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.
No such problems for Jorge Lorenzo. The electronics tweak his crew found on Friday has allowed Lorenzo to be fast from the off, and the Factory Yamaha man can concentrate solely on going as fast as possible. Lorenzo does not even have the braking problems that everyone else seems to be suffering at the track - the sole exception being Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda man denying it had anything to do with his weight - due to the combination of the higher speeds and extra weight of the 1000cc MotoGP bikes, married to the fixed diameters of the carbon brakes currently allowed in MotoGP. Of the Yamaha riders - well, of everyone who isn't on a factory Honda - Lorenzo has been least troubled by brake overheating and fade. Saturday morning saw him lose some braking power, but it was a problem quickly solved. Was it related to his riding style? Perhaps, Lorenzo admitted. "Maybe Cal [Crutchlow] has more problems than me, because he brakes harder."
Crutchlow has indeed been complaining of brake fade - he joked that if Pedrosa was not having any problems with braking, then he would have to break into the Honda garage and steal the Spaniard's calipers and disks - but his problems were as nothing compared to his Monster Tech 3 teammate Andrea Dovizioso's. Dovizioso is renowned for his braking ability, and it is this, his strongest point, which is causing him grief. Brake disk temperatures are hitting 1000 degrees centigrade, and dissipating that heat is a massive problem. Brake fluid is overheating, causing the lever to come back almost to the bars.
Though Dovizioso is suffering the worst of the problems, he is not the only one. Apart from Crutchlow, Ben Spies, Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden are also seeing their brakes overheat. Whether the overheating will be a problem in the race is yet to be seen. Dovizioso intended to talk to his team and to Brembo about the issue, in the hope of finding a solution.
The extra weight and the higher speeds of the 1000cc MotoGP bikes are clearly a contributory cause, and normally the solution would be to fit larger diameter carbon disks. That is forbidden by regulation, however, as cost-cutting restrictions mean that the teams are limited in their choice of brake disk diameters. An extra complication is that Motegi is the only circuit where such overheating occurs, as it features a lot of straights with heavy braking for slow corners, as well as a long and fast back straight with a tight corner at the start and at the end. Changing the rules for a single circuit seems unlikely; the riders will have to adapt their riding styles to cope with the situation, and brake a little earlier and a fraction less aggressively.
If the battle for victory between Pedrosa and Lorenzo fails to materialize, there is every chance of some entertainment in the fight for the final podium position. There is a group of men all just marginally slower than the two championship contenders, with little more than a cigarette paper separating them. Cal Crutchlow, the surprising Alvaro Bautista, Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso, and Ben Spies have all shown pace good enough for the podium, but the trouble is, there are five of them fighting over what will likely be third place. The first few corners at Motegi are difficult enough - turns 1, 3, 5 and the S Curve are all notorious for collecting riders in the tight first laps - and with five men scrapping fiercely over a decent finish, the result could well be carnage.
This is a threat not just to those five men, but also to Pedrosa and Lorenzo. Lorenzo, sitting on a comfortable 33 point lead in the championship, recognized the need to get into turn 1 unscathed and then away at the front as soon as possible. His pole position was important not just for the psychological blow, but also to give him the best chance of getting through the first lap in one piece.
There was much talk also of Moto2 at Motegi on Saturday, though not so much of qualifying - as thrilling as it was, with Pol Espargaro taking another pole at a track where the Kalexes are looking very good indeed - as of free practice in the morning. That session saw a collision between Marc Marquez and Mika Kallio, which Race Direction later characterized as a 'racing incident' and decided to let pass unpunished.
Marquez ran wide into turn 7, allowing Kallio to pass him underneath. Marquez decided not to cede the position, and put on a burst of speed to try to dive back underneath Kallio into the S Curve which follows almost immediately. He failed, and hit Kallio just about amidships, taking the Marc VDS Racing rider out and destroying his bike.
The Marc VDS team were livid, unsurprisingly, team boss Michael Bartholemy calling the move "suicidal". The force of the impact bent the swingarm on Kallio's bike - an impressive feat, if a rather unseemly way of achieving it - and left the Finn struggling during qualifying with a hastily rebuilt bike with clutch problems.
For Marquez not to be sanctioned seems frankly bizarre. To characterize the move by Marquez on Kallio as a racing incident may have some merit if it had actually taken place during a race. Then, such a move might be regarded as Marquez trying to defend his position. But it was free practice, and there was nothing at stake except set up time, and perhaps a tiny amount of pride. The move was borderline dangerous, but what made it worse was it was totally unnecessary.
Marquez has form. This is the third time he has been called in to explain himself to Race Direction this year, after clashes with Tom Luthi at Qatar and Pol Espargaro in Barcelona. Those moves at least had the benefit of being made during the race while dicing for victory. This move was made during a totally meaningless free practice session.
It will be interesting to see what happens when Marquez ascends to the MotoGP class next year. In Moto2, he is clearly the golden boy of the series, with the power of Repsol behind him. But next year he will be sharing a garage with a man who is a serious title contender, and any mishaps due to excessive exuberance which Race Direction let go unpunished will see HRC figures step in very firmly. Marquez will also face a much more hostile crowd in his fellow riders, with Jorge Lorenzo already having elected to speak up previously against dangerous riding. Hard words will fall on Marquez if he continues in his current vein.
But really, this is an issue for Race Direction to deal with, especially in Moto2 and Moto3. The purpose of the entry classes is to prepare young riders for MotoGP, and that means getting them into line quickly and helping them to understand exactly what will and what will not be tolerated. Examples should be set in Moto3 and Moto2, not in MotoGP, as appears to be happening at the moment.
The problem Race Direction faces is that they can be overruled, as happened at Barcelona. There, their initial punishment meted out to Marquez was annulled by the FIM stewards, after an appeal by Marquez' team. That should not be a concern: Mike Webb and his team should rule as they see appropriate, without worrying about what the FIM stewards will do once the teams appeal - which they will do. A punishment for Marquez would have sent a message, not just to the Spaniard but to every rider in Moto2 and Moto3. Given Marquez' previous history, he needs to be made to understand that message sooner, rather than later.