Despite dominating the Championship so far, Jorge Lorenzo does not get a lot of pole positions. Except at Laguna: though this was only his third of the season, Saturday’s pole position was Lorenzo’s fourth in a row at the circuit, and he secured it in convincing style. The circuit record tumbled – it had stood since 2008, set by Casey Stoner when he looked on his way to dominating the US GP at Laguna, before his run in with Valentino Rossi of course. There has been much complaining about the Bridgestone tires of late, yet both Lorenzo and Stoner beat the pole record on the tire they will probably race on, a pole record set on super-soft special qualifiers, which at a track like Laguna Seca you could just about eke two laps out of before they were finished. In reality, there is not so much wrong with these tires.
The pole record could have been beaten by a lot more, but Casey Stoner kept running into traffic each time he went for a fast lap. Up by a tenth or more at each split a number of times, he would suddenly run into a rider cruising, or a CRT machine on a hot lap, and lose out. On his last attempt, he ran into Danilo Petrucci just before the final corner, working his way swiftly past to take pole from Lorenzo with a couple of minutes to go. But Lorenzo would not be denied, pushing hard in the final sector to get pole back from Stoner in the dying moments.
It poured at the Sachsenring on Saturday afternoon. It absolutely hosed down, rivulets of water running across the track to make the conditions treacherous. Ideal conditions for Ducati, you would say, given their form so far this year in the wet, with Valentino Rossi on the podium in the downpour at Le Mans, and a 1-2 during the first session of free practice at a drenched Silverstone. But Nicky Hayden is 7th and Valentino Rossi 9th, a second or more off the pace of pole-sitter Casey Stoner. What went wrong?
There is a danger to thinking any championship is a foregone conclusion, especially this early in the season. Just as there is a danger to thinking that a race will pan out the way you thought it would after practice and qualifying. At Assen, everyone was afraid of three things: the weather, Jorge Lorenzo, and Pol Espargaro. All three turned out differently than expected.
Best of all was the weather. After treacherous conditions on Friday, with rain falling, stopping, wetting the track just enough for Casey Stoner to bang himself up badly in the morning, though that did not stop him from blasting to pole, Saturday dawned bright and only got better: the big skies of flat-as-a-board Drenthe were mainly blue, with the occasional sighting of fluffy white clouds to provide a little cover and prevent egregious sunburn. But best of all, it stayed dry: no complications, just sunny, dry and calm weather.
Neither Lorenzo nor Esparagaro would prove too pose much of a threat either, Lorenzo through no fault of his own, but Espargaro would need no outside help in taking himself out of the equation. The crashes of Lorenzo and Espargaro – Lorenzo taken out by a boneheaded move from Alvaro Bautista, for which the Gresini Honda man will have to start from the back of the grid at the Sachsenring, Espargaro crashing on a bump at the Ruskenhoek – put an end to the domination of the two men in the MotoGP and Moto2 classes.
Espargaro had blasted every sessions of free practice, and only a blistering lap from Marc Marquez had denied the HP Pons rider pole. Lorenzo’s domination had been more subtle, his race pace clearly several tenths better than anyone else, though others on soft tires occasionally bettered the Spaniard during practice and qualifying.
The weather has been a cruel mistress at Silverstone this weekend, much as it has been every year MotoGP has paid a visit. The track is built around an airfield, and consequently sits on a plateau just enough above the surrounding area to catch any wind which may be about. On Saturday, that was a lot, with the wind blowing hard and gusting harder all day, catching many a rider out, especially on the way into Brooklands. The wind also blew in occasional showers, though it blew them back out again just as fast, a small blessing on an incredibly difficult day.
Despite the conditions, three men braved the wind to take pole in each class, to varying levels of surprise. That Maverick Vinales should take pole in Moto3 is much as expected, Silverstone being the Spaniard’s third pole position in a row. Though his advantage is relatively modest, there has been no one to mount a serious challenge to his supremacy all weekend, and if he gets a decent start he will be a very hard man to beat.
Pol Espargaro’s Moto2 pole is hardly unexpected – the Spaniard is one of the main candidates for the title this year, and is looking particularly fearsome at Silverstone this weekend – yet it is his first ever pole in the class. A front row regular this season, things have really come together with the Pons team and the Kalex chassis, the bike performing exceptionally well in the windy conditions. Mostly, though, Espargaro’s performance is down to the man himself: he has led every session at Silverstone so far, his advantage over his rivals increasing each time.
The big surprise came in MotoGP, Alvaro Bautista snatching his first ever pole in the premier class. Luck – and judgment – were certainly on Bautista’s side, the San Carlo Gresini man timing his first fast run just right, the first light showers appearing shortly after he claimed the spot atop the timesheets. Though the rain may have hampered his rivals – Casey Stoner, in particular, was confident he could have gone a lot faster than he had, his crew finding a big improvement just before the rain came down – Bautista’s time was of itself highly respectable, and came on top of strong performances throughout free practice.
The rain, which has been chasing motorcycle races around this season, finally got bored and moved off on Saturday, giving the track at Estoril a chance to dry. The final corner, which proved so treacherous on Friday, was greatly improved – and made even better by the addition of a cone on the inside of Turn 13, marking where the wet patches were so the riders could take a line inside them. But the wet patches were still there, with water apparently seeping up from the ground to be sucked to the surface. The repairs to the track had been half the problem; the new asphalt was still so fresh that the bitumen was sucking up water from below. Not a lot the track can do about such a problem, and rather cruel to be punished for trying to fix the track in the first place.
While their resurfacing attempts may not have paid off as intended, the circuit management’s bargain basement approach to ticket pricing made a huge difference. The track was busier on a Saturday than any time I have ever been here, with many fans deciding that for the price of a tank of gas and a cheap hotel, they would head for Estoril. With tickets selling for between 2 euros for the cheapest single-day entrance to 20 euros for a three-day grandstand pass, the entertainment is also a little limited. Jumbotrons around the track are few and far between, the only one I have seen has been opposite the main grandstand. But for 2 euros, and with some great seating around Estoril, who is going to complain?
On the evidence of qualifying at Qatar, we’re in for a cracking MotoGP season. A very tight battle for pole settled in the final minutes, a surprise front row sitter, and plenty of on-track action are the ingredients for a a great QP session, and the changes that the sport has undergone are overwhelmingly positive. The same was true in Moto2, where a smart strategy outwitted a late last lap, and Moto3 saw another battle that went down to the wire.