The key to success in motorcycle racing is about controlling as many variables as you can. There are two variables which riders and teams cannot control, and which they fear for that very reason: the weather, and crashes. The weather spared both MotoGP and Moto2 at Brno on Saturday, but played havoc in Moto3. Crashes, too, made life difficult, both for MotoGP and in Moto3. It made for an intriguing day of practice.
The day started under leaden skies, with the threat of rain ever present throughout the morning. Dark clouds rolled in, then rolled right out again, chased deeper into Moravia and away from the track. They broke only briefly in the afternoon, the Moto3 qualifying session the main victim. Standing at trackside, the rain came and went so quickly that by the time I posted an update on Twitter, the weather had changed, immediately contradicting me. In the end, a red flag saved my blushes, Phillip Oettl crashing and damaging the air fence, causing the session to be halted while the air fence was repaired.
The rain had disappeared by the time MotoGP qualifying rolled around, conditions good enough for Marc Marquez to get close to Cal Crutchlow's pole record from 2013. That Marquez should take pole is hardly a surprise – that's nine out of eleven this year – but the way he controlled not just pole position, but the whole front row of the grid. Marquez jumped straight to pole on his first run out of the pits, but as he started his second run, he picked up a passenger. Andrea Iannone latched onto the tail of Marquez, and as Marquez flashed across the line to improve his time, Iannone used his tow to leapfrog ahead of his time, taking provisional pole from the Repsol Honda man. His soft tire spent, Iannone couldn't follow Marquez on his second run, the world champion going on to reclaim pole and demote Iannone to second. Further down the grid, Andrea Dovizioso followed Valentino Rossi around the circuit to improve his own time, moving up to second and demoting Iannone another spot.
The two front row slots for the Ducatis were a problem for Rossi, dropping the Movistar Yamaha rider down to seventh, and the start of the third row. Rossi joked darkly about Marquez' strategy, claiming that he was giving the Ducatis a tow to put them in between him and his main rivals. "For sure he is clever," Rossi said. "He doesn't pull Jorge, me or Dani, always a Ducati." Marquez laughed at the suggestion, admitting only half of Rossi's accusations. He certainly didn't look for Ducatis to give a tow, but he would not give one to his rivals, he said. "It's your decision to close the gas," Marquez told the press conference. "If it's Dani, Jorge or Valentino behind me, for sure I will close the gas, but if it is another rider, it doesn't matter." That is in itself an admission of just how little competition Marquez sees. He is prepared to give anyone a tow, except for the other factory Honda and the two factory Yamahas. In effect, he is dismissing the threat from any other riders. Harsh, but fair.
Bradley Smith was annoyed to miss out on the front row, the Tech 3 Yamaha man having an exceptionally strong qualifying session. Afterward, he declared himself disappointed. "Coming into the last corner, I looked down at the time difference, and saw I was up three quarters of a second." It had caught him off guard, and maybe just distracted his attention for a fraction of a second. "There was four thousandths in that last chicane, I know it," Smith said. But he was happy enough to be fourth, and fastest Yamaha, and to have a weekend where everything is just clicking into place. A just reward for his new contract with Tech 3.
Smith sits ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, the Movistar Yamaha rider having shown strong pace in free practice. Lorenzo had tried a set up change in both FP3 and during qualifying, which they thought would bring him an advantage. It didn't work out that way, Lorenzo losing time on his first run, and jumping on to his second bike with a tried and tested set up. A late charge saw the Movistar Yamaha rider move up the grid to sixth, just behind Dani Pedrosa.
So why did Rossi suggest that Marquez gave Ducatis a tow on purpose? The soft tire makes the fast enough to set a quick qualifying time, but they are still struggling with tire life during the race. With a fresh tire, the Ducatis can push hard and match the pace of the leaders, but after six to ten laps, the tire performance drops off and they start drifting back down the field. If the Ducatis are between Marquez and his rivals, then they can hold them up long enough for Marquez to escape, without posing a serious challenge to the reigning champ. They can give Marquez enough time to build a lead large enough to manage to the end of the race.
It is probably not a conscious strategy, as Rossi alleges, but Marquez is probably perfectly happy to let qualifying play out that way. Marquez was perfectly clear who he thinks can beat him: Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, and maybe Jorge Lorenzo, though he noted that Lorenzo had not shown the consistency he expected and was perhaps trying something with set up.
Looking at the timesheets, Marquez' only real threat comes from his teammate, however. Marquez and Pedrosa were lapping consistently in the low to mid 1'56s, where the rest were only occasionally dipping into the high 1'56s, and mostly running low 1'57s. The only exception in FP4 was Valentino Rossi, who was quickest in that session. Just how hard he was having to push to go fastest quickly became apparent, however, Rossi crashing on his fifth flying lap.
Rossi walked away almost unscathed, the only injury an open wound on his little finger. It looked to have been worse, Rossi fearing that he had broken the finger, making his anger at himself for crashing apparent by beating on the ground with his fist. Afterward, he explained his fear, telling reporters that he had tried to ride with a broken little finger before, but the pain when riding on a bumpy track – and Brno is a very bumpy track, especially this year at Turn 3, Turn 8, and Turn 14 – made it difficult to control the bike and be competitive. His chance of a good result was gone, he feared. To find nothing was broken was a relief.
Starting from pole, you have to suspect that Marquez will make it eleven wins in a row. Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that his first defeat of the season could be coming very soon. There is something about Dani Pedrosa here at Brno which makes you suspect this could be his weekend. There is a whiff of danger about him, and for the first time since Barcelona, you sense Marquez' streak could be about to end. Even if he survives here, we go next to Silverstone, a track which the Yamaha riders relish, and where Jorge Lorenzo will arrive bolstered by the feeling of a hard-fought and spectacular victory from last year. This should be an interesting couple of weeks.
In Moto2, Tito Rabat appears to have turned the tables on his Marc VDS teammate Mika Kallio. This time, it was Kallio's turn to struggle, the Finn crashing towards the end of qualifying just as he was on a hot lap. Kallio will start from sixth, while Rabat is once again in the zone and will start from pole. Tom Luthi and Sandro Cortese complete the first row, while Sam Lowes is in fourth. Back at a track he doesn't have to learn, having raced here in World Supersport, Lowes is shining once again. A podium is a real possibility for the Englishman.
It was the Moto3 class that bore the brunt of the weather at Brno, qualifying disrupted first by rain, then by a broken air fence. Rain fell on and off, though the track never really became wet. It did disrupt attempts to post a quick lap, with rain flags constantly waving and people slowing down and speeding up all the time. It added even more to the confusion of riders dawdling on the racing line looking for a tow, and led to an outburst of frustration by championship leader Jack Miller. The Australian could barely exit a single corner without finding someone waiting on the racing line, hoping to get in his slipstream, and when Pecco Bagnaia became the most egregious example of getting in his way, Miller lashed out in sheer frustration.
In other circumstances, such an outburst may have earned Miller a penalty point, but Bagnaia's blatant, and blatantly dangerous dawdling bought Miller a reprieve. Both men received a severe tongue-lashing, and both came perilously close to receiving points. Moto3 qualifying gave Race Direction a real headache, as waiting on the racing line is something they have been trying to crack down on. Several riders were hauled up in front of Race Direction at Brno, but all of them claimed (or feigned) innocence, with rain flags being shown often enough around the track that they could legitimately claim that they were concerned about the conditions. Whether the riders really were slowing for rain or waiting for a tow is hard to prove either way. The Scottish legal system allows a court to issue a verdict of "Not proven", which is a way for the courts to say they think the accused did it, but they can't prove it beyond reasonable doubt. Race Direction longed to be able to issue not proven verdicts after Moto3 at Brno.
So why are these riders waiting for a tow? I asked Ambrogio's Brad Binder about it, and he made it very clear. He and his crew had compared the data from separate laps at several racetracks, and a two was worth between 0.5 and 0.7 seconds. Same brake point, same lean angle, same throttle, same everything. The tow alone was giving the time. "It's like free time you don't have to work for," Binder said. The smart teams are working together, with Sky VR46 riders Romano Fenati and Pecco Bagnaia, Red Bull KTM's Jack Miller and Karel Hanika, and Estrella Galicia Alexes Rins and Marquez taking it in turns to chase each other around. Miller and Hanika had an even bigger advantage, with four Ajo riders – KTM's Hanika and Miller, and Husqvarna's Danny Kent and Niklas Ajo – all following each other around and improving their times.
All that slipstreaming hasn't helped Jack Miller much. The Hondas have a clear advantage at Brno, Marquez, Rins, Masbou and Vazquez all being fast. Polesitter Alex Marquez explained that the layout of the circuit, with a lot of medium speed corners, mitigated the Honda's weakest point, which is the chassis. What's more, the KTMs seemed to be suffering worse with chatter, something the Hondas were dealing with better.
Despite their advantage in practice, the Hondas are unlikely to be able to make a break. A track like Brno is sure to see a large group form, with many riders swapping the lead at the front. For Marquez, the challenge is clear: to take whatever risks are necessary to take points away from Jack Miller and Efren Vazquez. The Moto3 race is usually the most exciting of the weekend, and this one looks set to be another barnburner. The race will probably only be decided in the final corners of the very last lap, after that steep climb up the hill. With a left-right combination just before the finish line, the stage is set for drama.