Brinkmanship, and some unexpected tyre use, resulted in a second pole of the season for MotoGP class rookie Johann Zarco, the independent-team Monster Yamaha rider deposing early leader Marc Marquez as the defending champion switched his Repsol Honda from wet to slick tyres on a track that was drying too slowly for them to pay dividends.
After heavy rain yesterday and persistent drizzle in the morning, it stopped raining in time for MotoGP qualifying, with a dry line in some places. But cold conditions meant the surface wasn’t right for slicks until the latter part of the Moto2 qualifying session, almost half an hour away.
Zarco was naturally delighted. He had been on pole at Assen also, and thought that was the best he could expect in his rookie season. “To do it again … feels fantastic,” he said. “All the riders were struggling in the conditions, so that means an opportunity to do well.”
In the closing stages of an exciting Q2 session, Danilo Petrucci (Pramac Ducati also came through to slot in ahead of Marquez; who survived in third.
The Spaniard explained that he’d thought it more important to experiment on slick tyres than to defend the fastest time he’d set earlier in the session – especially since he’d seen Rossi out on slicks at the start of the session. The experience could prove valuable, he thought, if conditions were mixed for the race.
“I try to find the positives, and now I understand some things that maybe if I hadn’t tried slicks I would not understand,” he said.
In the end-of-session flurry. Aleix Espargaro threatened also to depose Marquez for a first front-row start for the V4 Aprilia, showing strong signs of late-season improvement. He missed by less than five hundredths of a second; but did squeeze in ahead of Jorge Lorenzo’s factory Ducati.
Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) was sixth to complete row two; the Red Bull KTMs led row three, both through from Q1, Bradley Smith narrowly ahead of Pol Espargaro.
The session was a disappointment for title challenger Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati), after heading the time sheets yesterday. He was ninth, on the far end of row three.
But it was even worse for the factory Movistar Yamaha riders, both struggling with rear grip issues on the slippery track.
Rossi was 12th, behind the best-yet Suzuki pair of Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone. His gamble on slick tyres at the start of the session had played him foul, and though he did call in for a tyre change, it cost him a lot of time, with his spare bike damaged from a morning spill. He was ultimately four seconds slower than Zarco.
Team-mate Maverick Vinales was worse off still. He’d missed the top ten yesterday, and then wasn’t able to break out of Q1. He ended up 14th, in the middle of row five.
Cal Crutchlow was another Q1 victim. The LCR Honda rider had been set for a session-best lap at the end of the session, but a slide on the last corner ruined it, and he qualified 15th.
In Moto2 qualifying, last session of the day, the names at the top of the timing sheet were changing in a blur, as riders on slick tyres found speed and rhythm on the drying track. The watershed moment came with about 15 minutes to go, and riders who left the changeover too much beyond that risked not having time to find the best line and rhythm in conditions that remained tricky.
Among them, the title rivals Thomas Luthi (CarXpert Kalex) and points leader Franco Morbidelli (VDS Kalex), whe ended up 13th and 15th as a result.
Pole went to home hero Takaaki Nakagami, the Idemitsu Kalex rider’s first this season and fifth in his career. But it was fraught. The Japanese Silverstone winner had gone to the top just before the flag fell, only for Alex Marquez (VDS Kalex) to cross the line soon afterwards with a faster time.
The next challenge came from Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Kalex), who slotted into second … only to be pushed down one place by Spain’s Xavi Vierge on the Tech 3 Mistral.
It was not over, however. Nakagami was still going, and flashed over the line to go top once more by just over a tenth of a second.
Marquez was second and Vierge taking his first front row. Pasini led erstwhile pole men Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM) and Hafizh Syahrin (Petronas Kalex) o row two.
The afternoon had begun in more stable conditions for Moto3, with no room for slick tyres, but plenty of variety as conditions gradually changed.
For once it wasn’t Hondas dominating, with Nicolo Bulega (SKY VR46 KTM) securing his first pole since Jerez at the beginning of last year, and Niccolo Antonelli (Red Bull KTM) his first front row of the year in second.
Top Honda was Aron Canet’s EG bike in third; with Marco Bezzecchi making the most of conditions for his career best and Mahindra’s season best on the CIP team machine.
Enea Bastianini (EG Honda) was fifth, with Romano Fenati (Rivacold Honda) sixth, and frequent pole starter Jorge Martin (Del Conca Honda) leading row three in seventh.
Title leader Joan Mir (Leopard Honda) has a big chance of tying up the title tomorrow, but he will have to finish in front of Fenati … which might prove difficult. He qualified only 14th, and with a six-place grid penalty from Aragon added on he will start from the seventh row of the grid.
By Michael Scott