If Saturday at Sepang taught us anything, it is that if the new qualifying system for MotoGP is exciting, the new qualifying system with a little rain mixed in is utterly breathtaking. A brief shower at the end of Q1 left the area through turns 6 and 7 very wet, while the rest of the track was still mostly dry. Add in the searing tropical heat which dries the surface quickly, and the color of the Sepang tarmac which tends to disguise wet patches, and qualifying becomes even more tricky. And then there's the fact that Sepang is a long track, the two minute lap time leaving the riders precious little time to turn laps while waiting for the surface to dry out.
Strategies went out the window, and already stressed mechanics were forced to work themselves into even more of a sweat as they rushed to set up two bikes, one dry and one wet, just in case the rain returned. Some riders went out early and despite being warned, found themselves thrown out of their seats and given a proper scare. With qualifying being just fifteen minutes, the most likely scenario was that the last rider to cross the line would be the fastest, unless it started raining again.
It didn't start raining again, and Marc Marquez was the last of the fast men to cross the line, smashing the pole record by three tenths of a second. The Spaniard's lap was scintillating to watch, pushing his Honda RC213V to its limits while still staying holding some margin of safety through the damp sections around the back of the track, and treating the kerbs with caution. It was Marquez' 8th pole of the year, extending his record of poles in what is a truly remarkable rookie season.
He received a huge cheer as he crossed the line, though it is possible the cheer was the man who had crossed the line a few seconds earlier. Valentino Rossi had sent the crowds into a frenzy by taking provisional pole before he was so rudely deposed by Marquez. The Yamaha man was anything but displeased, however. At the press conference, Rossi explained that the front row start was more confirmation that the direction he and his crew had taken over the past few races was the right one. He was feeling better and better on the bike since Misano, when he and factory Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo had been given Yamaha's seamless gearbox at last. Progress had been made at the Misano race, more on the test on Monday, yet more at Aragon, and that forward momentum had carried on at Sepang. His race pace looks good, close to that of the three title contenders, and Rossi told the press conference he felt confident with the bike.
It nearly hadn't worked out that way for Rossi. The Italian had had a huge moment early on in the session, being thrown from the saddle and nearly crashing at Turn 6. It was his bike which had saved him, he said, rather than anything he had done. The treacherous asphalt had nearly caught him out, and ruined his chances altogether.
He wasn't the only rider to have a moment there. Jorge Lorenzo had been warned by his team manager Wilco Zeelenberg that the track was damp from Turn 5 onwards, but even then Lorenzo had a massive moment, nearly losing the bike altogether. From that point, he decided to treat that section with more caution, pushing for the rest of the lap but riding round turns 5, 6 and 7 more gingerly. He estimated he lost around half a second in just those three corners, pushing hard in the rest of the lap, but it was only good enough for 4th, and the second row of the grid.
Ahead of Lorenzo, and keeping the reigning world champion from the front row, was Cal Crutchlow, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider now back in the groove after the mid-season slump caused by a few crashes too many. Crutchlow, too, has strong pace, but he faces problems with his right arm. Still injured from his crash at Silverstone, his forearm is swelling in the heat and humidity of Sepang. The pain from yesterday is subsiding, Crutchlow suffering less the more he rides. The issue will not be solved until he has surgery on the arm after the Valencia test, but until then he will have to deal with it. More difficult than that will be the tires, which drop off after three laps, but with his mojo now firmly back under lock and key, Crutchlow is at least back battling at the front.
Behind Crutchlow and alongside Lorenzo on the second row sits Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda man choosing caution over audacity, and electing not to push, like Lorenzo. But a second row start is unlikely to be the disadvantage which it might for others. Throughout the year, both Lorenzo and Pedrosa have made rocket starts, leaving the rest of the field for dead off the line. On a track as wide as Sepang, starting from the second row is a minor inconvenience, rather than a massive hindrance. Betting against anyone entering Turn 1 ahead of the two men fighting to dethrone the upstart rookie would be very brave indeed.
One man who won't be on the grid is Stefan Bradl. The German was looking strong in the final session of free practice, when he suffered what looked like a harmless fall, folding the front at Turn 1. The bike slid off ahead of him, the handlebars ripping up the carpet as it passed. Bradl caught his foot in the raised carpet, fracturing his ankle in the process. Bradl's weekend was over.
His injury immediately prompted speculation that the LCR Honda team would need a replacement at Phillip Island. Where would they find someone with experience of the Honda, who was comfortable around Phillip Island, and was familiar with the LCR Honda team? Well, Casey Stoner fulfills all three of those requirements, a fact which triggered a frenzy of speculation among the media. There were only two minor obstacles: Casey Stoner has shown absolutely no inclination to make a return to racing, and Honda is far too happy to have the Australian as a test rider to put pressure on him to ride. 'There is zero chance of seeing Stoner racing at Phillip Island,' Repsol Honda team principal Livio Suppo told the press. It won't stop the speculation, but it won't make a Stoner start any more likely. Bradl has now been successfully operated, and his fitness will be assessed on Thursday. He is unlikely to be passed fit to race at the Island, but the German should be fit to resume his duties at Motegi a week later.
The question of the astroturf on the outside of Turn 1, and the conditions which the MotoGP men were sent out for qualifying in raised questions over the safety of both matters. The riders were unanimous on both issues: qualifying and racing has taken place in much more treacherous conditions than a couple of wet corners at Sepang, and so running qualifying was absolutely the right decision, the riders agreed. The conditions were the same for everyone.
As for the astroturf, once again there was broad agreement. The question would be brought up at the next meeting of the Safety Commission, Marc Marquez told the press conference, assuming the mantle of responsibility like a seasoned veteran rather than the rookie he is. While astroturf serves as a good way of demarcating the outside of corners in the exit zone, it is less useful on the outside of the track in the entry zone. Riders - or drivers, for that matter, when cars are raced at the same circuit - will not be getting anywhere near the track perimeter at that point of a corner, and so having carpet or astroturf serves no purpose. Better to have something solid, which would not cause an injury if a rider slid over it. Whether there is enough time to change it before Sunday's race remains to be seen.
The weather is the big question mark hanging over proceedings on Sunday. Right now, it looks like the track will be dry when all three classes line up on the grid. But this is the tropics, and anything can happen, especially in the late afternoon. Stand by for a few surprises.