Marc Marquez is just starting to let the mask slip. Asked in the press conference about the fact that he will start from pole at Le Mans, despite this weekend being the first time he has ridden a MotoGP bike at the French track, Marquez admitted he always has to play down his chances ahead of each weekend. “On Thursday, I always need to say something similar,” he said.

His modesty is very becoming, and throughout the pre-season and the early races, he has continued to dampen down overly-inflated expectations. Yes, pole is nice. Yes, winning is fantastic. No, he is not even thinking of the title yet.

But everything about Marc Marquez screams ambition, the desire to win, to do what it takes to beat his rivals and prove to everyone what he believes, that he is the best rider in the world, a (self-)belief that motivates every top level athlete.

The last-corner lunge inside Jorge Lorenzo at Jerez will be cited as evidence, but more than that, the desperate attempts in the preceding laps were proof enough, if proof were needed. Is Marc Marquez thinking of winning the MotoGP championship in his first year, a feat previously only achieved by Kenny Roberts?

No, it is not chief among his concerns. Is he trying to win as many races as possible, an objective that will bring him the 2013 title if he succeeds? Of course he is. He may not be thinking about the championship, but he is definitely trying to win it.

If there were any doubts that he is something very special, pole at Le Mans should have expunged any final uncertainty. Though this is a track which Marquez likes, and at which he has had some success in Moto2 and 125, riding a MotoGP bike around the track is a different kettle of fish altogether. “It takes time to adapt,” Marquez said at the qualifying press conference. Precisely forty-five minutes, if you are Marc Marquez, for the Repsol Honda rookie was fast yesterday afternoon, and as good as the reigning world champion on Saturday.

Qualifying and practice are not racing however, but even in terms of race pace, Marquez is right where he needs to be. Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa have all shown the same pace, low 1’34s and high 1’33s, and look to be evenly matched. Both Marquez and Lorenzo said they were unsure of being able to get away at the front, and confident they could follow, should the other attempt to get away.

Marquez still has a more to learn, however. The young Spaniard crashed in the final moments of FP4, just ahead of qualifying. His composure, however, was excellent, Marquez flying from the start of QP2 and going on to grab pole. He may have more to learn, but the rate at which he learns is astonishing.

That leaves Jorge Lorenzo with his hands full tomorrow. But the factory Yamaha man is at least better than he was at Jerez, where he complained of the tires going off after a couple of laps, leaving him struggling to manage to coax the bike home.

That problem has apparently been fixed, thanks to a massive number of changes – “We made more changes this weekend than ever before in my career,” Lorenzo told the Spanish press – and those changes have worked.

Lorenzo posted one of his customary race simulations in FP4, banging in fifteen consecutive laps on Saturday afternoon, six of which were high 1’33s, and five more of which were sub 1’34.2s, and the last of which was a 1’34.214. Lorenzo’s tires will last, and his pace will hold. His job is to get through the first chicane in one piece, and still near the front.

Two men behind him have their work cut out. Dani Pedrosa starts from the second row of the grid, a crash during qualifying meaning he could do no better than sixth. But that is not in itself such a bad spot at Le Mans, on the inside of the track for the fast right hander, and with plenty of room to get past the man ahead of him, the surprising Andrea Dovizioso, before they reach the first chicane.

Getting there will be crucial, as Pedrosa, too, as the right race pace. But if he gets stuck behind Dovizoso, or the banged-up Crutchlow – the Englishman had another heavy fall on Saturday, fracturing his shin bone and suffering internal bleeding, causing him to cough up blood – then he may not be able to catch Lorenzo and Marquez.

The other man with work to do is Valentino Rossi. The Italian was hampered on Saturday morning by a Bridgestone tire that was not working properly. Once replaced, he regained some of his speed, but could not find the pace he had on Friday.

The improvements in braking they had found on Friday were still there, but Rossi was now downplaying them, and there was a limit to the pace he can run. “The bike is working well if you are running 1’34s, but if you have to faster than that, it gets hard,” he told the Italian media. His pace, he admitted, was close to that of Lorenzo and Marquez, but not quite there yet.

Rossi’s biggest problem, however, remains qualifying. He is still struggling with the new format, unable to push as hard as he needs to in the brief fifteen minute session. The other riders are better at using the grip of the new tire, he explained, making it hard for him to get on the front of the grid. He starts from eighth, a worryingly long way from the front runners, and has a lot of work to do if he is to get his second podium of the season.

Beside him on the grid is Bradley Smith, making a big step forward. The Tech 3 rider has faced a lot of unjust criticism, finding himself compared to Marc Marquez. Smith is the first to admit he is no Marc Marquez, but then again, even Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Rossi are struggling against the Spaniard. Smith’s trajectory in MotoGP is more realistic, and closer to that of Stefan Bradl last year.

His goal on Sunday is to get away with the guys around him, and sit behind them and learn. Smith’s intelligence shines through when you speak to him, and he is extremely adept at analyzing exactly what is going on. Being able to replicate it is another thing entirely, however.

While Moto3 is settling into a familiar pattern, with Maverick Viñales taking another pole, and closely chased by Alex Rins, Luis Salom and Jonas Folger, Moto2 is turning into an intriguing class. Takaaki Nakagami took his first ever pole in Grand Prix racing, the Japanese rider having shown massive improvement this season.

He held off challenges from Scott Redding, in an odd session dominated by the rain that started to fall just as the session started. It transformed the first 20 minutes of the Moto2 QP into a dash-for-the-cash, with everyone tearing out of pit lane and pounding out fast laps, trying to set a time before the track got too wet.

Nakagami played that game best, holding off Redding and Frenchman Johann Zarco, giving a front row completely free of Spaniards, a novelty so far this season.

Nakagami has clearly upped his game, but Redding has taken a further step in his progression as a racer. The Englishman crashed on Saturday morning, but then went out again immediately afterwards and proved he was still competitive, losing practice time, but no confidence.

His approach tomorrow is sensible: shoot for the win if it is dry, an eminently achievable goal given the pace he has shown all weekend, or concentrate on scoring as many points as possible and not crashing if it rains. Regaining the lead in the championship was not important, he told the official website. The only time the lead in the championship counts is after the last race of the season in Valencia.

Meanwhile, the man who was widely tipped to be 2013 Moto2 champion continues to struggle. Pol Espargaro is having problems with rear grip, and this is badly affecting his confidence. He cannot push because of the problem at the rear, and this is creating a problem at the front, he explained to Clearly, grip is a problem, but his frustration at the situation is becoming a bigger problem than the lack of grip.

Whether Espargaro is succumbing to the pressure or not – or perhaps his crew are, given the expectations placed upon them – he is having difficulty handling the situation. While Redding remains calm, focusing on what is possible despite a lack of grip, rather than what is impossible because of it, he keeps on racking up the points. Espargaro is worried about what he doesn’t have, and that is causing him problems.

The wildcard on Sunday is the weather, of course, as is the tradition at Le Mans. Forecasts continue to change on an hourly basis, the most recent one suggesting that there might be some light rain on Sunday, coming at about the time that the Moto2 race is about to start.

It doesn’t look like it will make much difference to conditions, looking like light drizzle at worst. But this is Le Mans, and you never know. If it stays dry, MotoGP looks set to be a straight fight between Marquez and Lorenzo, a tasty rematch after the events of Jerez. If it’s wet, then all bets are off, and anything could happen. Either way, we should have three intriguing races on Sunday.

Photo: HRC

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.

  • TheSwede

    Fingers crossed for another race of hard, ballsy moves from Marquez, no matter the weather. Though if it rains i could see him chucking it down the road.. He’s a savant on the bike for sure, but trying to learn how the bike works in the damp, on a circuit that can be extra slippery (and is new to him on a prototype), at full race speed, may just be too much. No shame in it, its gonna happen eventually.. He’ll learn from it and be even faster

    And who knows, hopefully his attitude is rubbing off on the other riders and we’ll see some actual racing throughout the field. Jorge, Dani, Vale, Cal, Dovi, Hayden, all these guys know how to scrap but they’ve been lulled to sleep as much as the rest of us these past few years. There was an attitude of racing clean over racing to win, but that’s fading fast..

    Jerez was a tease IMO.. Personally I’m salivating for Assen and Germany. Both are true motorcycle tracks with a history of spectacular racing and riding. Mid season, so the championship race will really be in full tilt. Marquez will have shown everyone how they should be riding, and love him or hate him, I think the riders will embrace it. If Vale is gonna return to his form of old, this is about the time he should really start feeling it. A perfect storm of amazing racing..

    Those two races, along with Phillip Island are what I cant wait for..

  • TexusTim

    this kid is thinking championship all the way ! his handlers are doing a fantastic job keeping this young mans head on strait..doenst hurt he is naturally as talented if not more so than when rossi came on the scene…this is the type of season and rider we have been hoping for…FINALLY !!! matters not what country he is from..he’s an alien already.

  • L2C

    I tuned in to QP2 just in time to see Crutchlow work his way back up to his favorite starting grid position. I was very impressed by that, especially after watching the replay of his high-side. He said that it hurt and it looked like it did. The crash itself seemed very ordinary, as if wouldn’t be a big deal for Crutchlow, but the way he hit the tarmac in such heavy and final way, you had to wonder if the toughest man on the grid would be able to withstand it. Anyway, I’m glad that he seems to be mostly okay. Hope the docs give him the OK to race tomorrow.

    It’s interesting to see how riders handle pressure. Viñales wasn’t a model of composure last season. Pedrosa has his visible moments of despair. Crutchlow simply never gives up, ever, no matter what happens. If there is a man’s man on the grid, Crutchlow is that person. Lorenzo seems to always respond with poise until things truly do not go his way, which is when you get to see him seethe with rage. Rossi is always forward thinking. He seems to be always shooting for the best possible scenario, no matter how difficult the challenge. He tells his excuses just like all the other riders, but even when the situation seems dire, he puts a positive spin on it. Even when he tells everybody not to expect much, it comes across as a positive outlook. I don’t know how he does it.

    Pol Espargaro seems to be losing his center of focus. It’s easier to regain confidence than to regain focus. He has to be careful about that. And the composure of his team matters as well. He’s my favorite of the Moto2 guys, so I hope what he’s going through is momentary.

    Looking forward the races, as usual. Hope Le Mans delivers the goods. It usually does.

  • smiler

    Cal reminds me of De Puniet last season, so close tothe edge the whole time they get beaten up.
    It is a joke to think that Pol should take his place next seaon. He is in 5th, nearly half the points of the leader. Cal is working miracles on theYamaha. So much for Dorna wanting less Spainishcentric championship.
    Interesting Rossi. Qualifying never used to worry him. He does not hold many poles but enjoyed the race to the top each time. Now his margin of talent is less, so he needs to get closer to the front.
    Wet race, interesting to see Merguez, who clearly wants Roberts record, why wouldn’t he does in this race.
    Cannot understand the non event in Jerez. Jors simply tried to close him out too late.

  • smazzer

    This must be a golden era for British motorcycling. Cal 2nd in MotoGP Le Mans and 4th in the championship on a satelite bike. Bradders 9th. Redding 1st and 1st in Moto 2. 5 brits in WSB with Sykes in 3rd. Sam Lowes leading Supersport. Brits leading BSB (as you would want). Even a few characters like Guy mArtin making a good profile and increasing interest in the TT.

    No Brits in Supersport or Superstocks though. BSB is so good.

    And in line with Dorna’s desire to broaden appeal of the 2 series, UK Eurosport and BBC lose coverage and Dorna hinting that the 5th placed Paella Pol taking Cal’s seat next yr. Having dropped the rooie rule for another Paella.

    It is a shame that the US seems not to be bringing on riders. Though Hayden did well today (spoiler) and forced an error from Rossi. Because clearly Dorna are interested in money more than actually ensuring the championship does not become the Spanish national cup.

  • 2ndclass

    No Brits in Supersport? Sam Lowes doesn’t rate in your eyes?