, gaps are measured in tenths, not seconds. The gap from 5th to 12th, for example, is 0.505. Yet the gap from Marc Marquez on pole to Jorge Lorenzo, the rider with the second fastest time, was 0.513 seconds. A huge difference.
Despite another one of his fast crashes in free practice, from which he keeps walking away almost unhurt, Marquez stayed calm, posted an impressive fast lap in his first run of Q2, and then followed it up by obliterating Casey Stoner’s 2011 Misano pole lap record by over two tenths of a second.
The lap was stunning – another trademark of Marquez since his switch to MotoGP – and beyond the capability of anyone to follow. The Repsol Honda man looked unstoppable during qualifying.