Cal Crutchlow called it right on Friday. "We know the Hondas take a little bit longer to set up, but when they come out Saturday morning, they normally take a second off." It was more like half a second on Saturday morning, but by the afternoon, Dani Pedrosa took nearly 1.6 seconds off his best time on Friday, smashing the pole record which had stood since 2008. That was a lap set on the supersoft qualifying tires still used at the time, which had Nicky Hayden happily reminiscing about the fun to be had on the sticky one-lap rubber.
It was an extraordinary lap by Pedrosa, though the Honda man himself was not overly impressed. When asked if it was his best lap ever, Pedrosa acknowledged that it was good, perhaps one of his best, but still not as good as his lap at Valencia at the end of last year.
Pedrosa's blistering record lap was not the only excitement during qualifying, which turned into an intriguing session. It started off with Jorge Lorenzo taking off out of the pits in his customary fashion, only to cruise back in again after his first full lap. The clutch on his Yamaha M1 had destroyed itself, and so he had to leap back on to his second bike and try to set a time on that. That machine never felt the same as his number one bike, and so Lorenzo didn't quite have the confidence to push as hard as he hoped to. That left him third on the grid, but at least still on the front row.
Lorenzo's travails benefited Cal Crutchlow, the Tech 3 man once again equaling his best qualifying. He played down his achievement as usual, admitting that Lorenzo's problems helped contribute to taking second spot on the grid, and making him the fastest Yamaha rider. His lap was still impressive, though. Even if Lorenzo had been on form, the Englishman would only have been bumped a place, his lap having assured him of a front row start.
Behind Crutchlow, two more men who were quick, those the names of Alvaro Bautista and Nicky Hayden were more of a surprise. The soft tires worked for the Gresini Honda rider, allowing him to push for a fast lap and take fourth, while Nicky Hayden described his qualifying as the best of the year, though he felt he could have gone faster. He had encountered traffic in the final sector of his fast lap, and though he had not been hindered by it, it had been enough of a distraction that it had prevented him from putting in a perfect lap.
That perfect lap is hard, as Marc Marquez found at Barcelona. The many long corners make it hard to get every part of every corner perfect, and once you miss out in one place, the lap tends to be ruined. Though fastest on Saturday morning, Marquez could manage only the sixth best time during qualifying, the Repsol Honda man more at ease in the morning when conditions were cooler.
Marquez starts ahead of Valentino Rossi, the Italian once again falling short in qualifying. Three tenths was what he was missing, and he was losing them a tenth at a time in three braking points around the track. Braking in extremis remains Rossi's weakest point on the Yamaha, the Italian finding it impossible to brake later, and still get the bike to turn into the corner.
In terms of race pace, the only real reflection of the grid is that Pedrosa is clearly fastest. Jorge Lorenzo believes he can stick with Pedrosa, something which Cal Crutchlow agrees with. Behind the two leaders, a group of three, with Crutchlow, Rossi and Marquez all more or less on the same pace. The question will be who gambles correctly on the set up to help make the tires last for the entire race.
For tires will be an issue. Opinion is still clearly split, with both soft and hard tires being an option for the race. The difference is in how much the rear tire drops off after the first few laps, and whether the rider believes they can manage the tire home. For the Ducatis, the choice is clear, the hard tire loses too much once the early grip disappears, and it just starts to spin up. The soft tire also drops off, but it still grips and provides drive out of the corners, something missing from the harder tire. Cal Crutchlow believes he can use either tire, the question will be whether he will have an advantage at the end of the race over the soft tire.
Whatever tire is chosen, Valentino Rossi believes that everyone will make the same choice in the end. All of the top riders will look at each other, and in the end all go for the same tire. That means that most likely, everyone will plump for the soft tire. Its performance degrades after a few laps, but the lap times stay about the same level as the hard tire, and it offers extra grip and speed in the early laps of the race. The two questions to be answered at Barcelona will be who can catch Dani Pedrosa, and who can hang on for a podium.
Along with tires, engines are a major topic at Barcelona, for both the MotoGP and Moto2 classes. In MotoGP, the engine lists published after qualifying showed that Yamaha are struggling to make the end of the season. Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have both had one engine withdrawn from allocation, and a couple of others appear to be suspect. Yamaha's 2013 M1 engine appears to have a minor design flaw, one not big enough to show up during testing, but just large enough to cause problems in the heat of a racing season. With Rossi and Lorenzo having used four of their permitted five engines (see separate story), the 2013 championship could be decided by technical knockout, rather than in a straight slugging match.
The engine durability rules were the brainchild of the manufacturers, in response to demands from the FIM and Dorna that the factories come up with saving money. The MSMA felt that reducing maintenance would help reduce costs, and provide exactly the kind of engineering challenge which the racing departments could use to sell to their executive boards to help get a budget to go racing. Like the fuel regulations, the engine limits are there at the behest of the factories, and like the fuel regulations, they can have some unforeseen consequences. Just how keen Yamaha will be on retaining the engine regulations if they lose a championship due to a minor design fault remains very much to be seen.
Meanwhile, Honda's reliability looks positively soul-destroying. All four Honda RC213Vs are still only on the first two engines, with no sign of weakness showing anywhere. Paddock insiders like to joke that Honda would really like to reduce the allocation limits to just two engines for a season, though they might be willing to concede a third engine for the last few races, to make it a little easier on the other factories.
Yamaha's engine problems sound the death knell for any hopes of a seamless gearbox for the Yamaha. The gearbox will not be tested this week at Aragon, and it is unlikely to see action at all this year. If it is ready in time for the Misano test in September, then it will not be raced until 2014. This could be a very long year for Yamaha.
Engines are also talk of the town in Moto2. Though Pol Espargaro's pole position was merely proof that he is in devastating form in front of his home crowd, Scott Redding struggled with a lack of top speed. More surprisingly, so did his teammate Mika Kallio, the much lighter rider usually among the fastest through the speed traps. At Barcelona, after being handed new engines at the beginning of the weekend, both Kallio and Redding were over 12 km/h down on Pol Espargaro, a gap that is much larger than usual. When I left the track, the team was still debating whether to request a new engine and risk losing their deposit if the engine they are returning is not down on power, or try to manage the engine and focus on Redding's riding. Redding's comfortable lead in the championship will come in very handy at Barcelona, where damage limitation will be the name of the game.
Scott Redding will not be going lying down, however, and has taken to stirring things up. Redding likes to have something different on the back of his helmet at every race, and at Barcelona, the track just a few miles from Pol Espargaro's home town of Granollers, Redding has taken Espargaro's slogan of "Never give up" and plastered it on the back of his helmet. It is a clear taunt at Espargaro, but so far, the Spaniard appears unfazed.
The Moto3 class also saw the first penalty points awarded under the new system, for an egregious breach of track safety by Maverick Viñales. The young Spaniard had a crash early on in qualifying, and on the next lap after rejoining, Viñales discovered that the crash had also caused his engine to die on him. The problem arose halfway along the front straight, Viñales pulling over as his bike began to slow. Seeing an opportunity, he pulled directly across pit lane exit, and right in front of another rider who was exiting the pits. Viñales then added insult to injury by trying to push his bike the wrong way down pit lane, an offence under the safety rules of MotoGP. It was a rash, if understandable move, but awarding a penalty point may help press home the seriousness of the incident.
The Moto3 race itself should be a cracker, as it is so often at Barcelona. There are six riders all on roughly the same pace, and if they stick together, it could be a massive battle for the win. With nobody clearly faster than his rivals, the Moto3 race could be the race of the day.