Qualifying confirmed what we had already seen on Friday: the old Jorge Lorenzo is back. The Movistar Yamaha rider was fastest in FP1 and FP2 yesterday. He was fastest in FP3 in the cool of Saturday morning, and he was quick in the heat of FP4. He wasn't fastest in the one session of truly free practice for the MotoGP class – Andrea Iannone put in a quick lap on the Ducati, proving once again that the GP15 is an outstanding motorcycle – but he posted five laps faster than Iannone's second-quickest lap. Then, during qualifying, he set a pace which no one could follow. Using a three-stop strategy, copied shamelessly from Marc Márquez last, Lorenzo posted a 1'38.2 on his second rear tire, then became the first man to lap the Jerez circuit in less than 1'38, stopping the clock at 1'37.910.
That is a mind-bendingly fast lap. Especially given the conditions. Set in the middle of the afternoon, in the blistering heat: air temperatures of over 30°, and track temps of nearly 50°. Set on a track which is notoriously greasy when it's hot, offering the worst grip of the year, especially now that Misano has been resurfaced. Set on asphalt that was laid eleven years ago, and has been used very intensively ever since. If there was ever a time and a place to break the pole record at Jerez, Saturday afternoon was not it. Nobody told Jorge Lorenzo, though.
Lorenzo is not just fast over a single lap, but has consistently run a faster race pace than anyone else has looked capable of managing. He is looking very much like the Lorenzo of old: fast, smooth, utterly consistent, unstoppable. If he gets a good start, it is hard to see who could stay with him for 27 laps. He told the press conference he will be trying to escape on the first lap. It looks like that will be the last the rest of the field see of him.
Where has this turnaround come from? "I changed my way of riding," he told the press conference. When pushed to explain, he said he was riding more on instinct, allowing himself to ride freely without getting caught up worrying about what to do. Lorenzo's team boss Wilco Zeelenberg explained further. "He's not overthinking it any more." How has Lorenzo achieved this change? A lot of small things, Zeelenberg said. The bike was better than last year, Lorenzo has changed his training program and is fitter, he has a handle on the tires. Signing a new contract helped, but was not a really big difference. Having another distraction out of the way makes it even easier to focus.
Why has it taken until the fourth race of the year for it all to come together? There isn't really a single explanation. It's just that everything has gone right so far for the Movistar Yamaha rider, where he has had a range of minor issues at other tracks. A weird helmet malfunction at Qatar, bronchitis at Austin, a struggle with the tire and a mistake in Argentina. That had led many people to write him off, but that would be a mistake. Despite his difficulties, Lorenzo has finished fourth twice and fifth once. Given the strength of the field, that is still a pretty decent start to the year. He is fourth in the championship, just 29 points shy of the leader, his teammate Valentino Rossi. This time last year, he was down in seventh, 53 points behind Marc Márquez. Now he leads the 2014 world champion by a point. Lorenzo is still very much in the running for the championship.
This year, it is Marc Márquez for whom everything seems to be going wrong. A mechanical problem which pushed him wide in the first turn at Qatar, an engine problem in Texas which has forced him to abandon one of his five engines for the year, a crash in Argentina desperately trying to hold off a charging Valentino Rossi. Then what should have been a relatively minor training crash riding dirt track with his friends, in which he ended up breaking his little finger. That a little finger can have an impact was demonstrated in FP4. Márquez ran into Turn 1 a little hot, but hammered into and through the corner just as he has a hundred times before. The bike moving, Márquez tried to hold the bike through the corner, but a combination of a lack of strength and the unfamiliar feel of a modified handlebar meant he couldn't quite hold it upright. Márquez slid off the bike unhurt, carefully protecting his left hand as he slid sitting upright through the gravel. A fully fit Márquez would have saved that crash.
The incident appeared to have chastened Márquez a little, and made him more conservative for the rest of the day. Márquez, too, had planned a three-run strategy in qualifying, having been the first to try the idea at Jerez last year. But it would have been too stressful, the team decided, and instead, Márquez went for just a single stop, taking two shots at pole. It was good enough to bag him second on the grid, and a place on the front row. That will give him his best shot at staying with Jorge Lorenzo, but Márquez acknowledged he feared the full length of the race. He had not used any painkillers so far this weekend, but would have to do so to complete the race. He was having to compensate for the pain in his left hand by bearing more of the stress of riding on his right arm. That extra strain was what had him worried. The pain of riding with a broken hand was something he could manage. Whether he will get arm pump in his other arm is the great unknown. Márquez has put any notion of the win out of his mind, or at least that's what he is saying publicly. Points is what he is chasing, as many as possible without taking too many risks.
What of Valentino Rossi? The Italian has still not made up his mind about which tire would be the best one to run. After Friday, he felt like it would be the hard tire, but had tested the medium extensively on Saturday, to good effect. Rossi would not be drawn into a definitive choice, but it seems almost certain that he, like almost everyone else on the grid, will end up on the same tires: the hard front, and the medium rear. Rossi's pace was already good in both FP3 and FP4, but he felt he would need to find a little bit more if he is to keep with Jorge Lorenzo. At the moment, Lorenzo looks invincible, but with Rossi in his current form, you never know. He and his crew have a knack of finding "something" during warm up on Sunday morning. With a massive temperature difference between 10am for warm up and 2pm for the race making conditions totally different, judging such changes can be hard. Still, if there is one thing we have been reminded of once again this year, it is that you never write Valentino Rossi off, especially when he is showing the kind of form he has recently.
The most interesting potential fly in the ointment comes from the direction of Ducati. Andrea Iannone took his second front row start of the season, repeating the third place he took in Argentina. Iannone's race pace looks strong, running similar times to Rossi. His biggest obstacle at the moment is handling the confusion of mapping settings during the race. His team have been trying to teach him the intricacies of tire management through the use of multiple mappings for traction control, wheelie control and engine braking. The idea is to switch through those different settings as the race goes on, judging when tire performance has dropped enough for the next setting to offer some benefit, but it takes experience and a particular mindset to handle that correctly. Iannone has not yet mastered that art, and is suffering in the race as a result.
Iannone's struggles provide an insight into the contrasting approaches of Ducati and Honda. Ducati's electronics are very powerful, but also highly configurable, allowing a vast range of adjustments. That allows you to get the electronics just right, but with four sessions of free practice, actually succeeding is very difficult. On Friday, Shuhei Nakamoto told us that Honda had moved away from that strategy after he took over as HRC Vice President in 2009. What Honda does is have electronics with a much more limited range of adjustment, but with a stronger base setting. By accepting that getting the electronics 100% right at every race is not possible, it means that teams settle more quickly on an electronics strategy and then shift their attention to other aspects of bike set up. It means that Honda's RC213V is always more or less in the ballpark, though never absolutely spot on. Given much more freedom, the Ducatis can sometimes get it completely wrong, and end up making finding a working chassis set up an impossible target.
Andrea Dovizioso is less optimistic than Iannone, despite having a much better Friday than his younger teammate. Dovizioso felt that his team went the wrong way on Saturday, leaving him with only the morning warm up to get the bike right. Where Valentino Rossi is comfortable making set up changes during warm up in search of ultimate race pace, Dovizioso is much more wary. The Ducati man feels that the chances of getting it right are much smaller, given the changing conditions between warm up and the race.
While most riders are likely to race the hard tire, the one exception could be the Suzukis. The two different tire allocations were originally meant to help the CRT bikes, when they made their debut in the class. The power difference between the CRTs and the factory MotoGP bikes was large: production-based engines producing 225 horsepower, versus full-blown prototypes producing 260hp or more. Than, the softer tire provided a real benefit to the CRT bikes. Since the change to the Open class, and the introduction of much more powerful machinery, the softer tire has become too soft for most. The difference in horsepower between the Honda RC213V and the RC213V-RS is a handful of horses, rather than a stable full. To cope with the more powerful Open bikes, Bridgestone have made the soft tire which is available to the Open class a bit harder, and a bit closer to the medium available to both the Open and factory bikes.
The Suzuki GSX-RR, on the other hand, is probably 20 or more horsepower down on the Honda, Yamaha and Ducati. That bike sits right in the middle of the performance envelope for the softer tire, and so Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales are giving serious consideration to racing the soft. Espargaro was disappointed at how large the gap had grown to the front row, despite qualifying in sixth. He felt that a front row start had been a real possibility, but that they had come up short on Saturday.
After the excitement of Argentina, expectations for the Jerez round of MotoGP have built to a crescendo. On the basis of the timesheets, it looks like Jorge Lorenzo is ready to suck all the excitement out of the race, by disappearing straight from the start. But as Nicky Hayden always says, that's why they line up on Sunday. You never know what is going to happen.
The prospects of a good race are better in Moto2 and Moto3. In Moto2, Tito Rabat has found his old form again, dominating qualifying as of old to take pole. But he certainly will not have it easy: Alex Rins has kept everyone honest this year, the Pons Moto2 rookie getting off to a deeply impressive start. If the temperature plays along, then both Sam Lowes and Johann Zarco should also join the fray. Lowes' Speed Up needs the cooler temps to shine. If the track temp gets too high, then the lack of grip starts to play against it.
Moto3 offers the most intriguing prospect for the race on Sunday. The astonishing Fabio Quartararo took pole in just his 4th Moto3 race, becoming the second fastest man to do so, after the inimitable Alex Rins. He also became the second youngest pole sitter in history, behind Marco Melandri and ahead of Marc Márquez. Unlike those two, however, he had to wait until he was (almost) sixteen before he could join the Grand Prix circus.
Quartararo will find himself up against Danny Kent. Kent has not dominated like he has at previous races, but he is clearly still the man to beat. Both Quartararo and Kent have announced their intention to try to make a break, and both have the pace to do it. Both men – if sixteen years and twelve days qualifies as a man in Quartararo's case – have run a lot of fast laps on their own, where other riders have been riding round in groups. Kent and Quartararo could find themselves having broken away, but still with the other to contend with. The Moto3 race has all the makings of a duel at the very highest level. It should serve as an excellent appetizer for a glorious day of racing.