On Thursday night, it looked like a revolution had been unleashed in MotoGP. After qualifying on Saturday, that revolution has been postponed. Three Spaniards on pole, two Spaniards on the front row for both MotoGP and Moto3. No prizes for guessing the names of any of the polesitters, all three were hotly tipped favorites at the beginning of the year.
So what has changed to restore order to the proceedings? In a word, track time. When the riders took to the track on Thursday, the factory riders had a lot of catching up to do. They had been down at Phillip Island, a track which has lots of grip and puts plenty of load into the tires. The heat resistant layer added to the 2013 tires really comes into its own, the track imbuing the riders with confidence. Qatar is a low grip track, thanks in part to the cooler temperatures at night, but the sand which continuously blows onto the track also makes it extremely abrasive, posing a double challenge to tire makers. Use rubber which is too soft, and the tire is gone in a couple of laps. Make it hard enough to withstand the abrasion, and it's hard to get the tire up to temperature.
Coming to Qatar is always tricky, riders needing time to build confidence and learn to trust the tires. Coming to Qatar from Phillip Island is a culture shock, and takes a while to get your head around. Riders need to throw away everything they have just learned, and start again. That, Bradley Smith explained, was one of the reasons he was on the front row – his first in MotoGP, a significant achievement for the young Briton – and the factory Movistar Yamaha riders weren't. 'Australia wasn't great for the factory guys, because they got to ride a tire which isn't this one,' he told the press conference. Smith and the other satellite riders had come from Sepang, another low-grip track, and spent three more days on the same tire and in similar grip conditions. 'Testing here ten days ago has helped a lot,' Smith concluded.
That certainly explains why both Tech 3's Bradley Smith and Go&Fun Honda's Alvaro Bautista were on the front row. Experience with the tire, and experience at the track had prepared them for conditions, and helped them find the confidence they needed. The satellite riders and Open class riders were mentally prepared for the conditions, while the factory riders had been lulled into a false sense of security after the Phillip Island tire test. Smith pointed out that the factory riders – and especially the Movistar Yamaha riders – had been warned, and should really have been prepared. 'I don't really know what the other Yamaha riders are complaining about. We knew this would be the situation, Bridgestone made it very clear from the first test in Sepang,' he told the press conference.
If Smith and Bautista surprised with impressive rides to get onto the front row, the MotoGP polesitter should come as no real surprise at all. Marc Marquez stamped his authority on proceedings on qualifying, dislodging Bautista from the top of the timesheets to claim pole. Marquez' absence through injury may have been an advantage for him, despite missing six weeks of training and having had no testing since Sepang 1. His mind wasn't befuddled with the plentiful grip at Phillip Island, and so he attacked the track as he found it, rather than as he hoped. The biggest advantage, though, is perhaps that he is Marc Marquez: the run of incredible feats just seems to continue.
If Marquez can put the Repsol Honda on pole, despite missing testing and having sat with his leg up for six weeks, he has to be in with a shot at the win. Certainly his race pace looked good enough, Marquez, Aleix Espargaro and Dani Pedrosa all running consistent mid to high 1'55s during the session of free practice which preceded qualifying. But Marquez is worried about his endurance. He was already starting to lose strength in his arm compensating for his painful broken leg after the long runs he had done in practice. Lasting an entire race could prove difficult.
While Marc Marquez taking pole is hardly an earth-shattering event, the man many had tipped to be fastest in qualifying was Aleix Espargaro. The Forward Yamaha rider had been fast throughout free practice, and with the extra soft tire at his disposal, looked like a shoe-in for pole. It did not work out that way. His two runs during Q2 both ended in crashes, one of his bikes ended up in horrible shape after being sprayed down with foam by the marshals. This was not how he had imagined qualifying going.
The explanation was simple. The pressure of suddenly finding himself at the heart of a media storm had got to him. In 2013, Aleix' media commitments were limited, with attendance at his press debriefs sparse. Throughout testing, media interest had grown, and after the first two days at Qatar, the pressure must have grown overwhelming. On his first run, using the softer rear tire, Aleix found the front starting to float. 'It was my own mistake,' he told the press. He pushed too hard, and went down. The second time out, he had a used tire on the front, and tried to hard to make up for his initial error, ending up on the floor for the second time.
As a result, he starts from the third row of the grid. He has his work cut out to get past the riders ahead, but given his pace in practice, he looks to be just about the fastest rider on the grid. Crashing during qualifying will have been a salutary lesson, helping to focus his mind. What he needs is to calm down and stop worrying, focusing just on riding his best, rather than shooting for a result. Aleix Espargaro's results on Saturday are a reminder of just how important the mental game is.
Much the same can be said of Jorge Lorenzo. After two days of intense concern, arguing with Bridgestone and worried looks in his garage, Lorenzo has started to find his feet at Qatar. He has slowly accepted that the 2014 rear Bridgestone doesn't work as he likes, and so he has to adapt to the tire, rather than hoping to find a solution. That takes track time, and as he has racked up the laps, the confidence has come. After qualifying, Lorenzo looks more like his old self.
What had changed? 'I gritted my teeth,' he told reporters. A tweak here, a tweak there, and some changes to the electronics. With a few more electronics tweaks, he believes he can be competitive. If he can get a good start, a podium should be possible. Even a victory is not beyond the bounds of the possible, though the evidence of FP4 suggests otherwise. The tantrums, it seems are over. And that is a big step forward already. Expect Lorenzo up the sharp end on Sunday, though how sharp is still open to debate.
His teammate faces a much tougher task. Valentino Rossi must start from lowly 10th place, five positions and two rows behind Lorenzo. They had underestimated the advantage of testing at Qatar, Rossi told reporters, and he had struggled with the rear tire and most especially with the lack of fuel. Despite being in tenth, he is still hopeful, though. He was less than six tenths off Marquez, and still within sight. The first few laps will be 'like a jungle', he said, hoping to fight his way forward. The busy early laps could even work to his advantage: if he can get in the draft of other riders as much as possible, it should help to save fuel. For Rossi, it will be a case of picking his battles and trying to leapfrog his way forward.
Where the Ducatis end up is anyone's guess. While Andrea Dovizioso's 4th and Cal Crutchlow's 7th are impressive, it will be hard for them to maintain their improved pace throughout the race. Crutchlow has come on in leaps and bounds to end in 7th, but the race pace of the two Ducatis is less impressive. Braking is much better on the Ducati Desmosedici GP14, but the bike still will not turn. Maintaining speed for 22 laps will be difficult, but the progress continues.
Tito Rabat's Moto2 pole can hardly be counted a surprise, but the way the qualifying session ended certainly can. After an excellent session in which he grabbed 2nd on the grid – his best ever qualifying position in Moto2 – the German crashed and broke his ankle. Unfortunately for Mika Kallio, Cortese's Kalex stayed on the track, and the Marc VDS rider ran into it. Fortunately for Kallio, it was only his bike which was destroyed, though according to his press officer it had turned Kallio into a temporary soprano.
Even if Cortese can ride – and he hopes he still can – converting a front row start to a result will be difficult with his injury. Rabat will be left to battle it out with Taka Nakagami and Tom Luthi, with a very impressive Sam Lowes capable of throwing a spanner into the works. So far, Lowes has made a superb start in Moto2, and brings the right attitude to the class, riding around the problems rather than insisting on them being fixed. There is room for improvement on the Speed Up, and improvement is coming, but Lowes understands what is required from him, and is prepared to do it. Lowes is very much the dark horse this year in Moto2. A podium on his debut is a realistic possibility.
If the order in Moto2 is exactly as expected, it is a slightly different story in Moto3. Nobody doubts the ability of Alex Rins and Alex Marquez, but there were serious doubts over the competitiveness of the Honda Moto3 bike. Testing had been a painful affair, the Hondas running consistently well off the pace of the top KTMs. They had shown real progress at the final test at Jerez, but free practice had still been a mainly KTM affair. Come qualifying, however, and the Hondas came into their own. Alex Rins took pole on the NSF250RW, with his Estrella Galicia teammate Alex Marquez behind him in 2nd. John McPhee took 7th, on the Racing Team Germany Honda, making it three bikes in the top seven.
With the KTMs of Jack Miller, Jakub Kornfeil and Isaac Viñales taking 3rd to 5th, and Danny Kent on the Husqvarna – a rebadged KTM – in 6th, it could be quite a race. Fears that Honda had lost the plot entirely in Moto3 are clearly misplaced. They mean business, as the presence of HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto on pit wall alongside Estrella Galicia team boss Emilio Alzamora proves. So do KTM, so it promises to be an intriguing season.
That intrigue starts on Sunday, with the first race of the year. Speculation comes to an end, and we will see just how much of the revolution promised on Thursday is left standing. On the evidence so far, it will be enough to make for a fascinating 2014, in all three classes.