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 stake your claim, 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.
While Salom's qualifying lap was outstanding, the performance of Viñales should not be underestimated. The Calvo KTM rider lost the top of his finger just over two weeks ago, in a big crash at the final Jerez test, and has struggled all weekend. But he has slowly made his way forward, from 10th in FP1 to 7th in FP3, getting 2nd in qualifying, and then taking first in the warm up session. (Calling it a warm up session, when it is run last thing at night, with nearly a whole day before the riders will actually race, is something of a misnomer, but Qatar's insane schedule forces that upon both the Moto3 and the Moto2 classes.
Can Viñales win it tomorrow? Fighting through the pain in practice is one thing, knuckling down over 18 laps is quite another, but the Spaniard has shown he is made of stern stuff. A Spaniard looks destined to win, with Salom on pole ahead of Viñales, and a rapidly maturing Alex Rins on the outside of the front row. Rins has been thoroughly impressive this weekend, and in just his second year, he is going to cause Viñales and Salom, the two title candidates, some real trouble. And then there's Jonas Folger, the young German on the Mapfre Aspar Kalex KTM, who will be right there at the front, and likely to spoil what the Spanish call a 'triplete', a clean sweep of the podium.
In Moto2, it's hard to look beyond Pol Espargaro. Though Takaaki Nakagami has been impressive throughout the weekend, Espargaro has been there when it counts. His Tuenti HP 40 teammate Tito Rabat could also be in the mix, while Scott Redding appears not to be suffering as much coming onto the long straight as he did in previous years, now the combined weight rule has been introduced. But it's a fair old drag to the finish line; Redding will need to start from well in front of anyone coming out of that corner, if he is not to lose out on the last lap.
As for MotoGP's new qualifying system, Jorge Lorenzo summed it up succinctly: It's like having qualifying tires again. Go out, push very hard, come back in again. Go out one more time. It makes for an intriguing spectacle; reaction was almost universal approval, with the two extra QP2 berths available in the QP1 session motivating riders to push that little bit harder, and then QP2 turning into a straight battle over pole. But it also adds a touch of strategy: 15 minutes is not long enough to spend time waiting around for a tow, and so you have to act decisively, and choose the right time to go for a lap.
Jorge Lorenzo timed it perfectly, his mind still clearly in that clockwork mode that won him the championship last year. His strategy had been simple: "Just start practice in first position, this is my routine," he said. Leaving pit lane first gave him a clear track ahead of him, for both of the two runs he put in. The second run produced what he needed, grabbing pole position from Cal Crutchlow - "QP2 is too long," Crutchlow joked, "If it was just 10 minutes, I might have had pole."
Lorenzo starts from pole, but with a distinct advantage. He has the best race pace of the field, clearly a couple of tenths faster than anyone else. Above all, his consistency shows: in the final session of free practice - the only real free practice session in the old sense of the world, with nothing at stake, now that FP1 through FP3 now decides which QP session you get to compete in - Lorenzo once again strung together a sequence fast laps of mind-boggling consistency: 1'56.2, 56.2, 56.2, 56.9, 56.4, 56.3, 56.1, 56.1. Both Marc Marquez and Cal Crutchlow can lap at that speed, but the question is for how long. Jorge Lorenzo can run those laps all day long, or until his tank runs dry and his tires collapse.
Strategy - either strategy, or timing, or a mixture of both - is now clearly important in qualifying. Lorenzo aced it, as did Crutchlow, while Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi were all victims of traffic. Rossi's problems were of his own making, he said afterwards, explaining that on his first fast lap on his second tire, he ran on at turn 1, losing 15 seconds in the process. Those 15 seconds dropped him back into traffic, preventing him from taking another shot at improving his best time. It would be a costly mistake: Rossi starts from 7th on the grid, and with so much traffic ahead of him, it will be hard to negotiate his way forward. That is a shame, as Rossi's race pace is strong. But as Cal Crutchlow discovered last year, a strong race pace when you are already three seconds behind the leaders is never going to make up for lost ground.
Pedrosa, too, made a tactical error, and again, it was one of his own making. The Repsol Honda man found the speed he had been missing once he got into qualifying mode, and was quick on his first run. On his second run, he felt he had too much traffic behind him, so he decided to back off - almost causing Marc Marquez to run into the back of him - and find some clear space that way. By worrying more about what others were doing, and not about what he could do, Pedrosa may have missed out on an even better position. Whether he has the pace outside of qualifying is another matter: though Pedrosa avows that they have fixed the worst of the problems, the Repsol Honda man has been off the pace all weekend.
And what of Marc Marquez? Raw speed, he has plenty of, but how that translates to a 20 lap race is another thing altogether. Marquez has used others to help with his pace, following Rossi around in free practice to move further up the board. He can also do the laps on his own, but can he do that consistently? Given his extremely physical style on a bike, fatigue will surely be an issue, but can he last the distance. Clearly, Marquez is something special, but he may take a few races to get back up to speed.
Most surprising of all was Andrea Dovizioso, the Italian taking 4th on the Ducati, and seven tenths faster than he was last year, on the Tech 3 Yamaha that was supposedly easier to ride. A change to the electronics - Dovizioso had noticed that the wind had changed direction from the day before, meaning that where previously, he was having trouble keeping the front wheel down, now the wind was working in his favor. That meant he could use more power in some corners, which helped bump him up the grid.
Can Dovizioso take the Ducati even further? A podium is a little bit too much to ask, the Italian's race pace not quite there yet. On new tires, the Ducatis are great, but once the tires drop off, so does their pace, and so the question is how long Dovizioso can run near the front for. But the improvement is itself significant; in some ways, Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden are benefiting from the design changes which Valentino Rossi and his team had pushed for throughout the Italian's two-year stay with the factory.
Most of all, though, Ducati is benefiting from not having Valentino Rossi any more: without the unimaginable pressure which the fans and the media - especially the Italian media - put on Ducati to change the bike to suit Rossi, work can proceed at Ducati Corse in a calmer atmosphere. The immediate need to provide something that will win now is now gone, and that is what had created such a stifling atmosphere for Ducati Corse, with the design rushing headlong forward into what appeared to be a few blind alleys. Now, in more peaceful waters, engineers can work with less interruption, and start to provide real benefits.
Likewise, Andrea Dovizioso is in a totally different situation to Valentino Rossi, in part due to Rossi's departure. When Rossi arrived at Ducati, he quickly realized that being competitive on that bike was unrealistic, and so he operated in a constant pressure cooker environment. Rossi came to Ducati to take the place of Casey Stoner, who had won three of the last six races on the bike. To do anything other than win would be considered a failure.
Dovizioso comes to Ducati as the successor to Rossi, and whatever he achieves, he can only come out a winner. If he fails, then Rossi's failure at Ducati is vindicated, and the failure is down to the bike. If he succeeds, then he has done better than the legendary Valentino Rossi, and so his stock can only grow. The reality is, as always, a lot messier and more complicated than that, but the natural narrative means that both Dovizioso and Ducati are operating with less stress. It shows, in Dovizioso's results, and in the atmosphere in the team.
Will the races live up to the promise shown during qualifying? Moto3 looks like being a thriller, and Moto2 could well turn into an Espargaro runaway. MotoGP is a fascinating prospect. Though the most likely outcome is that Lorenzo runs away at the front, there will be plenty to watch even if he does so. As Nicky Hayden always says: "You never know what's gonna happen. That's why we line up on Sunday."