Motorcycle racing is a continual war of innovation. It is a war fought out on many different battlegrounds at many different times, but at its heart, it is about finding new ways, better ways of doing things. Engineers, teams and riders are always looking for some small advantage, turning what they do upside down in the hope of finding something to exploit.
Usually, when motorcycle racing fans talk about innovation, they have a vision of hard metal in their minds, of parts belonging on a motorcycle. They will point to aluminium twin spar frames, to upside down forks, to seamless gearboxes. Some may allude to slightly less tangible improvements: Honda's Torductor, a sensor used to measure the forces going through the engine sprocket directly; perhaps Yamaha's electronics package, which combines 3D models of the racetrack with predictive models of tire wear and fuel load to provide adaptive vehicle dynamics strategies.
The human element is important too. New training methods come and go, along with new diets and new nutritional supplements. Riders suddenly start getting off the bike and jumping into ice baths to aid recovery. Then, a year later, the ice baths are gone. If the championship leader spends a lot of time on a trials bike, everyone down to the rider bringing up the rear in Moto3 has to spend his time jumping rocks on a Beta or a Gas Gas. Should a new champion focus on racing dirt track, every rider and his mother-in-law has a dirt oval built in their back yard.
At Jerez, qualifying in both MotoGP and Moto3 showcased organizational innovation, the ability to see opportunities offered in a qualifying format, and to exploit them to your own advantage. In both cases those seizing their chances were richly rewarded, with Marc Marquez and Jack Miller securing pole comfortably in MotoGP and Moto3, their respective classes. Miller's trick is one he has been using almost since the start of the season, and has been covered here before. But the innovation come up with by Marc Marquez was a masterstroke, the fruits of a spark of inspiration planted by an almost chance remark, yielding a rich harvest.
That innovation? Swapping bikes during Q2 to use a fresh set of tires, instead of sitting waiting while the mechanics rushed to put in a new rear tire. At a track with a shorter lap time like Jerez, this meant that Marquez was able to manage three exits instead of two, pushing doubly hard on a new tire each time, instead of trying to extract performance for multiple laps on a new soft tire.
It had come about after Marquez told his crew chief Santi Hernandez that the soft rear tire only really gave full performance for a single lap at full speed. He had mentioned this to Hernandez after FP4, Marquez told the press conference, and just before qualifying, Hernandez suggested the radical new strategy. It meant that Marquez would have to go out on two different bikes, and although MotoGP machines are supposed to be identical, they never are completely. Marquez said he felt good on both bikes, though he admitted he felt slightly better on one bike than on the other. He then cunningly avoided answering which of his two bikes he preferred, by joking that it was 'the orange one' which felt better. There was also a minor set up change between the two, but that did not prevent Marquez from going out and hammering in a fast lap.
And what a lap. It took him until the third attempt, but Marquez put over four tenths of a second on Jorge Lorenzo. It also took him under Lorenzo's pole record at Jerez, which Lorenzo had set back in 2008, and was one of only four pole records left to be set on the supersoft qualifying tires. Marquez has now been on pole for all four MotoGP races of the 2014 season, a feat last achieved by Valentino Rossi. One more pole and he matches Rossi's record of five. A sixth, and he matches the record of Giacomo Agostini, which would be an achievement indeed, given just how competitive grids are compared to the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That does not mean that the race is Marquez' for the taking. On pure race pace, the top four are very much closer than qualifying suggests. Look at the lap charts for FP4, and Marquez, Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi are all capable of running multiple laps in the high 1'39s and low 1'40s. Lorenzo took the cake, going out and packing as much of a race simulation as he could into the 30 minute FP4 session. The Movistar Yamaha set out with a sequence of five laps in the 1'39s, his pace then dropping to just the low 1'40s, eventually declining to the high 1'40s. It was an impressive performance, and one reminiscent of the Jorge Lorenzo who seemed to go missing at the Sepang 1 test, and had yet to turn up.
Lorenzo's team boss Wilco Zeelenberg said that Lorenzo was feeling much happier than he had done in a while. The fact that his team asked him to do a race simulation was a sign of just how strong Lorenzo was feeling. 'He can keep the pace better than before, that's why we asked him to do it,' Zeelenberg explained. 'It helps him get into his rhythm, find the limit. If the tire drops too much and you cannot push, then you come in. This was finally the first time where he's able to do this pace. But it's not a race simulation, it's 18 laps, you still need to do 9 more.'
The fact that Marquez was on pole was less of a concern. 'The race is tomorrow,' Zeelenberg said, before joking that at least Marquez had needed three tires to take the pole from Lorenzo, who had used only two. 'We are very happy with second,' he added more seriously. 'The race is tomorrow, and we know we are not going to be doing 1'38s.'
In fact it looks like being a proper four-way shoot out for the win, a race which could perhaps be settled in the final corner. Valentino Rossi was feeling the benefit of a new chassis, one which had failed to convince Jorge Lorenzo. Offering more braking stability, the new frame had added to Rossi's confidence in braking. He had been hoping for a front row, Rossi said, but the most important thing was the race rhythm. Teammate Lorenzo was a little bit better, Rossi suffering with a rear tire which wanted to spin up in the hot and greasy conditions.
Then there's Dani Pedrosa, who loves the Jerez circuit and has never been of the podium in the premier class. Starting from the front row was important, he said, but even more important was getting a good start and avoiding getting caught up with the riders behind in the first laps. This is where he had suffered, Pedrosa explained, taking too long to fight his way forward to the leaders. The plan for Sunday was to be at the front of the race from the very beginning.
With four riders likely to be battling for victory from the start, the chances of yet another last-corner collision must surely be high. The final turn at Jerez is notorious for action, as witnessed last year by the collision between Lorenzo and Marquez. Try as they might, the journalists in the press conference could not tempt either man into saying anything concrete about the possibility of yet another clash.
Marc Marquez' innovation may be new – expect to see more riders trying it out at the shorter circuits which have very high temperatures – Jack Miller's strategy in Moto3 has become familiar this season. Instead of waiting until the last moment of qualifying, and trying to hitch a decent tow (so often a prerequisite of a fast time in MotoGP's smallest class) Miller goes out early when the track is at its emptiest and fires in an unbeatable time. In Austin, that was at the start of the session; at Jerez, that was some ten minutes before the end, before the track filled up with riders desperate for a tow. 'It's like a parking lot in those last minutes,' Miller quipped.
Sunday promises much by the way of racing. A scorching hot circuit, a tight battle in Moto3, an unpredictable Moto2 race – Mika Kallio sits on pole, rather than Marc VDS teammate Tito Rabat, who has dominated Moto2 this year – and best of all, a real scrap in MotoGP. Crowds are already thronging the streets of Jerez, though it is still uncertain whether they will make their way to the track. Season observers reckoned that crowds were a little thin for qualifying, putting the lack of spectators down to the last-minute TV deal in Spain putting MotoGP into the hands of Movistar, the local broadband and mobile phone giant. The Spanish telecoms giant has already taken to covering up the logo on its gear at the circuit, after instances of sabotage were reported.
Fans were angry at having lost free-to-air coverage, but even more so than the fact that many Spaniards could not even receive the coverage if they wanted to. Movistar's high speed broadband service is not available in many smaller towns and villages of Spain, leading to the ironic situation that even the president of Repsol could not watch the exploits of the world champions he sponsors. The small village he lives in outside of Barcelona does not have Movistar broadband yet, and so he must go without. At least Dorna's decision to block new purchases of its video pass in Spain and Italy has been undone, after a Spanish lawyer worked out that this was illegal under EU law. Dorna's new TV strategy is coming under close scrutiny, and though it is bringing in strong revenue in TV rights, there are question marks over what it is doing to the popularity of the sport. With Sunday's race looking like being a real barnburner, this could turn out to be a painful own goal for Dorna in the long run.
That, however, is something to consider later. On Sunday, there will be racing, at a great track, in front of passionate fans, in a wonderful location. What more can a motorcycle racing fan ask for?