Success in motorcycle racing is a fickle beast. Getting everything just right to get the best out the bike and rider is a difficult undertaking, with a thousand factors standing ready to throw a spanner in the works. The bike has to have the right balance of stability in braking, nimbleness in corner entry, and strength in acceleration. The rider has to be in peak physical condition, mentally on top of his game, and ready to seize any opportunity which presents itself. When track conditions are ideal, the rider has to be able to find the limit of adhesion. When track conditions or the weather are not playing ball, the rider has to guess the right time to attack, and the right time to hold off. They have to judge how the conditions are changing and when they are ripe to be exploited. Get it right, and you dominate. Get it wrong, and you are lost in the pack.
You also have to be lucky, or know how to make your own luck. The qualifying session for the MotoGP class at Assen showed just how big a role luck can play, the weather playing a massive role in proceedings. The weather changes fast at Assen. In a country as flat as the Netherlands, the wind blows cloud and rain in quickly, and carries it away just as fast. Bright sunshine can change to heavy cloud in a few minutes, with rain following on behind. Which is just what happened on Friday afternoon. Sunshine made way for gray skies, the air pregnant with moisture. It spotted with rain in the morning, briefly during FP4, but only really struck during Q2. It threw the plans and running order of MotoGP into disarray, with smart and lucky riders winning out, the ill-starred ending up well down the grid.
The weather demonstrated how sometimes, disarray can turn to your advantage. Skies had been getting heavier all throughout Q1, though it was never more than a few drops which fell. That changed as Q2 got underway. Rain started falling more heavily at De Bult, the mid-section of the southern part of the circuit, just as Q2 got underway. That caused a sprint race from pit lane exit, the riders battling more like a bunch of Red Bull Rookies than experienced veterans of motorcycle racing's premier class. The sprint soon turned into jockeying for position: nobody wanted to lead, as being the first rider into a corner turned you into the guinea pig, testing grip for everyone following. Following was not much better: though you could at least see what the conditions were for the riders ahead, you did not want to get stuck in the traffic behind. Eleven riders left the pits together, getting stuck watching each other, speeding up, slowing down, and constantly trying to figure out what the best strategy might be.
'That was the stupidest thing I have ever seen in my life,' Bradley Smith said afterwards. 'We were like a group of ten guys checking out one girl in a nightclub, all looking at each other and waiting to see who was going to make the move. I have never ridden so slowly to finish sixth.' Cal Crutchlow found himself in the same boat. 'In all honesty I didn't push so hard on that lap and I wondered what they all doing going so slow. Yes it was bit damp but they were taking it a bit too cautious for me, so I thought maybe they knew something I didn't and suddenly I ended up fifth.'
The rider who benefited was Aleix Espargaro, who was the last man out of the pits during Q2. His mechanics were still busy looking at the sky and judging the conditions. This made Espargaro late to the party, exiting pit lane some 20 seconds after the rest had gone. That turned out to be the perfect distance: close enough to judge conditions from the riders ahead, but far enough away not to get held up by them. His first flying lap put him in pole position. His second lap had the potential to be even faster, but the rain started to fall in earnest as he hit the final sector. By then, it didn't matter. Nobody would better his time, the elder Espargaro going on to grab his very first pole in Grand Prix racing.
Aleix Espargaro benefited where the factory Yamaha riders – along with his younger brother Pol – suffered. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi lost out in the proceedings, getting stuck in traffic and making a series of wrong decisions. Lorenzo shot out of pit lane first, led the big group that followed, decided leading was too risky, then tried to move forward again. Rossi tried to run with the group on his first flying lap, before deciding to drop back for his second flying lap. 'From my point of view I need 30 seconds more. If the rain wait for 30 seconds I could make a good lap, but when I come back from turn ten, there is already too much water,' Rossi told us. It didn't, so instead of starting from the second row of the grid, Valentino Rossi finds himself down in 12th, directly behind his teammate Jorge Lorenzo.
Qualifying also demonstrated how much luck and making the right decisions can come into play. Though neither Marc Marquez nor Dani Pedrosa are on pole, both Repsol Hondas will start from the front row. Marquez, like Rossi and Lorenzo, found himself caught up with the group who exited the pits together. Unlike the Movistar Yamaha riders, however, Marquez acted decisively. He fought his way to the front of the group, putting an exceptionally aggressive move on Pol Espargaro, though one which Pol was perfectly happy to accept. He moved to the front, pushed for a lap, and bagged second spot. He then looked up at the big screens which surround the circuit, saw that he was second, but more importantly, that the factory Yamahas were a long way back, and decided he had taken enough risks for one day. 'My target was to finish on the front row', Marquez told the press conference. ' When I did the lap and saw I was in second, I thought, okay no need to take more risks.'
The fact that Marc Marquez will start from the front row, while his main rivals – with the exception of Dani Pedrosa – will start from much further back is yet another example of Marquez' excellent luck. Like Valentino Rossi before him, Marquez has luck on his side, the dice always falling in his favor. When things go badly, they never go so badly as to have a deleterious effect on his chance of retaining the MotoGP title. When things go well, he capitalizes, demoralizing the opposition in the process. Marc Marquez is clearly in the flow, and once in, he is hard to bring back out again.
The sad thing is that the weird half-dry, half-wet qualifying has robbed the fans of a potentially brilliant race. All four factory Honda and Yamaha riders were quick on race pace, with Pol Espargaro not far behind. But a twist of fate put the Honda men in front, while the Yamaha riders will start from much further down the grid. Rossi and Lorenzo can only hope for rain on Sunday, to give them a chance to catch the front runners. Otherwise it could be a rather one-sided affair.
There are two rays of hope on the two front rows, however. The first is Aleix Esparagaro, who is very quick indeed. He is especially quick on the softer of the two CRT/Open options, and is confident he can make the tire last. It may drop off quite a lot at the end, yet having a plan and sticking to it could well end up paying dividends for Aleix.
The second ray of hope is Bradley Smith, who at this point is in desparate need of some results. Smith has proved to be fast in individual sessions, but he has not yet put it together to secure results. If Smith is to secure his seat for next year, he needs to latch on to the front runners, and try to hang on for as long as he can. Given his race pace, he should be able to do that.
Is this new system really fair? I would suggest that it is. The new system merely replicates the old, but with a bit of an added twist. QP is no longer an hour, but rather cut down quite seveely to two, 15 minute sessions. The riding is very similar: you have half an hour of FP4, then the two qualifying sessions of Q1 and Q2. To succeed in Q2, you have to time your attack right and avoid getting bogged down in traffic.
The brief rain shower during Q2 robbed the fans of the spectacle of the top four starting together at the front. Yet similar situations have arisen in the past, with wet weather cutting off most of the session, forcing the riders into chasing times in a very tight window. Then, as now, rain meant that riders who had been expected to shine ended well down the grid. The weather has always been a factor, and overall, splitting the qualifying part of practice from the last bit of bike set up is an excellent move. FP4 is for bike set up, and qualifying is for a grid slot. That is very much how qualifying is supposed to be.
The weather may have wreaked havoc on qualifying, there are plenty of signs it will do the same for the race. The forecast for Saturday is just as unstable as it has been so far this weekend. The race could easily be either a flag-to-flag race, or properly wet. Either way, that should provide quite the spectacle for the fans. If there is one thing you can be sure of at Assen, the weather will throw you a curve ball at some point. Get your catcher's mitt at the ready.