You could have earned yourself a tidy sum today if you'd correctly predicted the MotoGP front row. Though Cal Crutchlow, Alvaro Bautista and Marc Marquez are all familiar faces on the front row, the combination of the three was quite unexpected. Crutchlow earned his second ever MotoGP pole at Brno, shattering the pole record on his way to doing it. Bautista was on the front row at Laguna Seca, but his previous front row appearance was pole position at Silverstone over a year ago. And Marquez is a regular patron of the front row, but in four of his eight front row starts, he has had pole. The combination of the three was a surprise, and a testament to the way the new qualifying system this year manages to throw up surprises.
That is not to everyone's taste. 'This type of practice, with 15 minutes, is not very fair,' was Valentino Rossi's opinion, after the Italian had once again failed to break into the first two rows of the grid. 'A lot of riders are able to take the right slipstream and improve a lot the lap time and also the position they usually have in practice. So is not just about the potential but also about being in the right place at the right moment and make a good lap with the guy in front.' Qualifying has been Rossi's Achilles heel ever since the introduction of the new system, which coincided with his return to Yamaha.
A large part of Rossi's problem is that he has still not found a set up which allows him to brake as he wants. The improvements found with a different front fork at the Aragon test in June have helped a lot, but, Rossi says, 'still not 100%.' Rossi can brake hard enough to post fast and consistent lap times during practice, but when qualifying comes and everyone needs to push that little bit closer to the limit, Rossi can't brake that bit later and deeper to gain the extra couple of tenths he needs. And so he finds himself on the third row of the grid, with a big hill to climb.
There is more to Rossi's problem than that, though. The new system requires a radical rethinking of approach, either finding a way to create a clear track ahead of you, or finding a way to tag on to the fastest rider on track. As Marc Marquez explained in the press conference: 'It's a system where you need to have some clear plan and some kind of strategy. For example Lorenzo and Dani, they always are alone, so we need to copy that strategy.'
The two Spaniards take wildly differing approaches, but both equally effective. Jorge Lorenzo takes off like a scalded hare at the start of the session, basically simulating the start and then pushing as hard as possible in the first few corners to shake off anyone trying to follow him. Dani Pedrosa hangs back in his garage, waiting until the early pack of riders has departed, giving him a clear run. Lorenzo claims his clear track by sheer brute force, Pedrosa creates his by a touch of guile. Pedrosa is the tortoise, Lorenzo is the hare, but both strategies work.
The challenge of the new qualifying session is magnified at long tracks such as Brno. At shorter circuits like Laguna Seca or the Sachsenring, riders can get six or even seven full laps into the fifteen minute qualifying session. At Brno, where the lap is thirty seconds longer, four fast laps is just about the maximum possible. There is no chance to back off a little for a lap and lose a rider, come into the pits earlier or later, or find another way to create some space. Once you leave the pits, you are just about committed.
Rossi is alone in his criticism, however. Everyone else is fairly happy with the way qualifying works. 'For me, honestly, I like this system,' Marc Marquez told reporters. Alvaro Bautista concurred. 'I prefer this system, you are more focused on making a good lap time, because in the end, it's just for qualifying.' Cal Crutchlow felt that if the goal was to be fair, then the best system was the old Superpole system used by World Superbikes, a time trial in which each rider had a chance to set a single flying lap. 'I think the only fair way to do it is do a Superpole, one lap, and let's see who can do the job,' Crutchlow said. 'We know some riders like to build up and they go faster as they build up, I'm clearly the other way, I can go fast on the first lap, so I'd like to change it to one.'
Fair or not, the new qualifying system is clearly entertaining, and has received an overwhelmingly positive reception from the fans. Cal Crutchlow fully earned his second MotoGP pole, with all of the riders on the grid, and all them more or less fit. He owed his lap time to nobody, having clear track ahead and behind, and pushing to make the lap. He was so fast, he crossed the line before his father Derek, who mans Crutchlow's pit board at every race, had time to show him his pit board.
Alvaro Bautista had a lot of help with his lap, freely acknowledging that he had been helped by Marc Marquez. 'I told Marc I owe him a dinner,' Bautista joked afterwards. But he also pointed out that though he may have followed Marquez, he still had to actually make the lap time. Wanting to follow a fast rider is one thing, being fast enough to actually do so is another.
For the first time in his MotoGP career, Marc Marquez showed signs of frustration. Marquez set a storming first lap, but was pipped to provisional pole by Bautista who had followed him around. When Marquez went out for his second run, he found himself with Valentino Rossi and Stefan Bradl, and by focusing his energies on trying to shake the pair of them off, he blew any chance of trying to set a fast time. After spending the first lap trailing around going slowly, his tire had cooled so much that it was simply dangerous to try to push.
Of course, qualifying isn't representative of the true underlying speed, and in terms of race pace, it looks like being a five-way battle. Marquez, Lorenzo, Crutchlow, Pedrosa, and Rossi are all equally matched, and all posted consistent laps in the mid 1'56s. Alvaro Bautista was fast in qualifying, but in free practice, he struggled to break out of the 1'57s.
Marquez and Lorenzo seem to have the best pace of the riders, though Lorenzo suffered a set up problem in qualifying which saw the rear wheel of his Yamaha M1 spin up too much. A return to an older setting should solve that problem, and make him more competitive in the race. Dani Pedrosa could also be there, the Repsol Honda man having found a step in qualifying which should also help in the race. Cal Crutchlow continues to fret about the new fuel tank he has, suffering with a lack of testing data with the new part. He still hasn't made up his mind whether he wants to use it or not, he told reporters. Once he gets some testing time on the bike at Misano, after the MotoGP round at the Italian track, then he and his team should have a set up which they can be sure works both at the start, and at the end on worn tires. Crutchlow should be quicker at the start of the race, the question is whether he will still be fast at the end.
Crutchlow's Monster Tech 3 teammate Bradley Smith has been impressive at Brno, building on his strong showing at Indy and matching his best qualifying position of the season. What Smith is more happy about is the gap, just under half a second behind Crutchlow. The summer break did Smith the world of good, allowing his mind and body to assimilate the lessons of the first half of the season and find a way to be much smoother on the bike, the way the Yamaha demands. Gone is the snatching of his head as he sits up during braking, gone the attempts to bend the M1 to his will. Since his return, Smith has been closer to the front riders, though where that leaves him for the race is still uncertain. Did he have someone in mind he would like to follow? It depends on what happens in the first corner, Smith said. The plan was first to get through there, and then to see who he was near enough to try to chase down.
In the Moto2 class, another good fight beckons, though championship leader Scott Redding seems to be out of contention altogether. The new tire Dunlop has brought is causing set up problems for Redding, which he and his crew have yet to solve. The new tire is a little stiffer, to help deal with the changes to the Moto2 bikes and the new spec clutch the series is using. The Kalex riders have been stiffening up the rear to exploit the 2013 version of the Kalex chassis, and this was causing problems with tire wear. Photos circulated of destroyed rear Dunlops, and though the tires never failed, no matter how badly they were coming apart at the end, grip dropped off a cliff at the end of the race for some riders.
In theory, the tire should help Tito Rabat and Pol Espargaro, who had suffered most with the old rear tire. But Takaaki Nakagami could be the surprise package at Brno. The Japanese rider secured the second pole of his career at Brno, posting a string of fast laps. More importantly, perhaps, he had been trying an old tire with half race distance on it, to see how tire wear affected the bike. The aim of his Italtrans team is to help Nakagami learn how to deal with old tires, and for the first time the season, the Japanese rider looks just as good on old rubber as he did on new. If ever there was a race where Nakagami might finally score that elusive first win, it is surely here at Brno.
In the Moto3 class, there is a familiar name on pole, with Alex Rins blowing away Maverick Viñales by over half a second. But behind Rins, there are names which have not featured so heavily at the front, with Alexis Masbou and Jack Miller suffering at other tracks with a severe lack of horsepower for their FTR Hondas. Brno plays to the strengths of the FTR chassis, the sweeping corners requiring more agility and stability than the KTMs can provide. Whether Miller and Masbou can old on in the race remains to be seen, but it is good to see a Honda become competitive again. HRC may bemoan the approach which KTM has taken - build a factory-spec racer ,with a high price and limited numbers available - but their refusal to accept that situation doesn't change it. For the first time, Brno could be a race where it is not all the KTM story.
Of course, if the rain falls tomorrow earlier than expected - current forecast is for it to rain around 2pm, shortly after the MotoGP race is finished - then all bets are off. But so far, all three classes have the making of a good race. There are plenty of reasons to watch tomorrow.