2005. That is the last time Valentino Rossi was on pole at Jerez. Eleven years ago. If you wanted an illustration of just how remarkable Rossi’s career is, then the dramatic way he snatched pole position on Saturday afternoon is surely it.
At the age of 37, after the incredible emotional blow of 2015, Rossi reinvents himself for the umpteenth time, learns how to qualify better, makes it three front row starts in a row – for the first time since 2009 – and takes his fourth pole position since the start of the 2010 season. Motivation, thy name is Valentino Rossi.
We shall talk about how this happened later, but first, back to 2005. There are so many parallels with that weekend, it is impossible to resist the temptation to explore them.
In 2005, there was this fast Spanish rider who dominated almost every session. It was only during qualifying that Rossi seized the initiative, putting nearly half a second into Sete Gibernau.
Race day was even more dramatic. Rossi on the Yamaha, and Gibernau and Nicky Hayden, on two different factory Hondas, broke away from the pack. Hayden could not match the pace of the two others, and had to let them go.
A tense battle unfolded in the laps that followed, Rossi stalking Gibernau for most of the race, taking over the lead with a few laps to go, then handing it back after making a mistake into the Dry Sack hairpin on the last lap.
The pair swapped positions with audacious passes through the fast right handers leading on towards the final corner.
If the big question at the Circuit of the Americas was “Who can beat Marc Márquez?” then we found out the answer on Sunday: Nobody. There were only two brief moments during, where Márquez was not leading the MotoGP race.
Off the line, Jorge Lorenzo was a fraction quicker going into Turn 1, but Márquez turned earlier and already had the lead on the exit. Lorenzo tried once more into the hairpin of Turn 11, but overshot and ran wide, Márquez taking back the lead immediately.
After that, Márquez was gone. Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo kept Márquez honest for a couple of laps, but the Repsol Honda rider’s relentless pace forced them to concede.
Márquez went on to win his fourth straight Grand Prix of the Americas, and his tenth straight win in the United States of America. Since ascending to MotoGP, he has never been beaten on American soil.
There are plenty of adjectives you could throw at Márquez’ performance – imperious, dominant, superlative – but perhaps the best word to sum up Marc Márquez at the Circuit of the Americas is “Unbeatable.” His rivals will have to wait another year to try to find a way of stopping him.
Does Marc Márquez still own the Circuit of the Americas? So far, there has been just one session of practice which the Repsol Honda rider did not head. But as that was Q1, a session he had managed to bypass by heading up every other session of practice, it seems fair to say he does still own the place.
How does he do it? By the simple procedure of being faster than everyone else everywhere: braking later, carrying more speed, changing direction faster through the switchback section, losing out only slightly in acceleration and top speed.
Every rider you ask about him says the same: Márquez has some special magic around COTA, using lines that only he can manage. He is just about unstoppable here.
That doesn’t mean he can’t be beaten. “Nobody is unbeatable,” Jorge Lorenzo said in the press conference. “You have to make a race, and finish a race. Anything can happen with these new tires. You can have some engine failure, or crash, or make a mistake.” If there were a year where Márquez could be beaten, Lorenzo intimated, this is it.
Practice, like testing, doesn’t really count for much, riders will tell you. When you talk to the afterwards, they will tell you that they didn’t set a really fast lap because they were working on setup, trying to figure out which tire will be best in the race, or working on race pace rather than one lap pace.
Maybe they were saving tires, maybe they ran into traffic, or maybe there wasn’t enough time left in the session to go for a fast lap. Even the rider who is fastest will tell you they were surprised, they were not really pushing for a time, but it just came naturally.
All valid explanations, but not necessarily true, of course. After all, free practice is just free practice, and as long as you are inside the top ten, with a good chance of advancing straight to Q2, then there is no reason not to dip into your Bumper Book of Excuses to fob off journalists with.
They are unlikely to challenge you on such excuses, because as long as your explanations are plausible, they have no way of countering them. It is impossible to know the mind of Man.
Qualifying is different. Qualifying matters, because there is something at stake. Not as much as on Sunday, and the forty-five minutes for which motorcycle racers sacrifice everything, the only forty-five minutes during which they feel truly alive.
But still, riders know the excuses afterwards will sound a little hollow. Qualifying is not the time to be laying all of your cards on the table, but you do have to be able to ante up, and to maybe call for a card or two.
The World Superbike championship is to undergo a radical shake up. Today, the Superbike Commission, WSBK’s rule-making body, announced two major changes aimed at improving the health of the series.
The first change is the most noticeable. As predicted when the 2016 WSBK Calendar was published, World Superbike races are to be held on both Saturdays and Sundays, with Race 1 being held on Saturday, Race 2 on Sunday. This means that Superpole has now been moved to Saturday morning, rather than the afternoon.
The move, the Superbike Commission says, is to provide a fuller experience for fans at a WSBK weekend. The move has been made after consultation with the teams, TV broadcasters, and with circuit owners, which produced positive feedback.
There is nowhere left to hide. On Sunday, it is time for the men and women of Grand Prix racing to stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, and lend their eyes a terrible aspect.
Much is at stake: a Moto3 title that really should have been wrapped up by now; a MotoGP title rendered complicated by the impetuosity of youth and old age; and just sheer thirst for glory in Moto2.
Glory is what is at stake in all three classes, what young men and women dedicate their lives and sacrifice their bodies and their time to chasing. Sweet victory is there for the lucky few, the bitter draught of defeat for the rest.
It looked like the cards had already been dealt ahead of Sunday’s race when the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Valentino Rossi’s request to have his three penalty points suspended.
Then Rossi came out swinging on Friday and Saturday, not his usual eight or ninth times, and a struggle to make it through to Q2, but strong pace from the outset and competitive times.
“I’ve been impressed with how fast he’s going,” Nicky Hayden said of Rossi after qualifying today. “He’s looked very solid. We know he’s a nine-time champion because he’s fast on Sunday, but he’s come out of the gate, might not be breaking track records, but compared to a normal Friday, Saturday, he’s looking strong.”
Then came qualifying. Rossi had earned passage to Q2 by right, and had told us on Friday he would be treating qualifying the same as he had every weekend, pushing hard for a fast lap. Rossi seemed to have the upper hand going into Q2, especially as Jorge Lorenzo was clearly suffering with nerves.
He forgot to take off a tear off in the pits, then spent long seconds trying to sort it out with his assistant, before finally leaving the pits in a bit of a fluster. Not a good omen, we all thought.
Marc Marquez had to settle for 2nd on the grid for tomorrow’s race.
Jorge Lorenzo broke the pole record with a time of 1’30.011 to claim his first pole position at the Valencia Circuit.
Dani Pedrosa took the final place on the front row.