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.
The World Superbike championship remains in a state of flux, despite the good news emerging today about the 2014 grid (Feelracing taking on the Ducati factory team, MV Agusta expanding into World Superbikes, and Michel Fabrizio joining Grillini).
The Superbike Commission met at Valencia to agree further rule changes to the series for 2014, as part of the push to revitalize the series. Some of the rules are cost-cutting measures, others are aimed at making the series a more attractive TV package, while some are aimed at providing a more homogenous set of basic rules between the World Superbike and MotoGP series.
The biggest change – and the change that will be mourned the most – is the loss of the current three-stage Superpole qualifying format. Instead of having three Superpole sessions, with the slowest riders being dropped after each session, World Superbikes is to adopt a system similar to MotoGP, where the fastest riders in free practice go straight through to the second and decisive qualifying session, the rest having a second chance in a first qualifying session.
The Macau GP is this weekend, and it is already shaping up to be a great event after today’s qualifying. Normally this is a race that Michael Rutter dominates (the Brit has eight Macau GP race wins to his name), but this year sees a new name on the leaderboard at the conclusion of the two qualifying sessions: Ian Hutchinson.
The only man to ever win all five solo races at the Isle of Man TT, Hutchinson was all the talk in 2010, but the Bingly man has seen his last two seasons hampered with tough recoveries from leg injuries.
Though finally healthy, many were beginning to wonder if Hutchy had lost his pace on a motorbike — his performance today on the Milwaukee Yamaha YZF-R1 has ended that talk though.
At the post-qualifying press conference at Motegi, Jorge Lorenzo reminded his audience of the last two times he had ridden in the wet. At Le Mans, he had had his worst race finish since his rookie season in 2008. Then at Assen, his growing confidence saw him get launched off the bike at over 250 km/h, and break a collarbone in his fall.
So when the MotoGP riders took to the track at a rain-soaked Motegi, Jorge Lorenzo had every reason to be cautious. He worked carefully building his rhythm for the first 20 minutes or so of the extended practice/qualifying session, before pushing on hard, eventually destroying the opposition with a lap just under 8 seconds off the dry race lap record. It was a testament to just how quickly Lorenzo can recover his confidence.
It was good just to have any action at the Japanese circuit. After fog had prevented the medical helicopter from arriving at the circuit on Friday, making practice impossible, teams and riders headed to the Motegi Twin Ring with hope in their hearts on Saturday morning. The fog was gone, and when the medical helicopter arrived at the track, a cheer went up in the media center. Practice was on.