After free practice at Laguna Seca, things looked pretty well sewn up. Marc Marquez was on another planet, with his fourth pole position a mere formality. Alongside him on the front row would be Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi, with Crutchlow looking like having the stronger pace after free practice, while Rossi possessing more sheer outright speed. The rest? Well, they were irrelevant, and would be even more so once qualifying had proved the pundits right.
Only it didn't quite work out that way. A hectic and eventful qualifying saw Stefan Bradl take his first ever pole position, ahead of Marc Marquez and another surprise package in Alvaro Bautista. Rossi and Crutchlow were left on the second row, just ahead of the walking wounded pair of Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda rider heading up the third row.
Both Bradl and Bautista have excelled at Laguna Seca so far, Bradl showing more speed, but Bautista posting a ferocious and competitive race pace. The success of the two is surprising, and wagging tongues in the paddock attribute their sudden burst of speed to the fact that both their seats are currently being widely discussed as being up for grabs for fast and competitive riders. Bradl, it is said, is likely to be moved aside to accommodate Cal Crutchlow, while Bautista could be dropped in favor of Nicky Hayden.
The two satellite Honda riders defended their seats in the most forceful way possible on Saturday. Bautista had been quick all weekend, his best laps keeping him just out of the headlines, but running a consistent pace in the low 1'22s which should be good enough to run at the very front during the race. Bradl took the honor of being the first ever German to secure a pole position, writing his name in the history books alongside his former Moto2 rival Marc Marquez.
Though Bradl's new record was entirely deserved, there is the merest hint of a shadow hanging over it. As Spanish journalist Juan Pedro de la Torre of Motoworld pointed out, a German may have started from pole before. In 1974, at the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, a race boycotted by all except a few local riders over safety concerns after the death of Rob Fitton, the race was won by the German privateer Edmund Czihak. Whether he started from pole or not is unknown: the grid consisted of seven riders, who took their places based on the order in which they exited the paddock and arrived on the grid. No practice times were recorded, and so we cannot say for certain whether a German rider has taken pole before.
But Bradl's pole cannot be compared to the weird times from an era when rider safety was a disgrace. The LCR Honda man posted his pole time up against the full MotoGP field, with little help from anyone else. It was one of the best laps of his career, he said afterwards, and a particular pleasure to have posted it on a MotoGP machine.
Where has the sudden success of Bradl and Bautista come from? Both men are hindered by their equipment. Bradl dropped Nissin brakes in favor of the paddock-standard Brembos, and though the difference is minimal - the Brembo brake pads disengage from the disks fractionally faster than the Nissins do - it is just enough to make the difference at the MotoGP level. Bradl has been improving slowly in his second year, but once the LCR Honda team switch away from the Nissin brakes, he has been able to capitalize. Bautista is using both the Nissins and Showa suspension, and as the only rider using Showa, is spending all his time developing and little time actually working from a base set up. With little data to go on, Bautista and his Gresini crew sometimes get it right, but most, they are just wide of the mark. When they get it right, they are bang on the money, and Bautista is right back at the front.
Those wishing to quibble would point to a host of other factors - Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa both being injured, Marc Marquez crashing during qualifying, Cal Crutchlow having mechanical problems, Valentino Rossi still struggling with set up - but as the saying goes, to finish first, first you must finish. Bradl and Bautista turned up on the day, and only Marquez had any kind of answer.
Marquez himself suffered a crash during his second run in qualifying, just as he was going for a second fast lap. He said he felt he had not pushed hard enough during the first lap, and so tried going a little bit faster. He got the balance just wrong, and ended up in the gravel, his qualification over.
It is rather odd to describe Marquez' qualifying performance as 'disappointing', given that he had never ridden the track until taking the scooter round on Thursday. Marquez had learned the track in double quick time, setting the 3rd fastest time in FP1, before topping the timesheets in the rest of the sessions. The Repsol Honda rookie's race pace is positively blistering, and only his overconfidence caught him out during qualifying. Suitably chastened, it is hard to see who can stay with the Spaniard come Sunday.
If anyone can challenge the supremacy of Marquez, it will be either Cal Crutchlow or Valentino Rossi. Though both Bautista and Bradl are fast and consistent, they are still just a whisker off the pace of the two Yamaha men. Crutchlow looks the strongest, despite a terrible qualifying session. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider crashed during FP4, then had a faulty suspension sensor on his other machine. His crash in FP4 was a completely mystery, he said. He fell in Turn 3, immediately after exiting he pits. The crash was spectacular, but happened at relatively low speed. That should not have caused the crash, Crutchlow insisted, and his body language after the crash seemed to corroborate that. Where riders often betray frustration or anger, some sign that they know they are in part to blame, Crutchlow showed nothing but confusion and disbelief.
The faulty sensor meant he only got a single shot at setting a time, and he was happy to bag a second row start. Crutchlow's faulty sensor - with faulty data coming back from the rear shock, the ECU cannot apply power and anti-wheelie correctly - goes to underline just how dominant the role of electronics are on these bikes. The electronics do not make them any easier to ride - the limit just gets pushed up further, and is just as difficult to exploit - but they do require a full working complement of sensors and controllers in order to function correctly.
There are three great unknowns on the grid, one due to set up, the other two due to injury. Valentino Rossi showed that he had the pace to match the front runners on Saturday morning, but the factory Yamaha man only qualified in fourth place. The Italian is still struggling with a braking issue, and with a sliding rear as the tire starts to wear, it is a 'simple matter of weight distribution', an unpleasant phrase which belies the complexity of the challenge. If Rossi, Jeremy Burgess and his crew can get the problem solved on Sunday morning, Rossi will be right at the pointy end. If they can't, Rossi will have to improvise.
The biggest questions of all hang over the performance of Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa. Both men are injured, with collarbones hurting badly, yet the two title favories are 6th and 7th on the grid. Of the two, Jorge Lorenzo appears to be in better shape, though his collarbone is much more painful than it was at Assen. The Yamaha man rode in every session of practice, though he took it easy in the morning sessions, taking care not to push on a cold track. Lorenzo's pace is good enough for a top five, and the man himself said his goal was to try to get past a couple of riders early in the race and then manage from there.
Dani Pedrosa appears to be in slightly worse shape, though he is much better than feared. Pedrosa skipped both morning sessions, preferring to save his strength for the afternoons. His caution meant that he he was forced to go through both sessions of qualifying, though his progress from Q1 to Q2 was a mere formality. Pedrosa said he felt better on the second day than he had on Friday, and so learning to manage the pain is the most important factor. Both Pedrosa and Lorenzo will have injections on Sunday, and try to hang on until the end of the race. It is likely to be a war of attrition between the two championship candidates, a battle of who can withstand the pain for longest. On the basis of history, you'd have to say it was Jorge Lorenzo, but any points he does claw back are likely to be insignificant.
With so many factors in play, Sunday's race looks like being a fascinating one. Marquez may look like the favorite, but having Bradl and Bautista as wildcards on the front of the grid means all bets are off. The front row is reminiscent of the time when there were still qualifying tires, and a strong, brain-out lap could put a rider much further up the grid than he belongs. That helped make the racing exciting, and that reason alone is justification to bring back super-soft qualifying rubber. The same riders might win, but at least they would have to fight for it.