Why do we keep watching motorcycle racing? Because sometimes magic happens. Today was one of those days. Two riders took their sport to the known limits in qualifying at Silverstone on Saturday, and then pushed at the edges to see what was beyond. What happened then took the breath of the crowd away, and left the press room sitting in stunned silence. And shutting the media up takes some doing.
Veteran broadcaster Dennis Noyes described the atmosphere in Parc Ferme after qualifying like being in a church. There was an air of awed reverence, quietness almost, as the teams of all three riders on the front row showed their respect for what they had just seen happen. Jorge Lorenzo had put on a display of as near perfect riding as it is humanly possible to achieve, destroying the lap record in the process. And then Marc Marquez had gone faster still, with almost effortless ease.
As Lorenzo stopped in Parc Ferme after qualifying, he gave a little shake of his head. He knew what he had just done - afterwards, he would say the lap was one of the best of his career, and that there was really only one sector where he could have found more time - and it had not been enough. It doesn't really matter what Lorenzo tries, matching Marc Marquez seems to be impossible.
Part of that is clearly the bike. The Hondas have an advantage over the Yamahas, as the distance between Jorge Lorenzo and the other Yamahas amply demonstrate. Lorenzo tries to compensate by being even smoother, even faster, finding time wherever he can, and yet still it is not enough. Asked whether he had made any mistakes on his last lap, he said he hadn't. 'Almost no mistakes. Sometimes, but it's not usual for me, because I have a good concentration.' Lorenzo also highlighted his strength with the Yamaha, giving a hint of the direction the bike has developed in. 'I don't push so much in the braking, I like to make the lap time with the throttle, and have good acceleration.'
While the Yamaha is slightly inferior to the Honda in braking, the real difference is Marc Marquez. The rookie - it is getting harder and harder to take that designation seriously - just seems to get faster and faster, pushing back the limits of the bike every time he climbed aboard. During qualifying in Silverstone, he found new frontiers to explore, pushing hard to warm up the tires before extending the boundaries of speed around the circuit. So hard was Marquez trying to warm up the tires that he found himself going through Woodcote with the rear wheel stepping out sideways, as the power slide started to go horribly wrong. Unruffled, Marquez rode the slide out while his wheels came back in line, before going on to set a new lap record on his first flying lap.
The second runs of Lorenzo and Marquez left everyone speechless. Perfect Lorenzo, stunning, aggressive Marquez, with the Repsol Honda rookie coming out on top. If you wanted to see the limits of a racing motorcycle made visible, here were two men capable of doing so.
There was a flood of superlatives - even more, after we have had so many - for Marquez after qualifying. 'I never saw a rookie like him, in all other motorsport that I know,' Valentino Rossi said afterwards. Even Jorge Lorenzo was full of compliments. Comparing Marquez to his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, Lorenzo said 'at this moment, Marc is a more complete rider. He's more like Casey, but the difference between Casey and him is that Marc never gives up, when Casey sometimes gave up. Marc never gives up, and because of this, he is even harder to beat, no? Maybe Casey in Phillip Island is faster, and in some little moments is faster than Marc, but Marc never gives up.' Like the shark in the movie Jaws, he just keeps on coming, and it is never, ever safe to go into the water.
Lorenzo thinks he knows where Marquez' Achilles heel is, though. 'I believe he has been lucky for the crashes,' Lorenzo said. 'If he's taking the same risk for a long time, then maybe sometimes he will get injured. Because it's not so simple to not get injured if you risk so much.' It is hard to argue with Lorenzo's point, but Marquez has had some huge crashes, but like Valentino Rossi before him, he always appears to walk away unhurt, including from his monster crash at Mugello. Marquez may be taking risks, but he has the talent and the reflexes to deal with those risks.
That does not mean Marquez is a shoe-in for the win on Sunday. He himself pointed to Lorenzo as having the better race pace, after the Factory Yamaha man laid down a scorching pace in FP4. Lorenzo did 13 full laps in a single run on a hard tire, all of the in the 2'02 bracket. Nobody could match that, though the race may be a different affair. Marquez' appointing Lorenzo as favorite for the win may be realistic, but it is also slightly disingenuous. By immediately pointing to Lorenzo, he deflects any pressure from himself and lays it on his rival.
This is a trick he has played throughout the year, and continues to play at every round. 'I honestly didn't expect that lap time,' he told the press conference, though it is hard to believe he meant it. He repeats every race he is not the favorite, that there is no pressure on him to win the title. Then he subtly places the pressure on Lorenzo and Pedrosa, pointing out that they are expected to win, and it is up to them to perform. It sounds like the subtlest form of challenge ever issued, but the look on Lorenzo's and Pedrosa's faces shows that it clearly stings.
What else is stinging is Cal Crutchlow's arm. The Englishman had his now traditional massive crash on Saturday morning, despite vowing that he would not injure himself this weekend before practice started. Crutchlow had two huge crashes in the morning session of practice, the first one at 293 km/h at the entry to Maggots. He did not understand what had happened, he said, he had done nothing different. Then, as the remains of his totaled M1 were being picked over back in the Tech 3 garage, he locked the front going into Vale, a favorite corner to crash, releasing the brake only to have a vicious headshake jam his hand back onto the brake and lock the front once again. This crash, he understood. The other one - apart from it being cold and windy - he did not. He suffered massive abrasions on his right arm, his leathers opening up for the second time this season to allow gravel in and rip up his arm. Though he was trying not to let on how painful it was, he was furtively treating it rather gingerly, keeping it tucked away next to his body, the hand in his jacket pocket.
Massive crash or not, Crutchlow still managed to put the bike on the front row, though the gap to the front two was huge. Six tenths to Lorenzo, nearly three quarters of a second to Marquez, and yet still the best of the rest. Crutchlow finished ahead of Stefan Bradl, the LCR Honda man once again posting a strong qualifying performance just over a tenth away from the front row.
In 5th and 6th came Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi, Pedrosa disappointed, Rossi relieved rather than anything else. Pedrosa felt he could have done better, but after a big slide on the front he had lost a lap and decided not to push. He played down the lack of pace in qualifying, saying 'One lap is one lap,' and emphasizing that was not what was important. Race pace, on the other hand, was strong.
Whether Valentino Rossi's race pace is as good remains to be seen, but he was at least happy with his qualifying strategy. Since the change to the two qualifier system, Rossi has struggled terribly with qualifying, never finding the right approach. Heading out and pushing hard early hard worked for him, he said, and he had managed to secure a second row start. From there, an assault on the podium is possible, he avowed, though he still has a few problems to iron out before Sunday.
So what will we seen on Sunday? On straight race pace, you would have to say that Lorenzo is favorite. The ease with which Lorenzo strings together seriously fast laps is worrying, and his stint in FP4 was clearly aimed at demoralizing the opposition. Marc Marquez is immune to such tactics, however, and has a few of his own up his sleeve. Lorenzo's avowed strategy is to get out in front early and push on, and hope to build enough of a cushion to be able to defend until the end. On the timesheets, Lorenzo looks like he can pull it off, but it seems likely that reality will intervene. Marc Marquez finds pace from somewhere, and always runs at the very front, which is why he has been on the podium for 10 of the last 11 races. Behind those two - or perhaps even alongside them - are again a group of three riders, with little separating Bradl, Rossi and Crutchlow on race pace. Given his home track advantage, you have to guess that Crutchlow will have that little bit extra, if the crashes haven't damaged his mojo sufficiently.
Sunday looks like seeing some intriguing battles. MotoGP is turning more and more often into the Marquez vs Lorenzo show, and that is healthy for the sport. Moto2 sees Scott Redding on a mission, despite ending second behind Takaaki Nakagami. The Japanese rider is on pole for the third time this season and determined to translate that into a win for a change. To do that, he will have to fend off Redding, who wants a win at home, but will not risk points against his main rival Pol Espargaro. Espargaro is suffering in Moto2 this weekend.