Is Marc Marquez's season going downhill? You might be tempted to say so, if you judged it by the last three races alone. After utterly dominating the first half of the season, Marquez has won only a single race in the last three outings, finishing a distant fourth in Brno, and crashing out of second place at Misano, before remounting to score a single solitary point. Look at practice and qualifying at Aragon, however, and Marquez appears to have seized the initiative once again. He had to suffer a Ducati ahead of him on Friday, but on Saturday, he was back to crushing the opposition. Fastest in both sessions of free practice, then smashing the pole record twice. This is a man on a mission. He may not be able to wrap up the title here, but he can at least win.
The way Marquez secured pole was majestic, supremely confident, capable and willing to hang it all out when he needed. He set a new pole record on his first run of the 15 minute session, waited in the garage until the last few minutes, then went out. He shook off Andrea Iannone, who was trying to get a tow, then when he saw Dani Pedrosa had taken over pole from him, went all out. Despite making a bit of a mess of the final sector, he still took nearly four tenths off his own best lap, demoting Pedrosa to second.
It wasn't just his pole time which was impressive. The race pace he showed in FP4 was fast, a string of high 1'48s and a couple of low 1'49s. The only rider to get anywhere near him was his teammate, Pedrosa knocking out a sequence of 1'49.0s, followed by a handful of high 1'48s. Pedrosa still has a score to settle, and though Marc Marquez is grabbing the headlines, he could find himself with quite a fight on his hands.
Marquez and Pedrosa need not fear a challenge from any other quarter. "There is no way to fight with the factory Hondas," Valentino Rossi said after qualifying. His teammate agreed. "Maybe we can fight for third or fourth position," Jorge Lorenzo said. Even that had looked beyond them at one point. Both Movistar Yamaha men had suffered badly with tire issues on Saturday, Rossi and Lorenzo both complaining they had received a defective tire.
Valentino Rossi had the biggest problem, with a tire which he said nearly caused him to crash on Saturday morning, the Italian having a massive moment and nearly being thrown off the bike. That caused him to miss out on being in the top ten after the three sessions of free practice, which meant he had to go through Q1 to make it to Q2. He tried to set a time with a hard rear tire, and save a medium for Q2 and the race. To make sure, he went out a second time, and got himself through to Q2. His Q2 session went better, getting himself on to the second row of the grid, something that looked a very distant possibility on Saturday afternoon.
Lorenzo, too, had issues, the Spaniard claiming he had two defective tires during practice and qualifying. The first problem tire came in the morning, while he found the second one during Q2. When asked, a Bridgestone spokesperson was quick to point out that Lorenzo set his fastest lap of the weekend on that supposedly defective tire, implying that the tire could not have been that bad. Tires weren't the only thing that concerned Lorenzo: the Spaniard also felt hampered by the aerodynamics of his leathers and of his helmet, which, he claimed, was costing him a couple of kilometers per hour in top speed.
Lorenzo's complaints were symptomatic of the situation which the Movistar Yamaha riders find themselves in. The abrasive tarmac at Aragon means that Bridgestone were forced to bring a tire with a harder compound on the edge, to cope with the heat generated by the track. That hard edge, along with the heat-resistant layer added to all of Bridgestone's 2014 tires, make it difficult for the Yamahas to get the edge grip and carry the corner speed they need. They are not matching the times they set during the test here in June, despite using those same tires. The difference? Fifteen degrees centigrade of track temperature between then and now. The cooler track this weekend is making life really hard for the factory Yamahas.
In the morning, the factory Yamahas were being shown up by the satellite Tech 3 riders. Pol Espargaro took third spot in FP3, while Bradley Smith finished sixth. Both finished ahead of the Movistar riders, Lorenzo finishing eighth and Rossi ending in a lowly eleventh position. Espargaro put his bike into fourth spot in Q2, heading up the second row of the grid. A crash by Bradley Smith ruined his qualifying session, and stripped the skin from his already damaged fingers, despite his glove remaining intact. They both had decent pace, but it would be hard to match the factory bikes come race day, Pol Espargaro said. "Tomorrow, they will be fast, as always."
Perhaps the main threat to the Hondas could come from the Ducatis. Andrea Dovizioso has been consistently fast, including managing a strong race pace. But he felt he had lost his chance of a podium in a crash during Q2, when a small mistake saw him go down at the start of his second run. He was missing a little bit of feeling in the final part of braking, Dovizioso said, and this gave him less confidence in the front. If they could recover the feeling he had at Misano, he maybe could have pushed for a podium. But starting from the third row, and with a very short run into the first corner, it was virtually impossible.
The two other factory Ducatis have it a good deal easier. Andrea Iannone's third spot in Q2 means that a Ducati has qualified on the front row for the last five races. Iannone switched back from 2015 Brembo calipers to 2014 calipers, and that made braking just a little bit easier than it had been on Friday. His race pace was now much better, though the question remained of how well his pace would hold up once the tire started to drop after the first five or six laps. "It will be difficult to fight for the first five positions," Iannone claimed.
Perhaps the most surprising Ducati performance came from Cal Crutchlow. After a few miserable weeks, the Englishman seems to have localized at least a small portion of his mojo, Crutchlow getting straight into Q2 without much trouble, then posting a very quick lap to end in fifth position, matching his best qualifying result on the Ducati. The secret had been in finding six tenths in the first sector of the track, found most especially in the way he attacked the corners. Before, he had been turning in early and aiming at the apex, in an attempt to scrub off speed while still getting the bike turned. During qualifying, he switched approach, turning in later and harder.
That change was so successful it left Crutchlow positively confused. When he looked down at his dashboard after the first sector, he saw he was six tenths of a second faster than on previous laps. He thought his dashboard was broken, and only believed it when he looked the following lap, when it showed him seven tenths quicker. With the softer tire offering a little more grip through the right handers in that first sector, it was enough to propel him to his best result since Assen.
It was a deserved result for all the hard work his team had put in, Crutchlow said. They may not have the latest updates for the Desmosedici, but he was now getting the most out of the package available to him. Whether the qualifying boost translates to a faster race pace remains to be seen, of course, but it is possible that Crutchlow could have turned a corner.
Former World Superbike champion and current BT Sport reporter Neil Hodgson had a theory that this was the start of Crutchlow working for 2015. It is imperative that Crutchlow posts a quick time during the Valencia test, when he climbs on the LCR Honda for the first time, Hodgson said. It would be impossible to climb off the Ducati after a slow weekend and go fast on the Honda, so Crutchlow had to start attacking now, in preparation for next year. No doubt Crutchlow had been riding at 100% before, but perhaps his approach was a little more aggressive now, and that was paying dividends. It is a fine line for Crutchlow to walk, however: between pushing too hard and getting injured, and not pushing hard enough and losing confidence was a very narrow region of being exactly aggressive enough.
Of course, the weather may throw all of this out of the window. The forecasts for Sunday have been exceptionally unstable, changing several times a day. At the time of writing, it looks set to rain from early in the morning onwards, and fairly heavily during all three races. That opens up new opportunities, though to be frank, it will probably suit the Hondas and the Ducatis best of all. Of course, given how fast the forecast has changed over the past 24 hours, it all could be different again tomorrow morning. There is no point in making a prediction at the moment.
In the junior classes, it was very much a Spanish show. A change of strategy by Maverick Viñales saw the Spanish rookie improve at three key points around the track, which secured him pole. Johann Zarco starts from second, with Mika Kallio beside him, while Tito Rabat will have to start the race from the second row. Rabat's confidence may have taken a knock after he crashed during qualifying, opening up new chances for Mika Kallio to close the gap to the championship leader. The Moto2 series may have been a little dull this year, but the title race is really starting to hot up.
In Moto3, it is Alex Rins who is on a role, grabbing his second pole in three races. He edged ahead of an impressive Danny Kent, while Aspar's Juanfran Guevara took the last place on the front row. Championship leader Jack Miller heads up the second row, after a petulant display during qualifying. Miller brake checked a group of riders trying to get a tow from him, then made his feelings very clear through the medium of arm signals. He made them even clearer in his post-race interview with BT Sport, using a term that must have had the TV directors wishing they had a five-second delay and a beep machine.
Miller's complaint is absolutely valid: he cannot move without a group of riders trying to follow him, often waiting on the racing line for him to arrive. That, quite frankly, is exceptionally dangerous, for both Miller and the riders waiting for him. However, whether it makes much difference to the behavior of those following him is open to question, though it makes for highly entertaining TV. He will be glad to move up to MotoGP in 2015, where he will be spared the blight of slower riders cruising for a tow.