If anyone needed an argument that MotoGP's current system of qualifying is arguably the best available, Saturday at Motegi was proof positive. There are plenty of arguments that can be made against it: there are fairer systems imaginable, and there are simpler systems imaginable, but in the end, the element of chance the current system injects opens up opportunities for riders to seize. And it can either reward or punish those willing to gamble.
The weather at Motegi provided ample evidence of the spoils on offer, and the risks involved. A wet morning practice, a damp FP4, and a track which was starting to lose water from the surface. As Q1 progressed, the faintest hint of a dry line started to appear. Still too wet for slicks, but perhaps the ten minutes between Q1 and Q2 would be just long enough for the dry line to consolidate itself. Would anyone be brave enough to go out on slicks?
Valentino Rossi would be, and so would Marc Márquez. They both went out to test the waters, or lack of it, on slicks, hoping a high-stakes gamble would pay off. Rossi tried it early, Márquez tried it late, but both met with the same result. Yet one of the two will start from the front row, while the other finished dead last in Q2, and will start from twelfth. Timing proved to be everything, and the time was never really quite right. Only once Moto2 got underway did the track start to dry out sufficiently for slicks to be a viable option.
Gambling is not just about which bet to make, but also when to make it, and the stakes you are risking on that bet. For both Márquez and Rossi, they had very little to lose, though for very different reasons. Márquez had already posted a time that put him on provisional pole, and looked very hard – though not impossible, as it turns out – to beat, and so could afford to roll the dice on slicks. Rossi, by contrast, did not believe he could be competitive on wet tires with so little water on the track, the Yamaha M1's comportment getting worse the drier the track started to become.
Bradley Smith – more on the KTMs later – summed it up succinctly. "I think a lot of it today was who had the right setting with the right motorcycle for those conditions at that time." The optimum performance window was tight, and it was a moving target, and you only had fifteen minutes to give it your best shot. Those already struggling got the worst of it, those who were in the ballpark were able to hit it right out again.
Walking on water
If anything is clear from Saturday, it is that Marc Márquez very much has "the right setting with the right motorcycle for those conditions at the time." Any conditions, at any time, as Márquez was fastest in both FP3 and FP4, and could arguably had been on pole if he hadn't gambled on slicks in Q2. "I did a good lap time in the first lap already with the soft tire and then I was thinking to put the extra soft to improve the lap time," he told the press conference. "But when I stopped in the box, I took the gamble and I wanted to try the slick."
The gamble had been worth it, however. "It was so close, and then I tried and I understand many interesting things. In the end I couldn’t have the chance to fight for the pole position, but for me it is not the most important. To work for the race is important and starting from the front row is the main target, so we are there and we will see tomorrow because all weekend I am feeling good in rain conditions. Tomorrow can be flag to flag, it can dry – you never know."
This is important: the only MotoGP riders with any idea of what a slick feels like on a drying Motegi track are Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi. And given Márquez' mastery of slick tires on a drying surface – for examples, see his win at the Sachsenring last year – this could give him a significant advantage should the race turn into a flag-to-flag.
If it's wet, on the other hand, Márquez already has a significant advantage anyway. Márquez was fastest in FP3 by just a few hundredths, but was the only rider in the top ten bar Jorge Lorenzo who did not use an extra-soft rear tire to set his time. In FP4, with much less water on the track, Márquez was utterly dominant. With passage to Q2 at stake in the first three free practices, the half an hour before qualifying is the session the teams and riders use to focus solely on race setup. Márquez was not only 1.5 seconds faster than teammate Dani Pedrosa in second place, but four of the nine laps he did in FP4 were faster than Pedrosa (and a fifth was 0.004 slower than Pedrosa's best lap). Márquez' advantage varies with the amount of water on the track, but in every condition, he has a distinct advantage.
Yet it is not Marc Márquez who will start from pole on Sunday, but Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Johann Zarco. The Frenchman took his second pole of the season – confirmation for him of his form – in much the same conditions as he had his first at Assen. Zarco stuck an extra-soft rear in for his second run for Q2 (the option which Márquez had rejected in favor of gambling on slicks), and had used them to excellent effect.
It was a change to the original plan, Zarco said. "I changed the strategy just before the qualifying and I said I prefer the soft tire at the beginning and then the extra soft at the end – I think it can work and it worked well," he told the press conference. "Just for the qualifying there was less water on the track, almost dry, but not enough to use the slick. I think if we had five minutes more maybe the slick tire can do the lap time, but there was not five minutes more."
Valentino Rossi had gambled on slicks, though he had gambled on them at the start of qualifying, rather than at the end. Five minutes more might have worked out for him, but he gave up on running slicks when it became painfully obvious he couldn't get sufficient heat into the slicks to make them usable. The decision to gamble came after FP4. He had been quicker than he dared hope in the morning, his team having improved the bike for a fully wet track overnight. But with a lot less water on the track in FP4, he had struggled.
"We started well this morning, because in the full wet we improve a lot the setting and was - I don't want to say a surprise - but I was happy because I did some good lap times," Rossi said. "But unfortunately in FP4, we don't change anything, but we suffer very much in the conditions. When we don't have enough water, we suffer as always with the rear grip." That was the reason for gambling on slicks in Q2, Rossi explained. "So also a little bit for this reason we try to take a risk, because have already some dry line. I want to try to put temperature into the tires, but unfortunately it was still too wet and also the track didn't dry quick. We needed too much time." Those elusive five minutes …
Could Rossi have done better with a wet tire? His twelfth-place time came when he swapped the slicks for a soft wet. That left him 4.3 seconds slower than Márquez, and though he might have taken a second or two off that time had he spent all Q2 on wets, that still wouldn't have put him that much closer to the front. "This morning I was good," Rossi said. "So I don’t know if I make a normal practice like Zarco and then put the super soft, what my potential was. But I don't think a 1'53 was possible for me."
With Rossi twelfth, and Movistar Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales another row back in fourteenth, it is once again clear that the 2016 Yamaha is better win the wet than the 2017 bike. Rossi acknowledged as much, but also said that Zarco deserved a lot of the credit. "He was very good because he put the super soft at the end and did one lap, like qualifying. So I think he made the difference and also we know that that bike in the wet is better. So these things together."
The wrong question
Though Zarco is happy to be ahead of the factory Yamahas, his response to questions about the factory bikes are getting increasingly crabby. Understandably, perhaps: instead of celebrating his success, journalists are worrying about why other riders are so slow. What his interlocutors are basically asking is "Are you only beating Rossi and Viñales because you've got a better bike?" Though not meant that way, such questions are easily taken as demeaning. One wonders just how much patience Zarco has left.
In defense of the journalists asking these questions, it is understandable given the hole in which Maverick Viñales finds himself. The Movistar Yamaha rider was the red hot favorite for the championship at the start of the year, but has now all but abandoned any hope of winning his first MotoGP title. He is sounding increasingly desperate, especially once the track is wet.
"We tried everything, but honestly nothing helps," Viñales told reporters. "It's the same problem during all the year. The traction. I give my best. I cannot do anything more with the bike we have right now. For sure it's a shame because we are trying to win a title, but like this it's impossible. I can't do nothing in the rain. Whatever I do - riding smooth, riding aggressive, braking late, early - the problem is the same one. The traction. Going with some other riders I saw we don’t have traction."
Viñales made it plain he believes the issue is a fundamental one with the Yamaha M1, rather than anything else. He did not hide the frustration he has been feeling at seeing the title slip away from him. "It's difficult," he said. "For sure I feel, I feel every time I go on the track and I've been tenth, eleventh when my opponents are in the first positions. And we have been struggling a lot this year in the wet. I do many races fighting from eleventh, like at Assen. For sure the mistake at Assen was because I had to push 200% to arrive in the front. Same in Sachsenring. So it's been difficult all year, especially when the conditions are not perfect."
Still in it
Andrea Dovizioso is still left in the fight with Marc Márquez, but the factory Ducati rider couldn't find his groove for qualifying. "It wasn't wet – it was half and half and that condition is always very tricky, because you have to understand and learn the potential of the track in a few minutes," the Italian said. "Sometimes it’s easy to do and sometimes it’s very difficult. I didn’t have everything under control to know where to push 100 percent. In the wet, it was very slippery in the qualifying. I didn’t make a really good lap time. On my best lap I lost the front at turn nine and I almost went out so my lap time was faster."
Despite qualifying down in ninth, Dovizioso is still relatively confident for the race. "Yesterday we were very competitive with a lot of water. Today with less water it was more difficult but we improved the set-up a little bit. I think with normal rain like it looks like tomorrow will be, we will be really competitive."
The hard part is starting from the third row, and all that entails. "The only thing is I’m starting from the third row and you have to overtake a few riders. Anything can happen. That is the bad thing. Apart from that, I’m quite relaxed. Like I said before, 24 laps here is very long. A lot of things can change. In the past this happened many times – the consumption of the tires… It’s a long race." In the wet, lap times can differ by seconds rather than tenths, and ground lost can quickly be made up again, if tires are treated with the right care.
Asked who he thought his main rivals would be for the race, Dovizioso reeled off a list of names, some expected, with the odd surprise. "Marc is really, really strong," the Italian said, unsurprisingly. "Also Jorge is fast. Aleix Espargaro can be very fast. The Yamaha is difficult to know because Valentino was very fast this morning. But there was very low water. Yesterday he was quite slow. I don’t know for his leg or the bike. You never know with Rossi." Dovizioso's goal was simple: to try to win the race. He needs to get back a chunk of points from Márquez, and the points differential is greatest between first place and the rest.
Lorenzo's first win?
That Dovizioso should name his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, should come as no surprise. Lorenzo has been operating almost under the radar, but the Spaniard has been quick everywhere, especially when the track is wet. The drying track conditions were exactly the kind of surface Lorenzo hates most, yet he still ended up fifth on the grid. Look deeper into the timesheets, and you see that Lorenzo's race pace is solid, almost up their with Márquez, a feat no one else has been able to match.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Motegi could well see Lorenzo's first win on the Ducati. Lorenzo, however, is doing everything to play such a conclusion down. "It's a possibility," he said, trying to temper expectations.." Each of the 24 riders have possibilities to win – some more and some less. We are having more percentage of winning at each race, I think." Was he the fastest rider in the wet, as some of his rivals had claimed? "I shouldn’t say that, but I have a good pace for tomorrow. It will depend a lot on the condition and the selection of the tires."
Aleix Espargaro would also like to get his first win on the Aprilia, though that may be a bridge too far for the Spaniard. What is clear is that the RS-GP is competitive, and Espargaro is now definitely within striking distance of his first podium, after qualifying in fourth, the best qualifying result for an Aprilia since MotoGP went four stroke. A good start and a wet track should help him seal the deal.
Another orange surprise
Saturday was a day of remarkable performances at Motegi, but the most astounding were surely the KTMs. Not only did both KTMs make it out of Q1 into Q2, but they also managed to secure a spot on the third row, ahead of Andrea Dovizioso. But it was not just what they managed, but how they did it which impressed. Pol Espargaro topped the timesheets in Q1, but he did so in a most imperious manner. He was over half a second quicker than his teammate, Bradley Smith, but no one looked like they were going to get close. Then Smith managed to beat his teammate in Q2, putting a sour grimace on Espargaro's face. That, in itself, is a good sign. For KTM to be this competitive, both bikes well inside the top ten, is a massive step forward.
Espargaro had not managed to put in the perfect lap, and that was the reason he was so annoyed, he said. "Inside of me, I'm disappointed, because when you can do more you want to do it, but honestly, for all the team and all the crew it's a very great result. All the KTM factory has been working very hard for the last month, and in the end, in these conditions you have to do it. And just for the team I'm super happy and super pumped, but we don't need to forget that tomorrow is the race, so we will see what happens tomorrow. "
Espargaro was beaten by Smith because Smith had managed to put a good lap together. "We made a perfect strategy in terms of going out with the soft option, and then putting the extra soft in, just so I knew what the circumstances of the track was and then I could really attack the extra soft," the Englishman said. "I knew I could do one lap, so it was like a superpole for me in terms of, don't overstress the tire on the out lap, and then nail it for one flyer and make it count."
The extra-soft touch
It may all come down to tire choice on Sunday, especially if it rains as heavily as expected. The extra-soft rear wet tire is very much looking like a viable race option, though it suits some bikes and riders better than others. The KTMs look like they will go with the extra soft, and Johann Zarco has been preferring the softer of the available compounds all year. The factory Yamahas could choose the extra soft, which could help a little with their traction issues, though tire life may still be a concern.
The extra soft could be the salvation of Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider starts from sixth, but his speed has been in inverse proportion to the amount of water on the track. This is a track Pedrosa loves, and when conditions have been right, Pedrosa has been fast, but he may have to gamble on getting the extra soft to last to the end of the race. His woes at Misano, where it took him two thirds of the race to get enough heat into his rear tire to go fast, will still be fresh in his mind.
MotoGP was not the only class to have its fair share of weirdness. Moto3 and Moto2 also threw up a fairly surprising grid. In Moto3, the front row consists of polesitter Nicolo Bulega and fellow KTM rider Niccolo Antonelli, with Aron Canet taking third. Neither Bulega nor Antonelli have been particularly impressive this year, with Antonelli having been positively dire. Conditions and confidence have helped him turn it around at Motegi.
Japan was going to be the place where Joan Mir wrapped up the 2017 Moto3 title, but so far, things have not gone to plan. Mir had a miserable qualifying, eventually finishing in fourteenth place. But with the grid penalty imposed after qualifying in Aragon, Mir finds himself starting from twentieth. Mir could afford to lose five points to Romano Fenati and still wrap up the title, but with Fenati starting from sixth, and Mir so far back, the title fight may yet go on to Phillip Island.
In Moto2, the championship is still wide open, and the grid is as big a surprise as in Moto3. Taka Nakagami took an outstanding pole on Saturday, making the best of the conditions to set the fastest lap. Alex Márquez sits alongside him, along with the excellent Xavi Vierge on the Tech 3 Moto2 machine. Vierge has been impressive all season, though his performance has been masked a little by the Tech 3 machine. In the wet, he can hold his own.
The championship contenders, meanwhile, are nowhere to be seen. Only 21 points separate Tom Luthi from Franco Morbidelli, but with both of them on the fifth row of the grid, it is hard for either of them to make any major difference in the championship. This one will almost definitely go on for a couple more races.
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 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.