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 preseason 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 MotoGP.com 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 MotoGP.com. 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.