Qualifying for World Superbike's penultimate pair of races for 2014 took place today, and the French circuit of Magny-Cours, designed by the ubiquitous Hermann Tilke, had been resurfaced in places since last year, making the track a little bit quicker. Rain has been predicted as possible tomorrow, which would mean qualifying is merely an indicator of where everyone starts the race and not a prediction of pace.
Unsurprisingly, Tom Sykes decided not to settle for a mere front row start and took pole position convincingly, but what was surprising was that this was only his fifth pole position of the year, a feat he'd achieved before the halfway mark in both 2012 and 2013. Sykes has a thirty two point lead over Sylvain Guintoli, and eight wins to the Frenchman's two. If Sykes can increase that lead to fifty points this weekend, he will be crowned champion. His teammate Loris Baz, now confirmed as not being too tall for a MotoGP Yamaha, qualified in seventh place the hard way, coming through Superpole One with Max Neukirchner. Baz commented that he was losing out on just one corner and hopes to find an electronic solution before the races tomorrow. In front of a French crowd, Baz had hoped to do better. Baz's fifth place, and no wins, in the title chase is safe, barring a disaster, but if he can beat Marco Melandri, he can take his fourth place off him as he's only five points behind him. Baz is the last rider in mathematical contention for the title, but he needs three wins and a second place with Sykes scoring no more points this year. If it rains, this is not outside the realms of possibility, but it's unlikely.
Davide Giugliano looked all weekend like he might take pole position, and with the fastest time on a race tyre, before everyone came out on qualifiers, it seemed even more likely, but Tom Sykes bagged that one comprehensively. Giugliano was quicker than the previous quickest time, a 1'36.950 from Tom Sykes in 2012, and has a better lap time on a race tyre, and he is hoping to get that elusive first victory for the Ducati Panigale. Chaz Davies qualified in fourth on the other factory Ducati, which was better than his position in every session so far.
Jonathan Rea was the third and last rider to go faster than Tom Sykes's 2012 qualifying lap, filling the last front row slot. With the Honda team giving him a more competitive and user-friendly bike, Rea will be looking for a good start from the front row so as to not get caught up in the bottleneck at the 180 corner. Rea is thirty six points behind Sylvain Guintoli and only eighteen ahead of Marco Melandri, and Magny-Cours is a track that suits the Aprilia. Rea will need to improve on his usual sixth place to keep his third place in the championship safe, and a front row start in front of the Aprilias is a good way to open the racing. Leon Haslam on the other Honda struggled with qualifying and ended up tenth on the grid.
Sylvain Guintoli and Marco Melandri, having shown good pace throughout free practice, ended up in fifth and sixth places respectively, both fighting for championship places at a disadvantage in the second row. While the race pace of both riders is strong, Guintoli has required good starts for his strong results this year, while Melandri is stronger in the second half of the race, managing his tyres and a lighter bike better than his teammate. Guintoli needs a good start for his home crowd to hear La Marseillaise in World Superbike, but if not, they will have to rely on rain or the Supersport Frenchmen.
Alex Lowes, confirmed to be staying with Suzuki next year, qualified in eighth place ahead of his teammate Eugene Laverty, confirmed to be off to MotoGP next year on the bike originally earmarked for Loris Baz before HRC realised that he was a bit tall. Lowes is looking for two top six places while Laverty is just looking for something better than ninth.
Three non-Evo Ducati Panigales were added to the grid this weekend, with the 3C Racing team bringing former World Superbike rider Max Neukirchner, former factory Ducati rider Lorenzo Lanzi and IDM German Superbike Champion Xavi Fores. The three teammates all raced in the IDM and the Ducati Corse-supported team won eleven out of the fifteen races on their way to the title. Fores qualified directly for Superpole Two, while Lanzi and Neukirchner had to contest Superpole One, with only Neukircher joining Fores in the second Superpole. Fores and Neukircher take the last two spots in the fourth row. Fabien Foret, having previously announced his retirement to focus on EWC endurance racing, is also back for a last hurrah in front of his home crowd, replacing the injured Luca Scassa.
World Supersport also included a few wild cards, but Lucas Mahias was the standout. Having won every race in the French Supersport championship this year, twelve victories from twelve starts including two at Magny-Cours, he very nearly started the World Supersport race from pole position, but his fellow countryman Jules Cluzel held him off. Cluzel is two points behind second-placed Florian Marino in the already-settled championship, and with Marino starting in the middle of the third row, Cluzel just needs a good result ahead of Marino to head to the last round ahead.
With French riders stereotypically going well in the wet, the home crowd could well be secretly hoping for rain. They are definitely hoping for good French results, and there are possibilities, but plenty of other riders have different plans.