2005. That is the last time Valentino Rossi was on pole at Jerez. Eleven years ago. If you wanted an illustration of just how remarkable Rossi's career is, then the dramatic way he snatched pole position on Saturday afternoon is surely it. At the age of 37, after the incredible emotional blow of 2015, Rossi reinvents himself for the umpteenth time, learns how to qualify better, makes it three front row starts in a row – for the first time since 2009 – and takes his fourth pole position since the start of the 2010 season. Motivation, thy name is Valentino Rossi.
We shall talk about how this happened later, but first, back to 2005. There are so many parallels with that weekend, it is impossible to resist the temptation to explore them. In 2005, there was this fast Spanish rider who dominated almost every session. It was only during qualifying that Rossi seized the initiative, putting nearly half a second into Sete Gibernau.
Race day was even more dramatic. Rossi on the Yamaha, and Gibernau and Nicky Hayden on two different factory Hondas broke away from the pack. Hayden could not match the pace of the two others, and had to let them go. A tense battle unfolded in the laps that followed, Rossi stalking Gibernau for most of the race, taking over the lead with a few laps to go, then handing it back after making a mistake into the Dry Sack hairpin on the last lap. The pair swapped positions with audacious passes through the fast right handers leading on towards the final corner.
There, history was made. Gibernau, confident of holding his line, left the door open going into the final hairpin. Rossi, determined and devious as ever, saw the gap, and jammed his Yamaha into it. Gibernau had not reckoned on Rossi being there, and tried to cut to the apex, and close the door. It was too late. Gibernau bounced off the outside of Rossi's Yamaha, went into the gravel, and handed Rossi victory. Rossi mounted the podium with Gibernau clutching his shoulder, and to boos from the Spanish crowd.
The parallels with 2016 are so obvious they hardly need making. All weekend long, a Spanish rider has dominated. In the background, though, Rossi has been lurking, ready to strike. His first opportunity came on Saturday, when he pounced, putting in a blistering lap to take pole from that Spanish teammate, Rossi's Movistar Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo. A second Spanish rider tried to insert himself into the fray, but Marc Márquez came up just short, forced to settle for third.
Three go crazy
The three men were faster than the rest by a considerable margin. Pole man Rossi and third place Márquez were separated by just 0.155. Fourth place man Andrea Dovizioso was nearly seven tenths slower than Márquez, and the gap from Dovizioso to Loris Baz in twelfth was as large as the gap between Dovizioso and the leaders. It was a pattern repeated in FP4, when Lorenzo, Márquez and Rossi had a comfortable lead over Dani Pedrosa in fourth.
Examining race pace, the laps set in FP3 and FP4, a similar pattern emerges. Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi all have exceptional race pace, with Lorenzo holding the theoretical advantage. "What makes the difference is the pace of tomorrow," Rossi said on Sunday, playing down his pole position. Based on tire wear and pace in practice, it looks like being a battle between Lorenzo and Rossi, with Márquez trying to hang on for as long as possible until his tires give out.
Which sets up the possibility of another classic battle in the last corner of Jerez, the inappropriately named Jorge Lorenzo corner (Lorenzo's strength lies in the two fast preceding rights, which would better suit his name). The front row men were asked what the best position would be to enter the final corner, should they all arrive at the last turn together. "With a second advantage," Rossi quipped. "In third, to enjoy the show," countered Márquez.
Will it happen? It is hard to say. Tire wear will be absolutely key on Sunday. Higher expected temperatures will make it much more challenging, with practice having taken place in much cooler conditions. When I asked Andrea Dovizioso if he thought the race would be over if someone got a way, he answered that he didn't. "Managing tires will be crucial. The rider who gets away will not necessarily be the rider who wins," the Ducati rider said. It will be a case of cosseting tires from start to finish, in order to push on at the end.
That gives Rossi and Lorenzo a positive advantage. Rossi has a lifetime of experience managing tire wear, and is adapting well to the Michelins. Lorenzo's style naturally places less stress on the tires. Márquez, on the other hand, is having to spin and slide the rear to turn the Repsol Honda, and to get the rear to hook up out of corners. That will keep him close to the Yamahas for a number of laps, but the Spaniard is under no illusions that he can keep that up all race long.
Others, too, hope to take advantage of the tire situation. Maverick Viñales was disappointed to not be able to follow the front three, but still had high hopes for the race. "We know that with the Michelin, sometimes you can get one tire that is incredible," He said. "So if we have the luck, it can be really good."
Andrea Dovizioso was similarly pessimistic of being able to follow Rossi, Lorenzo and Márquez, but had not given up hopes of catching them at a later stage of the race. "It depends how all the riders will manage the tires," the Ducati rider told reporters. "It’s not like the past, when you have some pace in the practice it’s easy to do in the race. This year with Michelin everything can happen. We don’t have the speed of the first three but we have to keep our mind open to any changes that could happen."
The record books speak
Back to Rossi vs Lorenzo. Rossi's pole was a sensitive blow to Lorenzo. After the Spaniard had taken his 62nd pole position at Qatar, giving him one more pole than Rossi, and making him outright record holder, Lorenzo had trumpeted the achievement. Rossi's pole at Jerez drew him back level with Lorenzo. But as impressive as their tally is, it pales when put into the context of Marc Márquez. Yes, the Repsol Honda rider has just 60 poles, two fewer than either Rossi or Lorenzo. But Rossi amassed his total from 333 race starts, and Lorenzo from 235 starts. Marc Márquez has racked up 60 pole positions from 135 Grand Prix starts. That means he starts from pole almost every other race.
Lorenzo was irritated after qualifying. They had run a two-stop strategy, planning to put in three fast runs to get their best shot at pole. It was a gamble they felt would pay off, as Lorenzo had managed to be blisteringly fast right out of the pits during practice. When he jumped onto his second bike for his second run, he felt a vibration with the rear tire, however, giving him just two runs in which to set his best time. Lorenzo laid the blame squarely on Michelin. It was clear he was far from happy with the situation.
That has made for a stark contract with Valentino Rossi. After the first three races, in which he appeared to have been maintaining a state of quiet rage throughout every moment of the weekend, Rossi turned up at Jerez looking positively cheerful. He did not even particularly appear to mind sharing a stage with his two arch enemies during the qualifying press conference. Rossi appears to have rediscovered some joy in racing. This is a good thing: the simmering anger and resentment had not carried the Italian far in 2016.
If qualifying for MotoGP was intriguing, it was positively breathtaking for Moto2. Sure, Sam Lowes was on pole, the Englishman looking comfortable all weekend, and positive he can get the job done on Sunday. But his advantage is small, and the field is tight behind him. Very tight: one second covers twenty riders, and a quarter of a second separates Lowes in first from Simone Corsi in eighth. Lowes is confident of pulling a gap – a small gap, but a gap nonetheless – especially with his main rivals for the title struggling further down the field. Alex Rins may catch Lowes starting from seventh, but reigning world champion Johann Zarco will find it much tougher, starting from a lowly sixteenth spot on the grid.
Moto3 saw a double victory for Valentino Rossi. Alongside his own pole, the Italian saw Nicolo Bulega take his first ever Grand Prix pole for the Sky VR46 team. Bulega rides for Rossi's Moto3 team, and is part of the VR46 Riders Academy. They had recruited him three years ago, and brought him to Moto3 after winning the CEV title. He had delivered on his early promise, winning his first pole position at age 16, in just his fifth Grand Prix. His boss Rossi took eleven Grand Prix to snatch his first pole. Looking like a cross between a young James Hunt and Mick Jagger, Bulega is a marketers dream. You had the feeling that a star was being born on Saturday. Sunday will surely confirm that.
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