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.
Results and summary of qualifying for the MotoGP class at Losail:
More of the same sandy and windy treatment for the premier class on their last opportunity to confirm their race preparedness. Danilo Petrucci did exactly that and reinforced his position as a contender for the win in Qatar by shooting to the top of the timing tower as soon as the session started. The Pramac rider looked certain to keep the lead until his factory colleague Andrea Dovizioso fired in a low 1:55 on used tyres to steal the spotlight on a medium front and a soft rear tyre.
Results and summary of qualifying for the Moto2 class at Losail:
Results and summary of qualifying for the Moto3 class at Losail:
Hot, windy, dusty – add the adjective of your choice to denote how unhelpful the conditions were to prepare for a race taking place much later in the day. With over 40 degrees track temperature it was always unlikely to get a shot at improving position on the combined standings with Q1 in sight so not much constructive work seemed to be done throughout the session.
Hot tarmac and wind was the order of the day for the intermediate class, raising no expectations of improving on Friday’s times or learning much for the race. Nonetheless, they chased each other around for 45 minutes and fought for vaguely relevant supremacy.
Alex Marquez was living up to the surname by offering us noteworthy replays and running off track in every session he took part in this weekend. The Spaniard got it together in the very last minute to dip into the 2:01s and go two tenths faster than the opposition.
It was another hot start to the day in Qatar for the lightweight class and it was the usual names making their mark on the timesheets. Philipp Oettl was the first man/boy to cut the sizeable early lead in the final five minutes of the session, when action finally started to heat up. Soon after it was Aron Canet’s time to steal the show and the Spaniard kept top position on the timing sheets to the flag. The Estrella Galicia rider dipped into the 2:07s but with the sweltering conditions it was to be expected that the times would not come tumbling towards the best of FP2, ending up a tenth slower than FP1 – a session which took place in similar conditions.
Winter is officially over. Though meteorological winter ended on 1st March, and the astronomical winter will end next week on 20th of March, the long MotoGP winter came to an end at 12:50 local time in Qatar, when Moto3 rolled out for their session of free practice. After World Superbikes got everyone warmed up at Phillip Island in February, the advent of the Grand Prix classes means that racing is back again in earnest.
It is also back in weird way, as is to be expected at Qatar. The schedule remains a curiosity, the latest iteration merely shuffling the weirdness around. For MotoGP, the first session in the blistering heat, the second in the relatively cool of the evening. Track temperatures in FP1 were hitting the mid to high 40s °C, whereas in FP2, they had dropped into the mid 20s. In essence, FP1 is as good as useless for finding a setup. Times dropped by a second between FP1 and FP2, a good indication of the difference in track grip.
The riders had talked about the schedule in the Safety Commission meeting, hastily scheduled for the end of the day after the riders decided against doing it between FP1 and FP2. "In my opinion, it's a special weekend, and we know that," Marc Márquez told us. "Of course FP1, you ride, you feel it's the same layout, but it's for nothing. You cannot try the setup for the race. It's a special weekend, and it will be impossible to find the best schedule. If you want a GP of five days, yes, because then we start on Wednesday, but for me it's OK."
In a more familiar sight, the night had truly set in by the time the premier class hit the playground one last time on Friday. The fight heated up in the final five minutes, Danilo Petrucci the first man to make his mark and put nearly half a second into the competition, only to be robbed by Dovizioso one lap later. Ducati’s lead Italian kept his name at the top of the timesheets as the checkered flag waved, with Petrucci a mere six thousandths of a second behind and Rins breaking the Ducati hegemony another tenth behind.
With the sun having set, the famous bright lights of Losail coming to life and the temperature starting to drop, the timesheets for the intermediate class changed configuration somewhat from what the afternoon offered.
After narrowly missing out in the first session, Alex Marquez exerted his revenge and set camp at the top of the timesheets early on once again, improving his time by one second and showing mighty pace throughout his run, as well as the occasional highlights reel twitch.
It has been an eventful couple of weeks for Yamaha. Apart from the expected hectic period of preseason testing, Yamaha agreed a new two-year deal with Valentino Rossi. There was also the surprise announcement by Jonas Folger that he wouldn't be racing in 2018, and working with Hervé Poncharal to find a replacement for the Tech3 team. More significantly, they also had to deal with the surprise announcement that Tech3 will be leaving Yamaha at the end of this season, and swapping to become a satellite for KTM from 2019 onwards.
So journalists had plenty of questions for Lin Jarvis, the head of Yamaha Motor Racing, and Qatar was the first opportunity to ask him. In a session with the media on Thursday night, Jarvis answered questions on all these subjects and more, offering an insight into the way Yamaha are thinking. The departure of Tech3 could see Yamaha rethink the way they have been working in the past.
Obviously, the re-signing of Valentino Rossi was a big topic of conversation. What was the main reason for keeping Rossi, Jarvis was asked. "There are so many reasons, it’s difficult to give one," the Yamaha boss replied. "Because of everything he brings to Yamaha, and the sport, and the team, because of who he is. That’s the motivation. But I would also like to add that he is still highly competitive and absolutely a top rider capable of winning."
With the sun setting throughout the lightweight class’ second session of the day, photographers might have been more entertained than most of the grid once Jorge Martin was unleashed. FP1 was a mere warm up for the Spaniard, who set the bar high from the off in FP2 and left his rivals with one second to make up.
After a long winter of resting and testing, the sound of MotoGP engines got us all out of hibernation with the first practice session of the 2018 season in the premier class. New season but a familiar picture in Qatar, with the championship runner-up Andrea Dovizioso the first to dip into the 1:55s and then consolidate in his position as race favourite by topping the session.