Racing at the desert at night, in the false noon created by the astonishingly efficient lighting system at the Qatar circuit, is always going to be a weird experience. But on Friday, events conspired to take it from the merely odd into the strangely surreal. The culprits? The weather was one, the odd fleetingly brief shower of thick rain drops sending everyone scurrying into the pits and scratching their heads over what to do. The other thing that had many people confused was the new qualifying rules. Though not necessarily particularly complex, like all rule changes, the effect they have on the system, the way the weekend operates, only becomes apparent once the changes are put into effect.
But before I get to that, some attention deserves to be paid to Marc Marquez. In his very first MotoGP weekend, he topped his second ever session of free practice, and followed it up by being fastest in his third session of free practice as well. He has now been quickest in the majority of the official MotoGP sessions he has ever taken part in. OK, that's only two out of three, and the conditions have been a little unusual, but to be this fast this early is astonishing.
Marquez is an engrossing rider to watch. Veteran Dutch journalist Henk Keulemans, who had been out shooting photos at trackside, commented that he didn't understand how Marquez didn't crash in every corner. The young Spaniard is intensely physical with the bike, Keulemans describing Marquez as throwing the bike around like it was a 125, especially through some of the more complicated sections. While everyone is impressed with his speed, the question is, does he have the physical endurance to fling the bike around so much for twenty laps? That could be a different kettle of fish altogether.
Qatar has traditionally been kind to rookies. In 2008, Jorge Lorenzo took three sessions to top the timesheets at his first ever MotoGP event, going on to take pole, while two years earlier, Casey Stoner was fastest in FP1. For Stoner, Qatar was his second race, the 2006 season having started in Jerez, where Dani Pedrosa - Marquez Repsol Honda teammate now - had shared top three places with Casey Stoner during practice. Lorenzo and Stoner both went on to take two world championships each, while Dani Pedrosa has come tantalizingly close a couple of times. Marquez' first two days at Qatar should be regarded as an unmitigated success, whatever happens during the race.
Back to the weather: a front in the Persian Gulf had been threatening to blow across the circuit all day, but in the end it just glanced the track, creating incredibly powerful gusts of wind, and the occasional heavy shower which was thankfully over in the blink of an eye. But the showers consisted of big, thick drops of rain, fat as ripe figs, which exploded onto every surface at the track kicking up a wall of dust. The desert heat meant that the water they contained evaporated minutes after hitting the ground, so the track was never wet enough for sessions to be postponed or canceled.
Don't they bring rain tires, I hear you cry? No, they do not. By the time the surface gets wet enough to require rain tires, the wet track is reflecting so much light from the overhead spotlights that it is impossible to see anything. If it rains hard enough, all and any action is simply canceled, or as it was in 2009, put back a day and run in the dry.
Then there was the new system of qualifying. Yes, qualifying isn't until tomorrow, but dividing qualifying into two groups has (predictably) had an (unpredictable) knock-on effect on free practice as well. A lightning recap of the system:
1. At the end of FP3, the MotoGP riders are ranked in order of the best lap time posted in any of the three free practice sessions they have contested.
2. The fastest 10 riders automatically go through to QP2, and are assured a spot in the top 12 starting positions.
3. The remainder of the field have to take part in QP1, and the two fastest in QP1 will join the 10 previously selected to battle over the front four rows of the grid.
QP1 and QP2 are now 15 minute sessions, which is preceded by a 30 minutes FP4 session, now ironically the only truly session of free practice left during the weekend.
Before the riders had turned a wheel, most were claiming the new system would not change their approach. But come Friday night, and the heat of FP3, the action started hotting up into something resembling a real qualifying session. Not so much for the top four or five riders, confident enough in their own abilities of not having to worry about not making QP2, but riders between, say, 6th and 18th place turned it into a real contest. Some were caught napping - Stefan Bradl was one, nearly being dropped out of the top 10, only saving his bacon with a fast lap at the very end.
Opinion on whether the new system was a good thing or not was divided. The fans appeared largely to love it, as it gave them an extra contest to get excited about. Riders having to step up their game to stay in the top 10 made for much more of a show than an ordinary FP3 session, which last year was run in a much less competitive atmosphere. Most of the riders either liked it or were indifferent - the riders at the front completely unaffected, though Valentino Rossi did complain of riders hanging around hoping for a tow. Some were less impressed, with Stefan Bradl's boss Lucio Cecchinello complaining that having just 15 minutes of qualifying was not enough. At a long track like Qatar, with a lap time close to 2 minutes, he may have a point. Crutchlow reckoned he would get 4 laps in during QP2: an out lap, two fast laps, an in lap for a new tire, then an out lap and two more - maybe three, depending on the timing - and that's it, the session would be over.
The new qualifying system left journalists puzzling over the best way to describe the system, with TV commentators struggling more than most, having to sum up a relatively complex system in just a single phrase or simple explanation which won't confuse their audiences. My own personal favorite was put forward by Dennis Noyes: while the rest of us were tripping over whether this was now prequalifying, and whether that was actually a word, Noyes chipped in "It's simple, free practice now becomes a qualifying heat." Noyes' background in dirt track - he raced the four-wheeled version in his distant youth, and son Kenny raced flat track when younger, and now has a dirt track school at the Motorland Aragon circuit, called Noyes Camp - prompted the use of the phrase. He is essentially correct: Free practices 1 through 3 are now essentially qualifying heats, the winners going through to QP2, while the losers hope for a second chance in QP1.
The new qualifying system also distorted the results, a little. Several riders put in a fast lap at the end, while their race pace is of a different magnitude. Disregarding single fast laps, Jorge Lorenzo seems to hold the best cards. Lorenzo is consistently fast, his race pace a tenth or more better than anyone else. Only Cal Crutchlow is in the same league as Lorenzo, though he will have to fight to try to keep up with the Spaniard. Valentino Rossi is not far behind - but still behind - another tenth or so slower than Lorenzo, and maybe around the same pace as Marquez.
Two big names caused some surprise. First came the failure of Dani Pedrosa to get closer, though the Spaniard did make a good deal of headway on the second day. His problem remains the same as it was yesterday: the difficult surface meant that Pedrosa doesn't have any grip, and with no rear grip, he can't get the bike to turn. The RC213V is helped to turn by using the power to slide the rear just enough to point the front wheel in the right direction, while still getting enough drive to go forward. Without the grip, Pedrosa can't get the drive, and without the drive, he can't get the bike to turn.
The other name which surprised many was Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian is doing exceptionally well on the Ducati, contrary to the expectations of most. Though most of Dovizioso's laps were a good deal slower, he did two laps in the high 1'56s, achieved all on his own. Dovizioso's problems may come as the race progresses, as the Ducati is still heavy on tires. His fifth spot during the three FP sessions may be promising, but making the tire last for 20 laps is going to be hard.
Not so much a big name, but certainly a surprise was Bradley Smith. The young Briton had not just made it into QP2, which was the goal he had set himself, he had also got within a second of the front runners. "That's always something I've been edging towards," Smith told the press, "but I didn't realize how hard you have to ride to be within that second. I thought it would come easier, but you have to be absolutely wide open to be within a second of these guys, it's made me realize that the job's a lot harder than I very first thought. Definitely riding 20 laps at that type of intensity as well, hats to these guys, and, yeah, it's opened my eyes to MotoGP." Throughout testing, Smith has not looked brilliant strictly on the basis of position, but if you compare Smith to where Stefan Bradl was last year, Smith is pretty much matching him.
So, who will win? For Cal Crutchlow, it will come down to whether Jorge Lorenzo can keep Dani Pedrosa - or Marc Marquez, the other Repsol Honda man - behind him. The two contrasting styles of the bikes - the Yamaha's majestic, sweeping lines, versus the square point-and-shoot style of the Honda - mean that once he gets behind a Honda, it may be impossible to pass. The Hondas have the straight line speed and especially the drive out of the corner to keep the Yamahas at bay, while the Yamahas can't exploit their strength - the 250-like corner speed - to pass the bikes. Lorenzo needs to get away at the front. If he finds himself behind Dani Pedrosa or Marc Marquez, it could be a very long night.