Remember Brno? A scintillating qualifying left Jorge Lorenzo on pole, with Marc Márquez beside him and Valentino Rossi filling out the front row. Race pace for the three was very similar, and the fans were left with the mouthwatering prospect of a thrilling race on Sunday. They were disappointed. Jorge Lorenzo surged to the lead off the line, and shaking off Marc Márquez, disappeared into the distance, winning comfortably. The battle royal promised by free practice never materialized, and we were all left with a hollow feeling of disappointment, no matter how brilliant Lorenzo's victory was.
Hence my reluctance to play up the prospect of a good race at Misano. The ingredients are the same. The same three riders on the front row, in the same order. The same comparative strength in race pace, Lorenzo and Márquez very close – in this case, running several low 1'33s in FP4 – while Valentino Rossi a couple of tenths behind. The sort of gap he and his crew usually manage to find on Sunday morning, leading to the suspicion that what they find is Rossi's insatiable desire to race to win, a setting that has been known to be good for up to three quarters of a second a lap in the distant past. This has all the makings of a classic race, but that is no guarantee of that actually happening.
Valentino Rossi expressed the fears of everyone, except perhaps Jorge Lorenzo. "Usually at the beginning of the race Jorge is always very strong," he told the press conference. "Especially when he has this pace like in this weekend. For sure he will start and he will push from the first corner very strong. Usually also Marc is able to stay with him. So it’s crucial try to stay with them in the first laps. And after you can see what’s happen, if you are close. If you are already far it’s already finished." Dani Pedrosa, starting from fourth on the grid, saw something similar. "I think one of the keys is the beginning," he told us. "When [Lorenzo] puts his rhythm it is hard to do his style on the track, how he rides the bike is quite different. So when he has more free room to race, he is faster."
Rossi, rather aptly, has used his customary special helmet design to put his current situation into pictures, painted by Aldo Drudi. A small yellow fish is being chased by a giant blue shark, but Rossi was at pains to deny the shark represented just Lorenzo. Lorenzo countered by saying he looked nothing like a shark, not having the necessary sharp and pointy teeth. "But I prefer to be the shark than the fish," he quipped.
To stretch the metaphor, perhaps Lorenzo is like a shark, unstoppable, insatiable, consuming everything in its way. In this version, Rossi has to use his wits to escape its clutches, trick it into swimming one way while he dodges right. Marc Márquez could be Rossi's biggest ally and biggest hope. If the Repsol Honda man can sit on Lorenzo's tail, perhaps even get ahead of him, then Rossi can stick with them, and try to pounce. If Lorenzo checks out, neither Rossi nor Márquez will be able to withstand the onslaught; their best chance of success is to hold Lorenzo up and disrupt his lines.
Was there a shadow of that in Qualifying? On Rossi's final lap, he looked up at the screens to see if there was still enough time to try to push for a final lap. As it happened, what he saw was Jorge Lorenzo on a charge, hoping to improve his best time from his second run. A rather unfortunate set of coincidences saw Rossi baulk Lorenzo, causing him to back off and lose his lap. An infuriated Lorenzo gave Rossi an icy stare as they went for their practice starts, but Rossi apologized immediately in Parc Ferme, and the incident was forgiven. Not by Race Direction, who issued Rossi with a penalty point, but his teammate was taking it much better in the press conference than he had directly after qualifying.
Did Rossi do it on purpose? That seems hardly likely. As much as the fans and the media like to stoke the fires of his reputation for psychological warfare, that exists far more in the minds of the fans than in the minds of Rossi and his rivals. It was an unfortunate sequence of events, but it could have happened to anybody. That it happens to Rossi and Lorenzo is coincidence. When there are just twelve riders on the track at the same time, such a coincidence is statistically much more likely.
As it happened, Lorenzo wasn't on course to improve his lap time anyway. After making a mistake on his second run, gassing up too early out of the final corner and having to back off, the Movistar Yamaha rider came in for one last tire. He and his team had elected to do three runs, but as Lorenzo wasn't comfortable with the feeling of the second bike, that meant swapping rear tires and going out on the same front. The front tire held up for the first two fast runs, but was starting to give trouble on the final one. Lorenzo's sector times were already a fraction off before he reached Rossi, improvement of his own best time no longer a possibility.
Who else to watch out for? Marc Márquez once again pointed to Dani Pedrosa as having the pace to match the front runners. Cal Crutchlow concurred, suggesting Pedrosa had better pace than Márquez even. Unlike Brno, Pedrosa has not just slammed his foot into the ground in a bizarre highside, is fit and will start from fourth, directly behind Jorge Lorenzo. Once upon a time, the Honda was the fastest starting bike on the grid, but Honda's thirst for horsepower completely ruined that. Now the RC213V just wants to wheelie off the line, making it a very hard bike to handle at the start.
That tendency to wheelie is also why the Hondas are losing so much in the third sector. All of the Hondas are fast in the first, second and fourth sectors, but are losing two tenths or more in the third sector. The reason is simple: out of the slow right-hand hairpin of Turn 10 (the riders call it Turn 8, disregarding the kink in the straight and putting the two right handers together for the hairpin) the Honda just wants to lift the front, finding no traction and losing grip. They are losing ground to the Yamahas out of the slow corners, and to the Ducatis once they hit third, fourth, fifth and sixth. It is hard to overstate just how very wrong Honda got the 2015 RC213V engine.
Other riders of note? Bradley Smith starts strongly from sixth, with Michele Pirro the only Ducati ahead of him. Smith has his eyes on fifth spot, and gaining points on Andrea Dovizioso in the championship. He would also like not to lose too many points to Dani Pedrosa, but Pedrosa's pace is not one Smith believes he can follow.
As first Ducati, Michele Pirro did a fantastic job. Yes, the Italian has spent most of the summer lapping Misano in his role as official Ducati test rider, but his pace shows what an excellent investment he has been as a test rider. Pirro is genuinely fast in his own right, and upholding the honor for Ducati at Misano is an important coup for him.
Pol Espargaro has even better pace than his teammate, but unfortunately for Espargaro, he threw his chance of a good qualifying position away by crashing out of Q2. Unable to get out again, his first bike too damaged, his second bike still suffering a technical problem, Espargaro is too far down the order, and will be rolling the dice into the first corner.
His brother Aleix over at Suzuki starts ahead of him, and was reasonably pleased with his day. The Suzuki rider's brilliant crew chief Tom O'Kane found a clever solution to the lack of acceleration, making the bike longer to allow them to use more power out of the corner, without compromising its ability to turn. Espargaro the Elder is looking at the soft rear tire for the race on Sunday, believing it will both last and give him an advantage throughout the race.
The choice for the Hondas and Yamahas is pretty clear. Unless the temperatures go through the roof on Sunday, they will all run the medium rear and the hard front. The medium front overheats too quickly in the long series of right handers from the Curvone onwards, while the hard front lacks a little bit of grip but manages the conditions better.
Moto2 promises to be an excellent race as well, though the same caveats apply to the front row. Alex Rins and Tito Rabat have really shown their pace all weekend, but it is Johann Zarco on the pole. History says he will do a Lorenzo, get away from the beginning and cruise home to victory. But history doesn't always repeat itself, especially when riders like Rins and Rabat have the sheer pace to fight it out.
Moto3 could also turn into a snoozer, at least that is the hope of Danny Kent. The Englishman starts from third on the grid, only using a new soft tire at the very end of the session. That was the plan all along, his crew chief Peter Bom asserted, and given Kent's dominance throughout the season, who are we to question him? Enea Bastianini sits on pole, and must be favorite at his home race, but keep an eye out on Brad Binder. The South African has a new chassis from KTM, along with all the other KTM riders. It makes the bike a little easier to ride, and Binder has taken to it like a duck to water. If Kent can run away, then he would be happy for Binder to win it, as long as he finishes ahead of Bastianini. With just five races to go, and a lead of 70 points, Kent is already engaged in the championship end game. Beating Bastianini is the only goal that counts, as sweet as victory might still taste. Given the fact that he will likely have three more races left when he wraps up the Moto3 title, he will have plenty more opportunities to taste victory then.
Will we get a great race? I hope so, but there are no guarantees. The sell out crowd – in my eight years of covering MotoGP, I don't think this has ever happened before – means that a massive yellow army will be cheering Rossi on. Will that make any difference? Frankly, it's hard to see how Valentino Rossi could be any more motivated to beat Jorge Lorenzo. Even if it's not a great spectacle, it will be an intriguing prospect.
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