Qualifying at Le Mans was full of surprises. Efren Vazquez grabbed his first ever pole in Moto3, Jonas Folger bagged his first Moto2 pole after just five races in the class, and Pol Espargaro secured a front row start as a rookie. Andrea Dovizioso posted another impressive performance, grabbing third in qualifying, and Ducati's first front row start of the year. The two Movistar Yamahas were relegated to the second row of the grid, and Dani Pedrosa will start from way down in ninth. If you'd put money on that sequence of events, you could have earned yourself a very tidy sum indeed.
You certainly wouldn't have earned much by betting on who would take pole. Marc Marquez is turning into the very antithesis of surprise, at least if you judge him by the timesheet. The championship leader only managed three flying laps during qualifying at Le Mans, but two of those were fast enough to break the pole record held by Dani Pedrosa, and set using super soft Michelin qualifying tires. For the second meeting in succession, Marquez destroyed a pole record which had stood throughout the spec tire era.
He also destroyed the field in the process. Marc Marquez was nearly seven tenths quicker than the second placed rider during qualifying. He was over eight tenths quicker than both Movistar Yamaha riders, and over a second quicker than his teammate Dani Pedrosa. He took his fifth pole of the season – a clean sweep in 2014 so far – and his sixth in succession. If he wins tomorrow, he will take the record as the youngest rider to win five premier class races in a row from Mike Hailwood. He has more records in sight: Giacomo Agostini won the first eight races from pole in 1971; Mick Doohan won ten races from pole in 1997. Bookies are currently offering odds of 1/18 on Marquez taking the championship in 2014. Those are the kind of returns you would expect from interest on a long-term savings account, not from having a flutter in the hope of winning big. In the opinion of the bookmakers, betting on Marc Marquez is like putting money in the bank.
Is the Le Mans grid a truthful reflection of the real state of MotoGP? There is good reason to believe it is not. Pol Espargaro, for one, was realistic. The lap that put him in second was just a single fast lap, he told the press conference, and not representative of his real race pace. 'I did a good lap,' the Monster Tech 3 rider said. 'But Jorge had amazing pace in FP4.' It was not his job to be fighting for the podium, and he would be lying to himself to think he had a genuine shot at the box. He had set his fastest lap behind Jorge Lorenzo, and profited from Lorenzo, Rossi and Pedrosa not managing to post a fast time.
Rossi put his fifth slot down to a small mistake during qualifying, which was enough to lose the front row. If the gap to Marquez is vast, the battle behind is much closer, with just three tenths separating Espargaro in second from Pedrosa in ninth. Rossi had lost out due to a minor error; Lorenzo had not been able to translate his searing race pace from FP4 into a scorching qualifying lap; and Dani Pedrosa had been unable to push aggressively for a quick lap as he is still recovering from surgery for arm pump. Pedrosa's race pace was fine, he said, as he can focus more on being smooth, and treating his arm a little more gently.
In fact all three of Marquez' main rivals are confident of their pace in the race. Jorge Lorenzo laid down a blistering set of laps in FP4, banging in lap after lap in the high 1'33s. Valentino Rossi, too, was happy with his race pace, after facing a difficult Friday. It had been hard for his new crew chief Silvano Galbusera, Rossi said, as the World Superbike championship never visits Le Mans, and the French track is such an unusual layout. They had had to turn the bike upside down, shifting more weight to the rear of the bike to cope with the stop-and-go nature of the track. The overnight changes had transformed both the bike and Rossi's fortunes, allowing him to lap a second faster than Friday. Rossi's race pace was high 1'33s, matching that of Lorenzo and Pedrosa. A bit more improvement in braking, and he could be even faster.
The problems faced by Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa is the fact that they will have plenty of traffic to get through first. Le Mans is a narrow track, and Stefan Bradl in fourth and Andrea Dovizioso in third will not be easy to get past. Dani Pedrosa has the added difficulty of starting from the third row, alongside Alvaro Bautista and Aleix Espargaro. Le Mans first chicane is almost a guarantee of trouble, and if you don't get in their first, you always risk being taken out or forced wide by riders coming from behind. Rocket starts will be needed to avoid trouble. And let rocket starts be the speciality of Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, while Marc Marquez always seems to struggle off the line. There is hope that events might conspire to create a real race, but we must fear that once Marc Marquez gets to the front, he will be gone. With a bit of luck, that will take some time.
While few people question Marc Marquez' talent, there are those who point to the superiority of the Honda. Valentino Rossi told Italian reporters that he too, felt that the Honda was better than the Yamaha, though the difference was only small. Would Marquez be quite so dominant on the Yamaha? Rossi didn't think so, but that wouldn't necessarily change the results. 'He would also be able to win with the M1,' Rossi was quick to add. Marquez speed and concentration were what gave him the edge, Rossi said. 'But I don't think Marquez is that much quicker than Jorge.'
Rossi's considerations are reflected in results. Take Marc Marquez out of the equation, and there would still be a Honda at the top of the standings, as Dani Pedrosa has been on the podium every race so far. But wins would be shared equally between Pedrosa and Rossi, and both Yamaha and Honda would have the same number of podiums. The Honda RC213V is clearly a very good bike, but it is Marquez, above all, who is making the difference.
But Marquez did not get it entirely his own way during qualifying, despite dominating the timesheets. The Spaniard clashed briefly with Andrea Iannone, after Iannone had taken the shortcut through the Chemin aux Boeufs chicane to try to catch Marquez and get a tow. He exited the slip road almost broadsiding Marquez, who was on a flying lap at the time. Marquez did not take it very well, and fist-shaking ensued. 'If some other rider follows me, it's not a problem because I can understand why,' Marquez said of the incident. 'What I can't understand is that he uses the shortcut on the back straight to try to take my slipstream, and I felt it was a bit dangerous.' It was the first time Marquez has shown any signs of irritation or dismay all year. The pressure getting to him? Unlikely. The next time out, Marquez took half a second off his lap and shattered the lap record once again. But at least it shows that he is human.
If the MotoGP race threatens to turn into another whitewash, the support classes have more to offer. Moto2 looks intriguing, with the new class of rookies coming up from Moto3 really starting to shine. Jonas Folger took his first pole of the class, just edging out Tito Rabat, who made an uncharacteristic mistake and crashed halfway through qualifying. Rabat shares the front row with Luis Salom, another rookie, while Maverick Viñales starts from seventh. There is a changing of the guard in Moto2, with the newcomers ready to rough up the old guard of Rabat, Mika Kallio, Thomas Luthi, Simone Corsi. On a track where passing is hard, the field could be pretty close in Moto2.
Much the same is true for Moto3 as well. The Hondas have found some speed since a test last week, but Jack Miller and the KTMs are still right there with them, and still better in braking. The narrow track means passing is hard, even on a slim Moto3 machine, and so the strategy will be to wait for the final laps before making a big play for the win, polesitter Efren Vazquez said. With Miller and Alex Rins on the front row, Frenchman Alexis Masbou heading up the second, and Alex Marquez, Isaac Viñales and John McPhee all close, the race is likely to be decided only on the very final laps. Even Romano Fenati is a force to be reckoned with, despite only qualifying in tenth. The Italian won the last Moto3 race at Jerez from the same grid position, so his rivals will be worried. Moto3 continues to be the most thrilling race of the weekend, and Le Mans looks set to be no different.