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.
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.
If you have aspirations of winning the championship, the first qualifying session of the year is your first chance to stake your claim. Qualifying is the moment you state your intentions, show everyone what you have, and what they are up against.
The rest of the year, pole position is nice, but the most important thing is to be on the front row, and get a good start. But at the first qualifying session of the year for the first race of the year, you need to send your opponents a message: This is what you are up against. This is what you face if you wish to beat me.
Champions know this. At Qatar, the champions made their presence felt, and announced their intent to the world. In MotoGP, the defending champion – and the man who starts the year as favorite – set a pace that none could follow, robbing upstart Cal Crutchlow of what would have been his first pole.
In Moto2, Pol Espargaro made a mistake, crashed, and corrected his error as soon as his bike was rebuilt, pushing hard to take pole in the dying seconds of the session. And In Moto3, Luis Salom took his first ever Grand Prix pole by putting it on the line when it mattered, seeing off all-comers in the final moments, while Maverick Viñales gritted his teeth to ride through the pain and grab 2nd on the grid.