Motorcycle racing is many things, but above all, it is unpredictable. Just when you think a racing series has settled in to a pattern, either during a season or over the course of a race weekend, along comes some unexpected factor or other to throw a spanner into the works and turn it all on its head. Suddenly, the script has gone out of the window and the protagonists are all ad-libbing their way to a completely new and unimagined story.
This is why so many riders sport symbols of gambling on their leathers, helmets, or bikes. Look around the MotoGP grid, and you see dice, cards, and poker chips everywhere. With so many random elements which can affect the outcome, from mechanical misfortune to errors of judgment to choosing the wrong tires to the fickleness of the weather, there is always the hope that things can break your way. It's always worth rolling the dice, because from time to time, a gamble will pay off handsomely.
That is how we ended up with the polesitters in the three classes at Argentina all taking pole for the first time in their careers. And it wasn't just the riders on pole: in MotoGP, three of the top four riders in qualifying were on satellite bikes. In Moto2, two of the top three hadn't finished anywhere near the podium in the first race in Qatar. And the same in Moto3, the favorites qualified down the order, with fresh faces at the top of the timesheets.
Rolling the dice
Nobody personified that commitment to gambling more than Jack Miller on Saturday in Argentina. The Australian was one of three riders who decided to risk swapping to a bike shod with slicks for his second run in Q2. Unlike Cal Crutchlow and Marc Márquez, however, he stuck to his guns, staying out for four laps to take pole at the very last moment, starting his final lap with just a few seconds left on the clock.
That last lap was enough to snatch pole from Dani Pedrosa, but Miller had to lay a lot on the line to get there. He had to go clean himself up "after some of those moments", he told the press conference. Though there was enough of a dry line around most of the circuit, Turns 7 and 8 were still completely wet. The Pramac Ducati rider was six tenths of a second faster than Pedrosa through the first sector, nine tenths through the second sector, and another half a second quicker through the final sector.
But through the third sector, Miller was losing 1.8 seconds to the rest of the field, hanging on for dear life as he pushed slick tires through a section of track with standing water. He was lucky not to be thrown from his Ducati GP17, though God knows the bike tried, as the video clip posted by Dorna on Twitter demonstrated. So violent was one of those massive moments that it bent the sensor rod on his steering damper. It took a willingness to gamble and the guts to see it through for Miller to pull off one of the greatest qualifying feats of recent history.
Brains as well as brawn
It also took brains, and careful planning. Miller had nursed his wet tires in the morning, wanting to make sure he had enough left should it keep raining. He had sized up conditions in FP4, and then put everything on the track being dry enough in Q2. "I went out in FP3, but I didn't really want to waste the tire too much for that, because we've got such a limited amount of wet tires. I think I did two flying laps, and that was it," Miller explained.
"For FP4, we changed the bike a little bit, we went a little softer, and that was already directly better on the same tires. And then we went a little softer in the front and it was again better, and the last run I was really consistent, doing 1'51.2s very consistently on really old tires. So I was pretty happy with that," Miller said.
Throughout FP4, Miller had been monitoring how the track was changing. "All the while I was doing that, I was looking at the track, where it was drying, and trying to work out what I need to do if I was going to go to the slicks," the Australian said. "We still had half an hour between the end of FP4 and before we started Q2. I knew it had a little bit more time to dry out with no real rain falling. So I went out and did that banker lap, which still wasn't ideal, because I had to pass Valentino round the outside into the last corner, because he messed up or something, and I caught him in the last sector, and it messed up my last sector a little bit. But I had a pretty decent time, it was a 1'49.5, something like that. It was a pretty decent banker lap, so I was happy with it, and I thought, pop the chips in and let's go."
The key to pulling off the gamble was to stick with the tires for a couple of laps, both Cal Crutchlow and Marc Márquez acknowledged. They hadn't done that while Miller had, and Miller's perseverance had been rewarded. "As soon as I came into the box, I said slicks, and they said, but you've got seven minutes, so I said, I need laps, I'm going to need laps," Miller said.
It also needed commitment and self belief to make it work. "The first lap, especially when you go from wets to slicks, the slicks are a lot heavier to turn, so you've got to get the timing right to stay in that wheel width of dry line," Miller explained. "So just to get that flow, you've got to go out there and pretty much go all in straight away and try to get the heat, because these tires don't work otherwise. So that's the thing, you've just got to go out there with a lot of confidence and try to muscle it as much as you can." Miller muscled it, and pulled off a miracle.
Miller's rivals were full of praise for how he pulled off pole position. There were a lot of allusions to the amount of space Miller needed at the front of his leathers to contain his testicular fortitude. But Andrea Dovizioso explained it best. "Already in Moto3, Jack showed the feeling with the limit, the feeling with the grip, he is really good," the factory Ducati rider said. "And also when he was in Honda and he wasn't fast, you can see that positive thing. And in those conditions, I think he is able to play in that limit, and I believe, I'm not sure, I believe he uses a lot the rear brake, that's his style. And in those conditions, that helps you a lot to try to feel the limit and try to manage the slick tires on the wet. But he did some special things for sure."
Miller's astonishing lap meant that another outstanding achievement went unnoticed. Tito Rabat, the man who had been written off by MotoGP fans during his time on the Honda, qualified in fourth place, his best ever qualifying in MotoGP. The Reale Avintia Ducati rider had only ever qualified in the top ten once before, and that was a tenth place at Mugello last year. Usually, he was on the back two rows of the grid. On Sunday, he will start from the head of the second row.
He had been quick in the dry on Friday as well, so following it up with a fast qualifying time on Saturday was perhaps less of a surprise than you might otherwise think. "To be honest, I can't believe it myself," he said. "But we made a quite good job today, we made a very good job yesterday, finishing fourth in the dry, finishing fourth in the wet. So for the moment, I don't know. A little bit scary for tomorrow!"
What had changed for Rabat? The switch from the hard-to-ride Honda to the much easier Ducati GP17 had been the key to unlocking his potential, Rabat explained. "Things are more easy for me on this bike, I enjoy on the bike. And when things are a little bit more easy, it means good results."
Márquez crushing the opposition
Before Q2, Miller was anything but a safe bet. All day long, Marc Márquez had humiliated the rest of the field. The Repsol Honda rider had been well over a second quicker than anyone else for most of FP3, Johann Zarco only closing down the gap at the end of the session. In FP4, Márquez' advantage had been more like a second and a half, until his teammate Dani Pedrosa cut the gap to just 1.144 seconds. Márquez' pace was in another league: of the 10 full laps Márquez completed in FP4, 6 were faster than second fastest man Pedrosa's best lap. Márquez' seventh fastest lap in FP4 was just 0.013 slower than Pedrosa's quickest lap.
Put this together with Márquez' lead of four tenths of a second in the dry on Friday, and you have to say that the Spaniard starts the race on Sunday as the absolute favorite, whatever the conditions. Starting from sixth will slow him down, but is unlikely to hold him back for long. "I'm happy because sixth place is not so bad," he said. "We are there. Only one row in front of us."
Like Miller, Márquez had rolled the dice on slicks. But unlike Miller, he had decided on pushing on for a few laps to try to get the necessary heat into the tires. "I already know that with the slicks you need some laps," Márquez said. "But first of all I expect the grip is there, but even as I was leaving the box when I touched the wet it was quite risky to have a crash. Then after passing Turns 7-8 my head starting to think, 'tomorrow is the race'." A sign perhaps of Márquez' increasing maturity. In years past, he would have found the temptation to push harder to take pole much more difficult to resist.
Too close to call
What can we expect from the race tomorrow? It will all depend on the conditions. Marc Márquez looks pretty much unbeatable – but then again, he looked a dead cert for pole position as well. Behind Márquez, all is open. In the wet, Johann Zarco, Jorge Lorenzo, Jack Miller, Cal Crutchlow, Dani Pedrosa, Danilo Petrucci, Alex Rins, Andrea Iannone, and several others look very competitive. In the dry, Crutchlow, Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, Rins, and maybe Iannone will be in play.
With so many names having decent pace, the frustration for many is that they could not qualify well enough to take advantage of it. Cal Crutchlow was left particularly annoyed. He wasn't happy at all knowing he had strong pace despite qualifying in tenth place. "Absolutely the opposite way around because it makes it even worse," the LCR Honda rider said. "If I'd had an average pace all weekend and moved up the grid then you'd say it's a good thing. In the end we have the pace to be in the top two in qualifying. Maybe Marc was one step ahead but I definitely felt I had the pace to be up there."
Andrea Dovizioso was another rider who hadn't qualified well, though the factory Ducati rider believed he also had good pace. But after a disastrous Friday, Dovizioso had been forced to go through Q1. He had done so with a reasonable cushion, though a blistering lap by an impressive Aleix Espargaro had pushed him into second spot in Q1.
Securing a berth to Q2 had taken it out of him, Dovizioso admitted. "I have to push really hard to go into Q2. There were a lot of fast riders this time, and most of the time, it's more difficult to pass through Q1 and then make a really good lap time in Q2. It's stressful to make a Q1." It also meant that he was left with very few tire choices, the number of wet tires being limited during the weekend. "In Q2, I didn't have any new tires, I used a used tire. So for that, I'm happy about the third row, especially after yesterday."
Dovizioso told reporters he was still confident for Sunday, especially if it rains. "If the race is wet, I think we can be competitive. Also with the conditions we found today, when it wasn't really wet, our speed was good. In the race I think we can fight at the minimum for the podium, and if it will be more wet, we can be more competitive. So in these conditions I feel good. On the dry we have a question mark, because we improved the bike today in the wet, and I believe it will be better also in the dry, but we didn't try so we can't know 100%."
At Yamaha, Valentino Rossi was relatively optimistic, though he felt better in the dry than in the wet. In the mixed conditions, the front would start to fold on him within a couple of laps, making it hard for him to push. The upside was that the M1 was better than last year. He could feel the rear, instead of the vagueness which came from the rear tire last season. In the dry, his pace was much better, he said. His teammate was much less optimistic, disappointed and worried about the feeling of the M1 in the wet.
The Aprilia was a pleasant surprise in Argentina on Saturday. Scott Redding posted a very respectable time during FP4, and both he and Aleix Espargaro put on a strong showing in Q1, Espargaro making it through to Q2 with a positively blistering lap. That lap cost him in Q2, however, as he didn't have any tires left. "The problem was that in Q1, I gave 100% super focused on the dry line, so I realized that if you stay on the dry line, you can go very very fast. In Q2, I started very focused from the beginning, trying to push at the maximum, but I knew that I didn't have more tires on the rear, so I knew perfectly that at the end they would be faster than me. I tried to cool down after every fast laps, I did 35 or 40 seconds slower lap on the wet to try to drop a little bit the pressure and the temperature of the rear tire, and that worked, but not enough to fight for the front row."
Though the Aprilia has made real progress from last year, it has come at the expensive of fuel consumption, which left Espargaro concerned. "Obviously we have a good challenge ahead of us, because Qatar, here, and also Austria are the most demanding tracks for fuel consumption, we are really on the limit with the consumption here in the dry. So we will try our best, I hope that we don't have to reduce a lot the power for tomorrow's race, but if we can find a solution, if we can find a good map for tomorrow's race, I think we can fight for a really top position."
Bring me wings
Aleix Espargaro's passage through to Q2 had come at the expense of Jorge Lorenzo. The factory Ducati rider was furious at missing out on Q2 after posting a respectable pace in FP4. After qualifying, he expressed his frustration at not being able to use the winglets. Ducati had made a mistake with their aerodynamic package, which left Lorenzo without any front feeling, which his riding style relies on. "Let's say that we made an evolution from the winglets from last year, and this new evolution, when we tried it in Buriram with the new bike, it didn't work in the corners," Lorenzo explained. "There were some strange things in the middle of the corner that didn't work. So we discovered that in Qatar, and for the moment, the best mix is without winglets."
"The combination of the new fairing with the new bike, it creates some closing, especially in the fast corners which doesn't allow you to carry on good corner speed," he continued. "And the problem has become worse lap by lap. So finally, the best solution in that moment, even if I don't feel really comfortable without the winglets is to ride without the winglets."
Lorenzo was not hiding the frustration he felt at the situation. Ducati had been unable to provide a homologated fairing which worked for him, and he hoped that they would be able to rectify this as soon as possible. "We hope to make it in Austin, but for the moment, to have just two options for the rules, it's not the best for us. To be able to be free and to try many things, so the best combination has been without winglets. But really, I believe that I really need the winglets with this bike to feel better with the front. Let's hope to have it as soon as possible."
Lorenzo is unlikely to get his wish at Austin. It is unknown whether Ducati have homologated a full aero package with detachable aero ducts, or just the base fairing which their riders have been using. Even if they did homologate the package with detachable ducts which they have been riding without, they will still need to test any new updates first. Jerez is the first opportunity for them to test new aero updates, during the one-day test on the Monday after the race. If Ducati isn't ready by then, then Lorenzo will have to wait until the Barcelona test six weeks later.
Mixing it up in Moto2
The mixed weather made for some interesting results in Moto2 as well. Xavi Vierge got his first pole position, a prize which has been coming for some time for the Spaniard. Vierge was impressive on the Tech3 Moto2 machine, and with a Kalex beneath him, he should be able to convert his obvious potential into results.
Equally impressive was the third place for Danny Kent. After missing the best part of a season when he walked out on the Kiefer team last year, Kent has had time to evaluate his own role in the difficulties he faced in Moto2. To his credit, he has radically turned his approach around, working harder than he ever has before. That hard work has been rewarded with his first front row start in Moto2, and Kent has consistently outperformed his teammate Fabio Quartararo on the Speed Up machine.
The wet weather helped a lot of riders show what they were capable of on less capable equipment. Remy Gardner was outstanding on Saturday on the Tech3 Moto2 bike, topping FP3 in the morning and qualifying a respectable ninth. American Joe Roberts put the RW Racing NTS into tenth, just behind Gardner, an excellent display in the bike's second Moto2 qualifying session. Roberts is strong in the wet, as he proved with a top ten finish in his Grand Prix debut at a wet Brno.
What will race day bring? The weather forecast is all over the place at the moment. Rain is set to fall all night, and through at least part of the morning, drying out in time for the Moto3 and Moto2 race. Very light rain is set to start at 3pm on Sunday, exactly the time at which the lights go out for MotoGP. Motorcycle racing is a very unpredictable thing, and unpredictable weather will only add to that.
Gathering the background information for detailed 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, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.