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.
It rained today in Jerez. Boy did it rain. The heavens were open for much of the day, with the intensity of the rain varying between a light drizzle and an absolute deluge, sending people scurrying for cover when the skies darkened too much.
A few brave souls ventured out to put in laps, but they did not last very long in the conditions. Until around 3pm, that is, when the rain let up, at least for an hour or so, and everyone took to the track. For two hours, testing was at full tilt, before the rain returned to chase most of the MotoGP men back into the pits.
Though having that much rain is hardly what the riders ordered, it still has its advantages. “It’s good to be able to test on a fully wet track,” Wilco Zeelenberg said after testing. “Normally, it’s that half-wet, half-dry stuff, which is hopeless.” Real work could be done on a wet set up, and lessons learned for 2013.
The last of the 990cc pole records finally went at Valencia, along with the last record held by Valentino Rossi at any of the tracks currently on the calendar. Dani Pedrosa’s astonishing last lap was inch perfect, and put him 0.158 seconds faster than Rossi’s time, set in 2006 at the infamous season finale in which Rossi got a dismal start, then fell off trying to catch Nicky Hayden, handing the American the world championship in the process.
Pedrosa’s lap really was something special, though the Spaniard was not as impressed as the onlookers. He had had a few good laps in his career, he told the press conference, and this was definitely one of them. Pedrosa has looked ominous all weekend – actually, since Indianapolis – and if it were going to stay dry, then you would be hard put to think of anyone who could beat the Repsol Honda man.
Jorge Lorenzo is keen to try, and is fast all the way round the circuit to the final sector, but is losing a couple of tenths just in the acceleration out of the final corner and towards the line. The Hondas dominate there, good round the long left before the final corner – both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were hanging the rear out all round that turn, showing a hint of the old tire-smokin’ 990 days – but absolute missiles on acceleration.
That has been Lorenzo’s complaint all year, not sufficient acceleration and not the wheelie control which the Hondas appear to have. If Lorenzo arrives at the final corner with a Honda behind him, he will fear for his position.
Two championships could be settled at Phillip Island on Sunday. Marc Marquez looks certain to wrap up the 2012 Moto2 title in Australia, as the Catalunya Caixa rider needs just 2 points to put the title out of reach of Pol Espargaro. Marquez’ chances of wrapping up the Moto2 title with a win look slim, though. Pol Espargaro has been in a class of his own at Phillip Island, his love for the circuit showing through in the way he has been riding.
The only man to get near to Espargaro all weekend has been Scott Redding, as Phillip Island is one place where Redding’s size is less of a handicap. With few places where hard acceleration from low speed is required, Redding can rely on his natural speed to get around the track. Despite still being the youngest rider ever to win a Grand Prix – a title he is likely to hold in perpetuity, since the minimum age went up to 16 – Redding is still winless in Moto2. If he can follow the pace of Espargaro, Phillip Island could well provide him with a real shot at his first win.
The MotoGP title may not be settled in Australia, though. Jorge Lorenzo leads Dani Pedrosa by 23 points, and just needs to finish ahead of the Honda man to wrap up the championship at Phillip Island. The odds of that happening looked much better on Saturday, Lorenzo taking 2nd spot in both the morning’s free practice and qualifying in the afternoon, finishing ahead of Pedrosa in both sessions.
But Lorenzo may yet have to leave the box of championship t-shirts in the flight cases, as a closer look at the race pace between Lorenzo and Pedrosa gives the advantage to the Honda man. Lorenzo is lapping consistently in the high 1’30s and low 1’31s, but Pedrosa has been reeling off strings of high 1’30s in race trim.
This year’s Malaysian round of the MotoGP series has offered a glimpse of the future, for those with an interest in seeing it. While the series is locked in a series of arguments over the future of the technical regulations, the massive economic problems in its key television markets, and the Spanish domination of the sport in all classes, Sepang pointed the way forward, and that way is definitely east.
It starts with the crowds. Where crowd numbers have been falling almost everywhere at the European rounds, Sepang is seeing record attendances this weekend. Grandstand tickets are selling out fast, and despite the rain, fans are turning up in large numbers.
How much those numbers are being inflated by Australians flocking to the circuits they can fly to affordably to see Casey Stoner ride the last few races of his career is uncertain, but that they should be packing the grandstands in Malaysia seems unlikely. There are also plenty of local fans, coming to see riders from the region threaten the top of the time sheets for the first time in history, and not just make up the numbers at the rear.
They have had a treat this weekend. On Friday, local wildcard Hafizh Syahrin topped an admittedly wet session of Moto2 free practice by getting out early when it was relatively dry, but he had sufficient competition for his result to have been noteworthy.
On Saturday morning, Japanese rider Takaaki Nakagami topped Moto2 FP3, once again by judging the conditions correctly. And on Saturday afternoon, the fans were in for a massive treat, when Zulfahmi Khairuddin bagged his first ever pole position in front of his home crowd, becoming the first ever Malaysian to start from pole in a Grand Prix. And on his 21st birthday too.
Another Brno, that is the hope of every MotoGP fan around the world after qualifying sessions like the one at Motegi on Saturday. The breathtaking battle in the Czech Republic, which saw Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo on each others’ tails all race long and the result settled in almost the final corner, was the natural outcome of two equally-matched men on very different, but equally-matched machines. There was nothing to choose between the two during qualifying at Brno, and there was nothing to choose between them during the race.
Motegi is shaping up to be similar. Both Lorenzo and Pedrosa have very similar pace, and both have the consistency, the talent, and the desire to push to the end. Jorge Lorenzo may have taken pole – the 50th of his career and one of his finest, with a blistering lap in near-perfect condition to destroy the existing pole record – but Pedrosa’s race pace is fractionally faster than that of the polesitter. Where Lorenzo’s near-robotic consistency has him lapping in the low 1’46.1s, Pedrosa is posting high 1’46.0s. The two men are separated by hundredths of a second only, and appear to have the measure of each other.
The wildcard in all of this is chatter. The problem, which has plagued the Honda all year, reappeared with a vengeance in the middle of qualifying for Pedrosa, leaving him struggling to get up to speed and to mount a serious challenge for pole. “Suddenly I had some big chatter,” Pedrosa said at the press conference, “I was in and out of the box trying to change things.”
The problem was all the more unsettling for being so unexpected. “It’s a bit strange,” Pedrosa said. “We didn’t have chattering in the morning or yesterday, just today in the qualifying. Not even in the first part of the qualifying.” Whether the issue is being caused by the setup Pedrosa uses when chasing a qualifying time remains to be seen, but if Pedrosa’s crew cannot eliminate it in tomorrow’s warm up, the Repsol Honda man’s title chances could be over.
Finally it stopped raining. The light drizzle that has plagued the Misano circuit since Friday morning petered out around lunchtime, making way for the sun to dry the track out. Though the riders were glad to see the back of the rain, it left them with an awful lot of work to do. The set up work from the three lost sessions all had to be squeezed into the single hour of qualifying, leaving space for the mad fifteen minute scramble for grid positions. “It was a pretty tight session,” Dani Pedrosa said after qualifying. “We had to test tires, set up, and get a feeling for the bike in just 60 minutes.”