Though testing for the MotoGP class has finished, motorcycle racers in other series still have plenty of work ahead of them. Both the World Superbike series and the Grand Prix support classes have been hard at work, ahead of a busy schedule of testing. The Ducati and Kawasaki World Superbike teams have been testing at the Motorland Aragon circuit, while Moto2 and Moto3 are back at Valencia.
If you wanted a demonstration of just why the weather at Sepang can play such a decisive factor, you need look no further than MotoGP FP2. Fifteen minutes before the MotoGP bikes were set to take to the track, the Moto3 machines were finishing their second free practice session in sunshine and sweltering heat. But a couple of minutes before MotoGP FP2 was meant to start, the heavens opened, producing a deluge that had first-time visitors to Malaysia hunting around for gopher wood with which to build a boat.
It looks like we might finally have found a Yamaha track. After Mugello, Barcelona, Assen, Brno, Silverstone, all places which were supposed to favor the Yamaha, but where a Honda won, Misano looks like it could be the place where the reign of Big Red comes to an end. Jorge Lorenzo took his first pole since Motegi last year, Valentino Rossi got on the front row for the first time since Phillip Island last year, and Marc Marquez was off the front row for the first time since Barcelona, 2013. In fact, this is the first time that a Repsol Honda has been missing from the front row of the grid since Valencia 2010. That is a very long time indeed.
Jorge Lorenzo's pole nearly didn't happen. In the first sector of the lap – the tight section through the first five corners – Lorenzo made a couple of mistakes which he feared had cost him a couple of tenths. He thought about pulling in and abandoning the lap, giving it one more shot with a fresh tire if he could change it fast enough. He rejected that idea, then went on to post what he described as an 'unbelievable lap'. His first fast lap had been trumped by Andrea Dovizioso, the Ducati man making clever use of Lorenzo's slipstream. But that first lap had made the Movistar Yamaha rider realize that he was not using the ideal lines. It helped make sure his second exit counted.
While Lorenzo aced qualifying, Valentino Rossi laid down a withering pace in FP4. Fast out of the gate, the Italian's race pace was mid 1'34s in his first run, then low 1'34s in his second. More importantly, his crew made a change to the bike after his first run, which made a big improvement, and allowed him to drop his pace. Rossi described FP4 as 'a great practice', and praised the work his team had done on the bike. "We started well, the bike was good, but we improve a lot," Rossi said.
After winning the first five races of the season, Marc Marquez said he feared the trio of Mugello, Barcelona and Assen, which were to follow. He would surely be beaten at one of those tracks, given they favored the Yamaha M1 and were strong tracks for both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. Three races and three wins later, and Marquez is looking increasingly invincible. The Repsol Honda man keeps inventing new ways to win, and keep his opponents at bay.
So if Marquez is impossible to beat at a Yamaha circuit, perhaps he can be beaten at a Honda track. So far, Dani Pedrosa has been the only rider to get close to beating his teammate, after pushing him all the way at Barcelona. The Sachsenring is a track where Pedrosa has reigned supreme in recent years, having won four times in the last eight years. Impressive as it is, that does not do his record at the track justice. In his rookie year, he finished fourth in Germany, missing out by just three tenths of a second in one of the closest and most thrilling races to be held at the circuit. In 2008 he crashed out of the lead in the wet, a result that would lead him to concentrate on improving his riding in the rain. In 2009 he finished third, close behind the battle between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and in 2013, Pedrosa was absent after breaking a collarbone during practice.
There is just one minor problem. If you think Dani Pedrosa's record at the Sachsenring is strong – and numbers don't lie, Pedrosa is the man to beat in Germany – just wait until you see what Marc Marquez has done at the circuit. For the past four years, in three different classes, Marquez has won the race after starting from pole. The Spaniard won here in his last year in 125s, won both Moto2 races he contested here, then took victory in his first MotoGP race at the circuit. It was his second win in the class, after becoming the youngest ever winner at Austin earlier in 2013. Marquez did not have to beat either Pedrosa or Lorenzo, of course, both men having withdrawn with broken collarbones. So this race is a straight fight for Sachsenring supremacy. The winner in 2014 may rightly call himself King of the 'Ring.
Now, Valentino Rossi knows how Max Biaggi felt. 'I did one mistake in 27 laps,' Rossi told the press conference after the MotoGP race at Le Mans. 'But in the crucial moment of the race.' Rossi braked a little bit too deep into Turn 9, ran wide, and Marquez was through. The mistake was because Rossi knew Marquez was coming, and had to try to push to keep ahead. 'I try to push, to do 1'34.0, but I knew I was at the limit.' Rossi knew that if he did not keep pushing to the full, Marquez would be upon him and past him in no time. It was perhaps that effort that caused Rossi to make the mistake that let Marquez by.
It was indeed a strange role reversal for Rossi. Ten years ago, it was Rossi himself who was hunter, stalking riders like Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau, following them and simply waiting for a mistake. Now, the hunter had become prey, faltering when Marquez bore down upon him. At last, he got to ride a mile in Biaggi's boots.
Yet all credit is due to the veteran Italian. He is currently the only rider in the world capable of putting up any kind of resistance to the unstoppable force which is Marc Marquez. Both Rossi and Marquez were surprised and disappointed at Rossi's mistake, both relishing the chance to go toe to toe with one another. 'I don't know if I can beat him,' Rossi said, 'But I would like to fight. I think it would be fun.' Marquez concurred, telling the press conference he had expected to have 'a nice battle' with Rossi as he came up behind him, but when he saw Rossi make the mistake, he did not hesitate. He was past, had put half a second into Rossi within half a lap, and was gone. If anything, it was a mark of respect that he distanced himself so quickly. Marquez may have been prepared for a fight with Rossi, but he couldn't afford to hang around to see what Rossi could do. With five victories from five poles, Marquez may be confident, but he is not yet reckless.
Qualifying at Le Mans was full of surprises. Efren Vazquez grabbed his first ever pole in Moto3, Jonas Folger bagged his first Moto2 pole after just five races in the class, and Pol Espargaro secured a front row start as a rookie. Andrea Dovizioso posted another impressive performance, grabbing third in qualifying, and Ducati's first front row start of the year. The two Movistar Yamahas were relegated to the second row of the grid, and Dani Pedrosa will start from way down in ninth. If you'd put money on that sequence of events, you could have earned yourself a very tidy sum indeed.
You certainly wouldn't have earned much by betting on who would take pole. Marc Marquez is turning into the very antithesis of surprise, at least if you judge him by the timesheet. The championship leader only managed three flying laps during qualifying at Le Mans, but two of those were fast enough to break the pole record held by Dani Pedrosa, and set using super soft Michelin qualifying tires. For the second meeting in succession, Marquez destroyed a pole record which had stood throughout the spec tire era.
He also destroyed the field in the process. Marc Marquez was nearly seven tenths quicker than the second placed rider during qualifying. He was over eight tenths quicker than both Movistar Yamaha riders, and over a second quicker than his teammate Dani Pedrosa. He took his fifth pole of the season – a clean sweep in 2014 so far – and his sixth in succession. If he wins tomorrow, he will take the record as the youngest rider to win five premier class races in a row from Mike Hailwood. He has more records in sight: Giacomo Agostini won the first eight races from pole in 1971; Mick Doohan won ten races from pole in 1997. Bookies are currently offering odds of 1/18 on Marquez taking the championship in 2014. Those are the kind of returns you would expect from interest on a long-term savings account, not from having a flutter in the hope of winning big. In the opinion of the bookmakers, betting on Marc Marquez is like putting money in the bank.
Who can stop Marc Marquez? By the look of the FP2 timesheet, maybe Andrea Iannone can. The Pramac Ducati rider ended Friday just 0.007 behind Marquez, the closest anyone has been to him on a Friday since Qatar. Looks are, of course, deceptive, and if you dig a little deeper you see that Iannone's fastest lap, though impressive, was made using a tow from Dani Pedrosa, just as the Repsol Honda rider was setting his fastest lap of the session. Iannone also benefited from using the extra soft rear tire which Ducati is allowed to use, making it that little bit easier to post a quick lap.
Iannone should not be written off too quickly, however. Pedrosa slowed up to let Iannone past immediately after the pair had set their quick laps, and on the next clear lap, Iannone got into the 1'33s again, posting a time equal to Pedrosa's best lap, but this time, all on his own. Whether he convert that to consistent pace in the race remains to be seen. The Italian appears to be circulating around the 1'34.3 mark. Fast, but not fast enough to match what Marquez appears to be capable of.
For real race pace, you have to look a little further down the timesheets. Jorge Lorenzo appears to have refound his mojo, and is starting to grind out the laps. The Movistar Yamaha rider put in 16 full laps during FP2, 5 of which were 1'34.1s, plus a single lap of 1'34.054. This is the Lorenzo of old, working on consistent pace and slowly ratcheting up the pace. Lorenzo's pace is still no match for Marquez – the Repsol Honda man seems capable of banging in 1'33.8s at will – but it is clearly the best of the rest. It has taken four races for the real Jorge Lorenzo to make an appearance, but at least he is finally here.
There is much to be said in praise of the first running of the Argentinian round of MotoGP at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit. First and foremost, praise should be heaped upon the circuit itself. Designer Jarno Zafelli took a formerly pedestrian layout and added just enough kinks and twists to make for an exhilarating and difficult racetrack. There are plenty of places to pass, and sections different enough that teams and riders can concentrate on their strengths, though that makes them vulnerable at other parts of the track.