Has Valentino Rossi finally mastered qualifying? The Italian has struggled since the format changed, from the extended hour of qualifying which started out as free practice and ended up as an all-out time attack, to the frenetic fifteen-minute dash for pole. His biggest problem, he always explained, was getting up to speed from the start: leaving pit lane and going flat out from the very first meters. He had spent a lifetime slowly sidling up to a blistering lap, rather than getting the hammer down as soon as the lights changed. The switch from an analog to a binary format had been hard to swallow. Millions of older fans sympathized, as they faced the same struggle in their own lives.
Lorenzo, on the other hand, has thrived in the new format, having learned the skill while doing battle with Casey Stoner. The Australian's greatest legacy was his ability to go as fast as possible the moment he left the pit lane. I was once told by Cristian Gabarrini, Stoner's crew chief, that when they looked at his sector times, they would see that he had set his fastest sector times on his out lap. To beat Stoner, Lorenzo had to learn to emulate him. That ability has benefited him twofold: firstly, in the new qualifying format, he can put the hammer down right out of pit lane, without any mental preparation for speed. Secondly, Lorenzo has been able to convert those pole positions into a lot of wins by being able to blast off the line and into the lead before the first corner, then open a gap which his pursuers can never bridge.
That blistering speed has given Lorenzo an added advantage in qualifying. By having the pace to push from the start, he cuts vital seconds from the out lap. Those seconds add up, and can under some circumstances mean the difference between managing to get in for two stops, and being forced to make do with a single stop. There are upsides and downsides to both approaches: more stops means you need more tires, both front and rear, to be able to extract the maximum lap time. You have no time to make set up adjustments, and you are usually forced into swapping bikes as well, something riders often do not like as the two bikes can feel slightly different.
Having the choice means that Lorenzo is able to adjust his qualifying strategy from race to race. He is often the first rider out of pit lane and onto the track, one way of guaranteeing an empty track in front of him. Often, but not always, meaning that his rivals cannot count on it. Sometimes, Lorenzo will wait, giving the rest of the field time to get out on track before exiting the pits. That creates space too, giving him the room he likes to go for a fast lap. His speed out of the pits when he goes first means that usually, nobody is able to follow him and benefit from a slipstream.
At Motegi, Lorenzo's strategy didn't quite work as he hoped. He and his team elected to go for a two-stop strategy, to allow them to try both front tires. That meant getting out of pit lane first, and he lined up ready to go when the green light went on to signal the start of Q2. He had looked around to see if anyone was beside him, to ensure he was alone. Did he spot the fact that Valentino Rossi had lined up behind him, outside of his line of vision? We don't know. Did Rossi line up out of Lorenzo's sight to take advantage of Lorenzo's speed? We don't know that either. What we do know is that Rossi departed the Movistar Yamaha garage shortly after Lorenzo, and whipped in the clutch before he got to pit lane exit. He did not line up alongside Lorenzo as he waited for the lights to go green, but waited behind him, then followed him out.
Lorenzo put the hammer down and banged out a quick lap to take provisional pole. Not a record lap, but fast enough to impose his authority. That didn't last long, though, as two seconds later, Valentino Rossi crossed the line to take provisional pole from his teammate. He had not so much used Lorenzo for a slipstream, more as a target to aim for. Lorenzo came, Rossi stayed out, and hit an even quicker lap, now under the pole record from last year.
Lorenzo came in for second rear tire, and went out and pushed again, this time pushing hard. Hard enough to become the first rider to lap the Motegi circuit in less than 1'44, posting a time of 1'43.990. He came in for a final time, this time swapping onto his second bike, this one fitted with a soft front tire. He went out for another run, just as Rossi was hitting his stride in his second run. This time the Italian found Dani Pedrosa ahead of him, just far enough to use as a target once again. Rossi snatched what looked like a certain pole position in the dying seconds of the session, beating Lorenzo's time by five hundredths of a second. How hard was he pushing? So hard he briefly lost the rear, getting it back. That cost him a tenth of a second, he reckoned afterwards.
That would prove to be crucial, for on his final lap, started with just a few seconds left in the session, Jorge Lorenzo scorched to pole, deposing his teammate and taking his fourth pole of the year. Ironically, Lorenzo's pole left both Movistar Yamaha riders disappointed: Rossi, for just missing out on a pole that could have been his; Lorenzo, for letting Rossi get so close.
That is a real threat for the Spaniard. So far this year, Rossi has managed to find a way to shoot himself in the foot during qualifying, starting too many races from the second and even third row of the grid, and finding himself stuck behind a Ducati or a Suzuki with a soft tire. Starting on the front row is his best chance of staying with Lorenzo from the start, and not having to make up two seconds or more after the first couple of laps. Though Lorenzo has proven time and again that he is the fastest in terms of outright speed, Rossi has been very close in his race lap times, sometimes matching Lorenzo and even being quicker. But he has been losing too much at the start of the race to be able to exploit that added speed.
Starting alongside Lorenzo gives Rossi a real chance of beating the Spaniard at a track where Lorenzo has traditionally been strong. It is a circuit where fuel consumption is critical, the heaviest on the calendar, and Rossi, being slightly taller than his teammate, can suffer in this department. Getting in Lorenzo's wheel and following him around for 22 laps would allow Rossi to use his teammate's slipstream to save fuel. That would leave him two laps to try to use his strength on the brakes and his ability to make a pass where none is immediately obvious to challenge Lorenzo for victory. The difference between first and second is just five points, but there is a huge difference in whether Rossi heads into the last three races leading Lorenzo by 19 points, or by 9.
Lorenzo was less than impressed at Rossi getting a tow as he left the pits. Rossi, in turn, was at pains to point out that he had set his fastest times on his own, and not behind Lorenzo. That is indeed true, but what may be the tactical breakthrough for Rossi is not so much using Lorenzo as a tow for pole, but rather as a slingshot to get him up to speed. Rossi's weakness has been his ability to push straight out of the pits. That is a lot easier when you have a rider in front of you to act as a target. With one fast lap under his belt, Rossi may be finding it easier to push for the rest of qualifying. If – and I stress, this is a theory – this is what Rossi is doing, it is a very wily move indeed. Lorenzo may be the master tactician, but Rossi is smart enough to figure out a counter strategy.
Lorenzo was very much left with a lot of irritation after qualifying. He complained to the Spanish press that he felt that the policy of data sharing among all Yamaha riders was benefiting his teammate more than him. He made it clear that he fully supported Yamaha's policy, and that he himself always looked at his teammate's data, to see where he could improve. But he always followed his own direction in terms of set up, Lorenzo insisted, something he had done since he was in 125s. Now, though, because he and his team were able to be fast right from the very first practice, the policy was benefiting his teammate more than him, allowing Rossi to catch up.
Rossi, in turn, told reporters that he believed that Lorenzo had learned a lot about how to ride the bike from seeing his data back in 2009 and 2010. He admitted openly that he had tried to prevent Yamaha from sharing data with Lorenzo's side of the garage after the introduction of the spec tire took away his excuse of being on a different brand of rubber. Yamaha had refused his request, telling him that data would be shared equally on both sides of the garage. Data sharing is a two-edged sword, sometimes you gain, sometimes you lose.
Do we stand on the brink of the epic battle between Rossi and Lorenzo we have been hoping for all year? We have so often hoped this might happen, and yet been disappointed. On the face of it, this is the best chance yet, with the two championship contenders starting beside one another on the grid. Lorenzo has slightly better race pace, but the difference is perhaps just one or two tenths, far from insurmountable. Lorenzo's shoulder is strong enough to withstand a fast lap, but he appeared at the press conference with ice on the injured joint. The shoulder had not improved from Friday, Lorenzo said, but he was still optimistic it would be strong enough to last the race. If it rained, especially, it would be no problem at all.
Rossi's best strategy, as laid out above, is to sit behind Lorenzo and let him push a hole in the air, using the slipstream to cut fuel consumption and save the best for last. So we could have 22 laps of a tense procession, until all hell breaks loose. Depending on how much Lorenzo has asked of his shoulder, you would have to believe that Rossi should be able to come out of that on top. But it does require him to latch on to Lorenzo's wheel, and not make a mistake in the first few laps, with a full tank and fresh rubber. Matching Lorenzo's pace in the first two laps is extremely risky, even for a man with the talent and experience of Rossi.
If it rains, of course, then all bets are off. The weather forecast changes from hour to hour, with the time slot for the MotoGP race being either wet or dry. We won't know what the weather is like until the red lights actually go out for the start.
Could anyone else spoil the Yamaha party? Marc Márquez was fast, but not fast enough to match the pace of the Movistars. The Ducatis were quick too, but like Márquez, they lacked the outright race pace to stay with the Yamahas. Bradley Smith showed in FP3 and FP4 that he had outstanding pace, enough to match Márquez and get within shouting distance of the factory Yamahas. But three crashes on Saturday, and two during qualifying destroyed any hope of a decent grid slot. Still, it had been worth the risk, Smith opined afterwards. He had the front row in his sights on Saturday, but had asked too much of his front tire.
The Ducatis turned up with another aerodynamic novelty at Motegi, both Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso trying bikes with a second pair of wings on the fairing. The second pair graced the nose, roughly in the same position as the Yamaha's winglets, and were in addition to the existing double-decker winglets which grace the side of the fairing, just in front of the side vents. The feedback from both Andreas was the same: they couldn't feel the difference, and so they will use the second pair of winglets in the race. They had nothing to lose, as there were no negatives from the winglets.
The extra winglets were to aid with keeping the front down, Gigi Dall'Igna told Dylan Gray of MotoGP.com. That stock response makes me wonder if there is a little more to it than Dall'Igna is letting on. After all, if the winglets help reduce wheelies and stabilize the front wheel at speed, that is a problem the teams don't have to solve using weight distribution. Not having to compromise as much in terms of geometry may mean that Ducati (and Yamaha) can move a little bit more weight towards the rear, in search of more rear grip on corner exit. The two bikes with the best drive out of the corner? The Ducati and the Yamaha. Much of that is down to mechanical grip and set up, but having even more cannot hurt.
What of Moto2 and Moto3? Johann Zarco set out his stall in Moto2, determined to win the race despite being freshly crowned 2015 champion. Starting from pole, and with outstanding pace, he will be a hard man to beat. Tom Luthi will chase him hard, the Swiss rider having been quick all weekend. But Zarco remains the man to beat.
In Moto3, the race looks much more interesting. It seems certain that a large group will form, but Niccolo Antonelli has looked quickest all weekend. After a difficult first day, Danny Kent's pace is much closer to that of Enea Bastianini, which will come as a relief to the championship leader. But the biggest surprise is the pole sitter, Romano Fenati, his first in Grand Prix racing.
Qualifying has been Fenati's Achilles' heel. The Italian is blisteringly fast during the race, and often quick in practice, but has been terribly during qualifying. He has all too often left himself with too much work to do during the race, and though he has brilliantly fought his way forward to the front on many occasions, he has also been lost in the pack just as often. Starting from pole, Fenati will have a chance to show what he is made of.
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