Practice, like testing, doesn't really count for much, riders will tell you. When you talk to the afterwards, they will tell you that they didn't set a really fast lap because they were working on set up, or trying to figure out which tire will be best in the race, or working on race pace rather than one lap pace. Maybe they were saving tires, or maybe they ran into traffic, or maybe there wasn't enough time left in the session to go for a fast lap. Even the rider who is fastest will tell you they were surprised, they were not really pushing for a time, but it just came naturally.
All valid explanations, but not necessarily true, of course. After all, free practice is just free practice, and as long as you are inside the top ten, with a good chance of advancing straight to Q2, then there is no reason not to dip into your Bumper Book of Excuses to fob off journalists with. They are unlikely to challenge you on such excuses, because as long as your explanations are plausible, they have no way of countering them. It is impossible to know the mind of Man.
Qualifying is different. Qualifying matters, because there is something at stake. Not as much as on Sunday, and the forty-five minutes for which motorcycle racers sacrifice everything, the only forty-five minutes during which they feel truly alive. But still, riders know the excuses afterwards will sound a little hollow. Qualifying is not the time to be laying all of your cards on the table, but you do have to be able to ante up, and to maybe call for a card or two.
The truth is out there
Qualifying at Qatar gave us our first look at where the MotoGP field really stands. No more trying to read between the lines in testing or practice, this was straight head-to-head combat, with the prospect of a strong starting position. The conclusions we can draw? The established order has not been toppled, as Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez are one-two on the grid. The Ducatis are genuinely strong, both factory Andreas in the top six (and Iannone unlucky not to get pole).
Maverick Viñales is still on course to become the fifth alien, securing his second ever front row start. Valentino Rossi has worked on his remaining weakness, and appears to have improved it. Fifth on the grid is little better than his median starting position from 2015, though a sample size of 1 is never a good starting point for statistical analysis. The Michelins do take longer to get the best out of them, but not as long as many feared.
The one thing nobody knows about the race is exactly how the Michelins and the electronics are going to affect it. Tires will be the biggest factor – in effect, the electronics also relate to the tires, as how well they are managed will dictate how the tires wear – and one effect of the switch to Michelin seems to be that there is a viable choice on the rear again. Though Bridgestone always brought two compounds of tire to the races, the teams knew they would be racing the softer option, only putting in a hard tire to save the softer tires. In the qualifying press conference, all three MotoGP riders said they still had to decide which tire to use. Jorge Lorenzo said he believed they could race both tires, and Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales were also uncertain of their choices.
If both rear Michelins really are viable options, this is a big step forward for MotoGP. It will truly mean that some riders will gamble on going harder early on the softs, in the hopes of hanging on, while others will plump for the hards, and hope to keep more performance at the end. But both tires are relatively consistent, Lorenzo saying that he made his fastest lap on the last lap of his race simulation during the test. All three front row sitters agreed that the fastest lap would likely come around the middle of the race, lap ten or eleven, when a lot of fuel has been burnt off, but there is still enough rubber to go fast.
Even the front tire is a question mark, and depends on which bike you are on. The Hondas need the hardest front tire, though it lacks a bit of feedback. The RC213V still punishes the front tire, the chassis concept still focused on running V lines in corners: brake hard, stop the bike, turn it as quickly as possible, then accelerate out hard. The Honda riders are all using a 2015 chassis, the one most of them raced with in the second half of last year, with a few minor upgrades. Those upgrades are key, however: Cal Crutchlow would not be drawn on the precise details, but he insisted that the factory riders had parts which the satellite Hondas did not, and this was made a difference in acceleration.
The Yamahas, on the other hand, can run something softer, as they run lines which are more of a U shape, braking earlier and then carrying more corner speed. Even then there are differences between riders, Valentino Rossi apparently favoring the hard front during qualifying, while Jorge Lorenzo went with the medium.
MotoGP vs Moto2?
The big question, though, is how the Michelins will react after thirty Moto2 bikes have smeared Dunlop rubber over the track. The running order of practice has seen the MotoGP machines practice after Moto2, which has helped give the teams some idea. But racing and practice are very different, races leaving much more rubber on the track, and in different points as riders try to pass one another. That could prove to be extremely treacherous for the MotoGP field. The trouble is, they will only find out on Sunday.
One question which did get answered is whether it was possible to push hard from the start with the Michelins. Jorge Lorenzo set his fastest lap on his first flying lap out of the pits, his second run falling flat after a big moment with the tires nearly letting got. It wasn't easy, though: in contrast to last year, where the vast majority of riders set their best time on either a single flying lap, or the first lap of two, in 2016, most riders needed at least one flying lap to get up to speed. For Andrea Dovizioso, it took even longer, the Italian doing a run of five flying laps, his best lap coming on the fourth. It means that strategies in qualifying will change: no more three-run qualifying strategies at tracks like Jerez and Sachsenring. Instead, it will be two runs, with more time spent on the tires.
Aided by serendipity
Jorge Lorenzo may have secured pole – his 62nd, taking over the record for the most pole positions from Valentino Rossi, but more on that later – but it is not unreasonable to attribute that in small part to luck. First, there is Andrea Iannone, who ran into Scott Redding while he was on a hot lap, Iannone losing two tenths because of the Pramac Ducati rider. Redding was not to blame, Iannone was merely unlucky to run across him in the last complex of bends before the front straight, losing two tenths in the final sector. Two tenths of a second would have moved Iannone up from fourth, and put him five hundredths ahead of Lorenzo.
Lorenzo was also lucky that Marc Márquez misjudged his final run by a single second. The Repsol Honda rider crossed the line just a second after the flag went out, and so his final flying lap was not counted. Márquez looked down at his lap timer, and was elated to see he was on pole, having just ridden a lap of 1'54.2. He then looked up at the big screen, and saw he was still in second, and that he had missed out on pole because he had not seen the checkered flag being waved the lap before.
There is still much work to do in MotoGP, and as if to demonstrate that, Marc Márquez nearly lost it completely during his practice start. A malfunction – Márquez clearly knew what it was, but would not be drawn on the details during the press conference – saw the front lock up as it landed after the wheelie at the start, sending his bike veering off to the left, and off track. If that had happened during a real start, it would have been lethal. The issue looked like some kind of brake problem, something which can easily be fixed. However, it has been clear all weekend that starts will look a little different in the spec electronics era. The front wants to come up a little more, and the bikes are a little more difficult to get off the line. This, it seems to me, is a good thing.
Expect a wild ride
What can we expect from the race? With Jorge Lorenzo on pole, the fear is that he will get the holeshot, then disappear from the first lap. But is that possible with the Michelins, which are clearly different to the Bridgestones from last year? We have very little data to go on, but there is one exit of Lorenzo's we can use. On his final run of FP4, Lorenzo accelerated hard out of the pits, pushing to get up to speed as quickly as possible. In sector 2 of his out lap, he was at 102.27% of his fast time for that sector. In sector 3, he was at 100.33%, and 100.54% in sector 4. In terms of time, he was roughly a tenth of a second off his best time for the final two sectors on his out lap. That is pretty close to what Lorenzo was doing in 2015 on the Bridgestones. The risk for Lorenzo is that if he tries to push too hard on a surface which feels different after the Moto2 race, he could throw it all away, just as he did in 2014.
In truth, it is too difficult to make any real predictions for the MotoGP race on Sunday. There are just too many variables to consider. Lorenzo looks quick on paper, but risks trying to push too early. Marc Márquez said he had reverted to his old riding style, pushing hard to make the bike go faster. This worked to an extent, but it also required taking a lot of risk. When he tried that last year, he tended to end up in the gravel more often than on the podium.
Then there's the Ducatis, and how they will fare. Andrea Iannone looks to be consistently fast, and on paper, on course for a podium at the very least. Maverick Viñales remains deeply impressive on the Suzuki, and on the verge of making a breakthrough. A podium would cement his alien status, while being in the fight for a podium but falling short would raise a few question marks. Valentino Rossi starts from fifth, and can never be ruled out on a Sunday.
There are too many question marks: how will the tires react? How will the electronics behave? How will the electronics affect tire wear? How will the riders hand both tire wear and the spec electronics? With so many unknowns, making predictions is a fool's errand. Anything could happen.
Sanity in the junior classes
Predictions are much easier in Moto2 and Moto3. In the Moto2 class, Sam Lowes has been impressive all weekend, and will be in the running for victory in Qatar. But he may not have it all his own way: Alex Rins, Jonas Folger, even Tom Luthi have been quick and could pose a significant challenge. Johann Zarco has improved throughout the weekend, and starting from fourth is sure to be a factor. Franco Morbidelli is now in the best team in the paddock, and should be a factor for the race. Moto2 finally looks like being exciting again, instead of the procession it has turned into in recent years. There is a group of five or six riders who can fight over the podiums at every race, and two or three who look like being able to win at every outing.
Moto3 is a lot more open, but there is also a clear favorite. Livio Loi has been deeply impressive all weekend, dominating practice and setting fast times all on his own. The RW Racing GP rider has not needed a tow to either be fastest or in the top three, despite the fact that a tow is worth around a half a second or more down Qatar's expansive front straight. Romano Fenati may have snatched pole with a brilliantly strategic use of a group ahead of him, but he needed a tow to get ahead of Loi, after Loi set a time on his own.
There are still a handful of riders who could make the Moto3 race interesting, despite the threat of Livio Loi doing a Danny Kent. Jorge Navarro is the clear favorite for the title, and has been there or thereabouts every session. Brad Binder has knuckled down to work under Aki Ajo's iron discipline, and is reaping the benefits. Fabio Quartararo, Nicolo Bulega, Enea Bastianini, and many more look up for a fight. Moto3 is promising to be another banner year.
Itching for a fight
If the results of the MotoGP race are unpredictable, the trouble at the top is entirely expected. It was obvious that Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo were never going to be good friends after the way the 2015 season unfolded. They were never really best friends before that. But the situation exploded on Saturday at Qatar. On Saturday night, as both men spoke to the press, they hurled accusations and cheap shots at one another. A state of open warfare appears to exist in the Movistar Yamaha garage.
It all started with the announcement that Valentino Rossi had signed a new deal with Yamaha, that will see him racing with the factory until at least the end of 2018. That fired off a round of speculation, most of which was unfounded. Had Lorenzo been snubbed? After all, he had said publicly that he wanted his contract wrapped up before the start of the season, while Rossi had said he would wait for the first five or six races before making a decision.
It turned out that Lorenzo had not been snubbed. In a press conference in which Lin Jarvis got to display his mastery of public relations, the Yamaha boss explained exactly how the Rossi deal had come about, and what the current situation was with Lorenzo. They had both been offered a contract, Jarvis said, the email going out simultaneously to the two riders. Rossi had agreed immediately, and signed the deal at Qatar. Lorenzo had taken a waiting approach, and was not yet willing to sign.
Stating the obvious
Was the announcement badly timed, journalists asked? Why had it been announced before the race, would it not have been better to wait until after the race on Monday? Jarvis gave a sigh, then pointed out that the world's media were assembled at the circuit, and that if the aim of such announcements was to garner media coverage for the team and their sponsors, then it made sense to so well before the race, so that TV companies could do interviews and journalists could ask questions, rather than sending out a press release on Monday when everybody would be traveling home, and therefore not likely able to write up the deal.
What about Lorenzo? He had been offered "the best offer of his career," Lorenzo's staff had said, and Lin Jarvis had confirmed. Lorenzo was someone who liked to give decisions thorough consideration, Jarvis said, and so he was still waiting before deciding where he will be racing from 2017.
The Lorenzo camp had not appreciated the timing of the announcement, journalists asserted. But making the announcement later would have been bad politics, Jarvis countered.
It is more likely that Lorenzo and his staff took the contract announcement the wrong way. That is entirely understandable, given the history between the two. When you are looking for a reason to be offended, it becomes very easy to find one.
Valentino Rossi is no innocent in all this. Jorge Lorenzo entered the track in front of Rossi during FP4, something which caused Rossi to lose his temper, gesticulating much as Casey Stoner had done to Randy De Puniet back at Le Mans in 2011. At the end of FP4, when the two lined up to do a practice start, Rossi continued the gesticulation, Lorenzo dismissing it with a wave.
The bitter battle transformed into a war of words after qualifying, with Lorenzo claiming that he had not held Rossi up deliberately, and that he had had nowhere else to go. "In my opinion, he has nothing to complain about."
The war of words intensified when the subject of contracts came up. Speaking to the Spanish press, Jorge Lorenzo said that Rossi had signed so quickly with Yamaha because he basically had no choice. His history with other manufactures – specifically, Honda and Ducati – meant that Rossi had no choice to go anywhere else. Lorenzo also implied that Rossi's age had also been a factor.
Valentino Rossi returned the favor when speaking to the media, and piled on a little extra. He had been expecting an apology from his teammate, Rossi said, but instead, Lorenzo had looked at him as if to say, what do you want? Rossi felt that Lorenzo had deserved a penalty point for the way he had entered the track, for the same reason that Rossi himself had been given a point at Misano last year.
When asked about Lorenzo's contract situation, Rossi brought up Ducati. He told the media that he expected Lorenzo to stay, despite an offer from Ducati. The reason? "It would take a lot of courage to make the switch to Ducati. That kind of decision takes a lot of balls, so I think he [Lorenzo] will stay."
Do mind games still work?
Why the venom? It seems as if Valentino Rossi, especially, is determined to get in to Jorge Lorenzo's head. Rossi has had some success in the past in weakening rivals by putting them under pressure. Feeling robbed of the 2015 title, Rossi is trying to ramp up the pressure on Lorenzo again, as a way of getting him to crack.
Rossi's problem is that this is 2016, not 2004. The attacks he has made on Lorenzo and Márquez have been fierce, but their efficacy is far from guaranteed. In the past, Rossi's mind games worked because his rivals knew that they were weaker than him, and so needed everything to go their way to defeat him. Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez know they can beat Rossi in a straight fight, and so do not fear the Italian. His tactics are much less likely to work without that leverage.
Will the war of words continue? You can bet your life savings on it. This is not a situation which Dorna is happy with, and Carmelo Ezpeleta is rumored to be intervening personally to put a stop to it. It seems likely that the Dorna CEO will fail in this endeavor. That may be bad for him, but it should add a nice level of spice to MotoGP. As if the sport even needed it. This saga is set to run and run.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.