It took ten years and nine days, but the last of the pole records set on qualifying tires has finally been beaten. And not just once, but three times. On their final laps in the Q2 session of qualifying, three riders streaked across the line and dived under Jorge Lorenzo's now ancient pole record at Qatar set in 2008. History was made, and the final specter of the 800 era was cast out from the all-new, utterly rejuvenated MotoGP class. The slate has been wiped clean.
That Lorenzo's record stood for so long and that it was broken at all are both remarkable feats. The old qualifying record was set in Lorenzo's very first MotoGP qualifying session – though in 2008, the system was a little easier for the riders, one hour of qualifying with a generous supply of both race and qualifying tires. In the midst of the tire wars, the Michelin (and Bridgestone) qualifiers were worth well over a second a lap, and sometimes two. Lorenzo's pole lap smashed the previous record by 1.075 seconds. But that pole position, taken on his MotoGP debut, was Jorge Lorenzo serving notice that he was something a little bit special.
It took a special rider to dispatch Lorenzo's lap to the dustbin of history. Johann Zarco had been struggling during the first weekend of his second year in MotoGP, trying but failing to make an impression on the timesheets. He was clearly suffering from the pressure of the expectations placed upon him. Being linked to factory rides, being tipped for the championship before he has even won his first race. He faltered during practice, but with fresh rubber and a light bike he found his feet and dismantled Jorge Lorenzo's record along the way.
Not easy then, not easy now
That is no mean feat. Sure, Zarco may have used the softest tire in his allocation to set that record-breaking lap. But on Sunday, there will be plenty of riders who line up on the grid expecting to race that tire. Jorge Lorenzo's qualifying Michelin from 2008 could do a single fast lap before giving up the ghost. Lorenzo's lap was also set on relatively new asphalt, the track only having been open for a few years. The surface is a great deal older now, and has a good deal less grip than it did a decade ago.
Jorge Lorenzo was impressed by Zarco's lap, knowing full well the circumstances which had allowed him to set the pole record all those years ago. "It looks like we did not improve so much in ten years!" he joked. "We had the qualifying tires where you could improve by two seconds and the asphalt was new. It was impressive. Zarco is very impressive."
"For sure the tires make a big difference," third-place man Danilo Petrucci said. The track today was very dirty. I didn’t imagine that the pole position was under '154. Yesterday it was a little bit better but when I saw lap times I said, it’s possible. Like Johan said, in ten years for sure the regulation now is less free. We have all maybe more or less the same electronics. But the tire is a race tire, so a big, big step from Michelin. I like the tire because maybe can do the race tomorrow. It’s a qualifying tire and a race tire. A tire for every day."
Leading from the front
What also made Zarco's lap so impressive was the way in which he set it. He had worked his way to the head of a group including Marc Márquez, Danilo Petrucci, Andrea Iannone, Maverick Viñales and more. Once at the front, he pushed so hard that no one could follow, creating separation between himself and Márquez as they headed to the line.
"I got one lap behind Dovizioso and Iannone," Zarco told the press conference. "We start one, two, three, four corners and they begin to slow down. So I was still behind, but keep pushing and try to keep my tires warm. Then everybody was waiting because no one wanted to go front. So step by step I was in front with nobody. I was happy to have some reference on the lap before. Then I say, okay, I have to do it, so try it." He tried, he did it, and he left everyone at Qatar and watching at home utterly speechless.
A single fast lap with fresh tires and plenty of grip is one thing, but actually performing in the race is another. "I see [Zarco] struggling a bit more tomorrow than in qualifying – but maybe I am wrong – but for one lap it was impressive," Jorge Lorenzo commented.
Zarco probably doesn't start as favorite for the race on Sunday. That honor falls to Andrea Dovizioso, the factory Ducati rider remaining utterly impressive in every session. Qualifying did not go entirely his way: he ran into traffic, and made mistakes on his own accord. "I slowed down because a lot of riders were in the middle of the track," Dovizioso said. "I didn’t prepare the last lap in a perfect way – nothing."
But Dovizioso was quietly confident. "I think we have a good pace. We go into the race with a really good confidence but it’s very, very difficult to understand the pace of the competitor. It looks like too many riders have a good pace with the used tires and the new tire. I don’t think it will be the reality for the 22 laps but it’s difficult to understand who is in a better situation." Did he see himself as favorite for victory on Sunday? "Well, maybe," he replied. "I hope so."
The race itself will be decided in the second half. Tire wear, and tire management, are going to be the biggest issue. Strategy would play a major part in that, Dovizioso explained. "It’s a track everybody knows, the energy and the consumption of the tires makes a big effect every race, but here a lot. The strategy will be very important tomorrow for everybody for sure."
Given his well-known mastery of strategy in racing, did this give Dovizioso an advantage? "Maybe," he replied cautiously. "I mean, the first race is always crazy. In Qatar it’s always a crazy race. It depends a lot on the brain of the competitor so it’s not easy to manage this situation. But I feel good. We have to be smart and manage the situation in the best way."
Take your pick
Having a strategy is one thing, being in a position to carry it out is another thing altogether. Looking at FP4 – the one session in which nothing hangs on the times and results, and is used to test race setup as a result – there are a bunch of people all on similar times. Andrea Dovizioso is one of the fastest, but he is not alone. Danilo Petrucci is also right on the money, and the Pramac Ducati rider starts from the third place on the grid. Maverick Viñales' long run was equally impressive, going out and doing sixteen laps in straight succession.
Valentino Rossi was similarly quick. "Like I said my pace is good but I think that, looking at the pace you have 12 riders more-or-less in the same condition!" The Italian joked. Marc Márquez concurred, adding, "The race is very, very long but if you check the pace in FP4 everybody was with the same pace. Everybody 1'55 middle, 6, 7." Márquez singled out two competitors who looked to be a cut above the rest. "Maybe Danilo and Andrea, they were a little bit faster," he said.
This means the race will be decided in the last ten laps or so, when the tires start to go away from the riders. "Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow and it will be very important to understand what's happens in the second half of the race," Rossi said. It will be hard to preserve tires in the midst of what looks like it could be a monster battle for the first half of the race. "I mean, the first race is always crazy," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "In Qatar it’s always a crazy race. It depends a lot on the brain of the competitor so it’s not easy to manage this situation. But I feel good. We have to be smart and manage the situation in the best way."
Stiffer Please, We're Viñales.
While Rossi's pace was impressive, the two Movistar Yamaha riders appear to be going in different development directions once again. For Rossi, the problems the M1 is having revolve entirely around the electronics. "For me - in my small experience! - I feel the bike is going well, but we have to work in some other area like electronics because in acceleration we suffer a bit. But its's all the package that makes the difference and we will see tomorrow."
What did Rossi want most from the new bike? "Everything," Rossi said. "We have to work a lot and for me acceleration, the electronic side is the place we suffer more."
For his teammate, the real problem is not one of electronics, but rather a lack rigidity in the chassis. Maverick Viñales swapped to a stiffer setup, and was immediately quicker than he had been during testing. "In FP4 we changed quite a lot the bike, similar to what I was riding last year," Viñales told us on Saturday evening. "I felt much much better, already from the first lap. So we have to continue working, trying to simulate bike from the beginning of last year a little bit, you know, the positive points, and let's see what we can do. Honestly, looking at the setup we used today, it was like the test was useless, for me and for my side. So we have to continue working and trying to find a positive way."
Electronics were not really the problem, Viñales explained. Yamaha still had a lot of work to do in that area, but it wasn't their biggest hurdle, he believed. "No, electronics is still the same," Viñales said. "We didn't have any improvements, any updates. Still I think we have to make a big step in the electronics, but especially we change the setup, with the stiffer bike I felt much better." The stiffer bike is aimed at allowing him to ride the way he wants to, Viñales said. "It’s similar to what we used but with a new part that will increase the rigidity."
One feature of the nighttime practice sessions which makes up for the lateness of the hour and the location in the middle of the desert is the ability to see things which are normally hidden. During qualifying, Andrea Iannone but especially Jorge Lorenzo had their steel rear disc brakes glowing bright orange in the dark.
Though Lorenzo did not remember using much brake – distracted by other issues, most likely – his teammate Andrea Dovizioso explained it with his usual precision. "I didn’t check if he uses more the rear brake than me," Dovizioso told us. "I don’t think so. In every braking zone I use the rear brake." That was not necessarily all about counteracting wheelie, Dovizioso said. "In some tracks like this one in many strong accelerations you have to use the rear brake to reduce the pumping. The rear brake is hot because of that," he explained.
Who is going to win on Sunday? It's hard to say, and a sign of the times that there are so many riders so competitive and on the same pace. Andrea Dovizioso looks to have a slight edge, matched perhaps by his compatriot and fellow Ducati man Danilo Petrucci. Maverick Viñales could pull of a real stunt, if the bike works as well on Sunday as it did today. Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone show real promise on the Suzuki, while Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow are both there and thereabouts. Even Marc Márquez is on track for a very strong finish at a track which he doesn't like, he should still come away with a generous points haul. It's tough to pick a favorite any more. They are so close together that the riders will mix it up in the early laps and shake up the field. The season opener has all the makings of a season extravaganza.
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