Qualifying at Aragon showed that the fourteenth round of the season could turn out to be a turning point in all three Grand Prix championships. Momentum shifts, sometimes suddenly, sometimes slowly, and before you know it, title races can open up again. Foregone conclusions are shown up for the illusions they are, and the words of every championship leader - 'I won't start thinking about the title until Valencia - are brought into keen focus.
In Moto3, the lead Luis Salom had built up after the summer break has slowly been dissipating, as Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales have clawed points back from the Spanish veteran. On Saturday, Alex Rins took yet another pole - his sixth of the season - crushing the opposition and putting seven tenths of a second into Viñales, the man in second. Luis Salom struggled, ending the session in 8th, over a second slower than Viñales, and 1.7 seconds off the time of Rins. He must attempt to defend his championship lead from the third row of the grid, and with Rins, Viñales and Alex Marquez ahead of him, he will have his work cut out.
Former Red Bull Rookie Philipp Oettl had his best qualifying of the season, finally getting to grips with the Moto3 class. Just how hard that is at the Grand Prix level was shown by Maria Herrera and Bryan Schouten. The numbers two and three of the very strong Spanish Moto3 championship had done well on the first day of practice, but once the pressure builds during qualifying, they struggled, ending in 31st and 32nd respectively. There is more to racing than being able to circulate a race track at speed. If anything, that is the easy part.
It was encouraging also to see the pace of the Mahindras, the Suter-built bikes qualifying in fifth and seventh. The aim of the Moto3 class was to reduce costs and create parity by making extreme engine tuning impossible at the price of 12,000 euros. KTM has chosen to hide those tuning costs in the cost of their bike package, supplying bikes which are vastly more powerful than the Hondas they are competing against. Mahindra has decided to counter the KTM onslaught by building their own engine, and the added horsepower is allowing Efren Vazquez and Miguel Oliveira to take the fight to the KTMs.
Now, Honda itself could be on the verge of a full-scale counter attack. For a long time now, there have been rumors of a split inside HRC over the future of their Moto3 program. One side wants to cut their losses and pull out of Moto3, in protest at the blatant abuse of the rules (or more accurately, the spirit of the rules). The other side wants to pull out of Moto3, after giving KTM a taste of their own medicine. In this scenario, Honda would build a 'KTM Killer', a highly tuned Moto3 engine which they would sell to Moto3 teams and subsidize themselves. Once they had beaten the KTMs at their own game, then they would withdraw from the series, leaving KTM to lick their wounds and win an empty championship.
It now appears that the KTM Killer side has won out. Sources are reporting that HRC has decided to build the new engine and take on the Austrian factory. With so many teams already having deserted Honda to switch to KTM, they would only have to supply a few - between four and six - bikes to teams. Key to beating the KTMs will be having top riders on the Hondas. The big rumor at Aragon was that Emilio Alzamora had secretly signed his Estrella Galicia team to switch to Honda, putting Alex Rins and Alex Marquez on the HRC machines next year. With a powerful engine, an FTR chassis (or a chassis copied from FTR) and two of the most talented riders of their generation, Honda should be able to beat KTM at their own game.
The pattern in Moto3 was repeated in Moto2, with the championship race facing a shake up. Pol Espargaro has looked solid all weekend, and the HP Pons rider pushed hard to secure a front row start behind Nico Terol and teammate Tito Rabat. Championship leader Scott Redding had a dismal day, struggling with grip that meant the rear was sliding every time he touched the throttle. Redding managed only the thirteenth fastest time, and will start from the fifth row of the grid, buried deep in traffic. The only bright spot for Redding is that his lap time was not that far off that of Espargaro, ending half a second slower than the Spaniard, though nine tenths behind Terol.
Terol's pole is his first in Moto2, and comes after a long and difficult period for the Aspar rider. After winning in Austin, Terol had suffered a slump in form, having major problems with fatigue during the race. Terol was eventually diagnosed with a mild form of lactose intolerance, and after changing his diet - and dropping chocolate, one of his favorite foods - he is back at the front. His story is reminiscent of Casey Stoner, whose results in 2009 got worse and worse, eventually forcing him to miss three races until he was correctly diagnosed. Once diagnosed and treated, Stoner returned with great success. Terol's pole at Aragon gives him much reason for optimism.
In MotoGP, the shift has been more subtle than in the other two classes, but the momentum has shifted nonetheless. Jorge Lorenzo's exceptional performance at both Silverstone and Misano has seen him claw back points from Marc Marquez, and Lorenzo is still gaining ground. On paper, Aragon is a Honda track - high speed, long back straight with a low gear corner leading on to it, lots of acceleration from low revs - and yet Lorenzo came within a hundredth of a second of taking pole from Marquez. The two men are pushing one another to ever greater heights, and each appears to still have room to improve.
It had not been easy, however. Lorenzo had thought that his first run would be good enough for the front row, but when he got back to the pits he found himself down in fifth. He pushed on even harder on his second run, taking four tenths off his previous best time and nearly six tenths off the lap record set in 2011. But Marquez had that fraction more, taking his seventh pole of the season. The Repsol Honda rider will have started from pole in half of the fourteen races held this season, impressive enough for any rider, but a staggering achievement from a rider who is still a rookie. That fact, that Marquez is still only in his first year of MotoGP, is something which he makes it easy to keep forgetting.
Can Lorenzo run away with the win, as he did at Misano? No doubt he will get off the line quickly, and no doubt he will try to pull a gap in the first few laps, but will he succeed? His race simulation in FP4 was impressive, running sixteen full laps between 1'49.2 and 1'49.8, a scorching pace to try and follow. Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg played down his pace, casually suggesting Lorenzo's set up was not perfect when he took the bike out on FP4, but the team wanted to see what tire degradation was like. Good enough to post a string of impressive laps, that was for sure. Lorenzo is aided by the fact that he has taken his 5th engine, meaning he has a fresh and powerful motor to play with. The new engine is also slightly more powerful than the older ones, Yamaha having provided a few minor updates for the last of the Yamaha engines to be made available. Lorenzo, like all of the Yamaha men, have this uprated version for their final engine, helping to make the bike a little faster than it was before.
Yet Lorenzo looks less likely to have it all his own way here than at any other circuit. In terms of race pace, six or seven riders look pretty close. The factory Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, the Repsol pairing of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez, the LCR Honda of Stefan Bradl, the Tech 3 Yamaha of Cal Crutchlow, and perhaps even the Gresini Honda of Alvaro Bautista are all more or less on the same pace. While Lorenzo and Marquez are clear favorites, Dani Pedrosa is faster than his times suggest, looking dangerously comfortable on the bike, according to Zeelenberg, while Valentino Rossi is also right on the pace.
Rossi may be on the pace but he could not make it to the front row, ending qualifying in fourth, a position he seems to occupy almost permanently. He was about as close to the front row as you could get, though, finishing five thousandths of a second behind Pedrosa, the kind of physical distance that would require a photo finish to separate. Was he disappointed with fourth, or pleased to have been so close, Rossi was asked on Saturday? His answer was unequivocal: fourth position was a mild annoyance, but being so close and so competitive had been a major boost. In the first minute of speaking at his regular media debrief, Rossi had used the word 'good' about six or seven times. It had been a good day, his team had done a good job, they had given him a good bike, and he had felt good on the bike. Seldom has Rossi unleashed such an unqualified outpouring of praise, causing those present to suspect that the Italian could throw up a surprise at Aragon. His only real concern was if Lorenzo escaped at the start. His solution? To try to ride the first two laps like a qualifying session, taking risks to stay with Lorenzo before settling in to a rhythm.
There was also talk of a new calendar at Aragon, after Formula One had released a provisional 2014 calendar earlier this week. A version of the calendar is circulating among some officials, though none has yet been leaked in full to the press. The calendar will consist of nineteen races, with Argentina and Brazil being added. The Brazil round has been added late in the year, but very few people expect it to take place. There is still too much work to be done at the Nelson Piquet circuit in Brasilia, which probably won't be completed by the end of next year. Brazil will definitely be on the calendar for 2015, as will likely be another race in Asia.
The big hole in the calendar will be Laguna Seca, which is to be dropped. The California track had a contract to organize a race in 2014, but negotiations have apparently foundered over money and safety. That, after all, was why Moto2 and Moto3 never raced in Laguna: it was simply too expensive, and unlike all other overseas rounds (including the two other US rounds) the fees being paid to Dorna did not cover the cost of freight for all three classes.
The exact details of the calendar will have to wait until Wednesday, when the provisional calendar is due to be released officially. Even then, the calendar will be provisional, with changes possible if Bernie Ecclestone decides to move F1 races around. It may be possible to start booking accommodation once the calendar is released, but make sure you have free cancellation, as things are almost certain to change.