Repsol Honda rider, Pedrosa just 0.017 ahead of Zarco - with Dovizioso third and Marquez seventh
After a pair of increasingly thrilling races in Japan and Australia, the excitement of MotoGP went up yet another notch at Malaysia. And that was just qualifying.
The Q2 final session for the top dozen riders ended with pole position changing hands five times in the closing minutes, starting with 30 seconds to go, and then swapping repeatedly until the last rider who’d crossed the line before the flag completed his lap.
By the end, it had gone back to the rider who had first got himself there with 30 seconds before the flag, Dani Pedrosa. In blazing heat, the Repsol Honda’s familiar problems trying to get enough temperature in the tyres just didn’t apply. It was his 49th career pole, the 31st in the premier class, and his third of the year. From the first, at Jerez, he won; in Catalunya he was third.
The hot sunny conditions meant a big turnaround for the 32-year-old: in yesterday’s rain he placed 18th. Pedrosa was glowing. “Normally I don’t get so many poles in a year. Now we hope for a dry race tomorrow, because yesterday in the wet we struggled a lot.”
The first to depose him, with 20 seconds left, was Movistar Yamaha rider Valentino Rossi; but his reign lasted little longer, with Andrea Dovizioso slotting the red Ducati into pole at the flag, boosting his hopes in his last chance of stopping Marquez from winning the title.
But there were still riders circulating. And going fast.
The next change saw Johann Zarco on top, as the Monster Yamaha man had been earlier on. But the story was still not finished. Pedrosa was still flying, and crossed the line a minuscule but sufficient 0.017 seconds quicker.
This pushed Rossi to fourth, heading the second row.
But the drama was not quite over.
Marquez’s bid for pole had gone wrong when he slipped off on his first flying lap … luckily at the final hairpin, so he could get back to the pits quickly. He’d been lining up to get three runs, using the circuit’s short cut. Now his plans were in disarray, his favoured bike damaged. Fastest in the morning, the best he could manage was sixth.
Only for Jorge Lorenzo to slot into that position, the last to set a time; the Ducati pushing Marquez to the third row of the grid. It is not just his worst qualifying of the year, but only the second time in his five-year MotoGP career that he has not been on the first or second row: at Mugello in 2015 a series of mishaps meant he didn’t even make Q1, starting from 13th and crashing out of the race.
Denied pole, Zarco was happy to celebrate his fifth front-row start, and third in a row; saying when asked if he thought he could win that “you need to believe you can win, otherwise you don’t start the race”.
Dovi spoke of doing “a perfect lap, and I’m so happy about that. We worked well. Every time we made a change, we went faster – wet and dry we are quite competitive.
Rossi ended up leading row two from Movistar Yamaha team-mate Maverick Vinales and Lorenzo; Marquez heads the third from the Ecstar Suzuki pair Alex Rins (through from Q1) and Andrea Iannone.
Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) was tenth, after crashing halfway through a lap where he had set very quick sector times. Then came Jack Miller (VDS Honda) and Red Bull KTM rider Pol Espargaro, who had also made it through from Q1.
Times were very close, the top ten within one second of pole, which was in turn less than two tenths of the track’s best lap, also set by Pedrosa.
After a smooth and strong start yesterday, Monster Yamaha substitute rider Michael van der Mark felt the pain of MotoGP today, qualifying in last position after a crash during the session.
The Moto2 session also ended dramatically, with both title contenders crashing.
For the champion elect, Franco Morbidelli, it was just a hiccup. Although he fell at high speed, he was unhurt and his VDS Kalex sufficiently undamaged that he could climb back on board and carry on. He was already on pole, and (apart from wanting to stay there) had the ultimate record in his sights.
He didn’t improve his time, but it turned out he didn’t have to. And he had learned something … perhaps. Asked if this was the case, the coolest man in any class said: “To take it a little easier on that corner. But not too much.”
The only rider who can stop his title, Tom Luthi, had a much slower but much worse crash soon afterwards – a vicious high-side on a slow corner that left him dazed and limping, eventually collapsing again to be stretchered off. He was soon back on his feet, but badly battered.
Another threat to pole was already out. Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Kalex) has been five times fastest in practice. He came out again after an innocuous early slip-off, only to fall again, this time wrecking his bike.
Morbidelli stayed fastest, if by less than three hundredths, from last week’s winner Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM), also on a time set early in the session. Then towards the end Fabio Quartararo (HP40 Kalex) pushed second VDS rider Alex Marquez to lead row two. It was the French rider’s first front row start since Qatar last year.
Luthi was fifth, in the middle of row two, completed by top rookie Pecco Bagnaia (SKY VR48 Kalex). Ex-Moto3 champion Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM), fresh from the podium last week, was in the middle of row three, between Marcel Schrotter (Dynavolt Suter) and Taka Nakagami (Idemitsu Kalex). Pasini was tenth.
Moto3 likewise served up something remarkable: a first pole of the year for the rider who had already walked away with the championship. Joan Mir made it at the end of a session which had started slowly, the track wet and not drying until there were barely 20 minutes left.
What is more, the Leopard Honda rider got only his second career pole at a new track record speed. “I wanted it because it is a bit strange to win the championship without a single pole,” said the 20-year-old Spaniard. If he takes a tenth win tomorrow, he will be just one short of the highest season total in the junior class, with one race to spare. The record of 11 was set in 125 two-stroke days in 1997, by Valentino Rossi.
Jorge Martin was second-fastest on all-Honda front row, with John McPhee third.
Then two KTM riders – Bo Bendsneyder and Gabriel Rodrigo, with Jules Danilo (Honda) sixth. But the French rider has a three-position grid penalty for a riding offence in Australia, which will promote Livio Loi to row two, as well as fellow Honda riders Romano Fenati and Enea Bastianini.
Fenati is now defending second overall from Aron Canet, who qualified 12th.
By Michael Scott