Qualifying at Motegi was a true thriller, with the riders having to reckon with the treacheries of the Japanese track. The rain stopped falling, but the asphalt had not yet dried off. Precisely for this reason, the rain tyre became the tyre of choice, particularly the extra soft.
In what seemed to be a game of roulette, Johann Zarco astonished with his M1, taking his second pole position of the year after the one in Assen. In fact, his time of 1’53”469 places him at the front of the grid: “I am very excited about the result – the Frenchman said – I kept working hard and today I thought about using the slicks, but I decided not to risk. This is definitely a great chance to aim for the podium.”
It was a Yamaha in classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde style. Indeed, because while the Tech3 M1 machines are flying, the factory machines have run aground on the track of the Rising Sun. In fact, Rossi, who crashed without any consequences during FP4, had to reckon with quite a few difficulties. Initially he had put on a slick and then he switched to the rain tyre. He finished with the twelfth best time, more than four seconds behind the leader (+4.317).
Things went even worse for Maverick Viñales who was unable even to go through to Q2. For the Spaniard, who will start from the fourteenth spot on the grid tomorrow, Saturday was a day to forget and now the race for the title will be an uphill battle.
Coming back to the top positions, alongside Zarco on the grid will be Danilo Petrucci (+0.318). His was the fastest of the Ducatis and in the finale he put on the extra soft tyre: “This is a really unexpected result – the Italian rider commented – I got the tyre choice right, even if I am still missing pole position. That’s okay, though – he added – given my conditions last week where I didn’t even eat because of a case of food poisoning.”
Rounding out the front row is Marc Marquez (+0.413). Pole position seemed to be in the hands of number 93 up to three minutes before the end, but then a strategic mistake sent the Spaniard’s ambitions up in smoke: “I could have battled for the first spot on the grid – Marc said – Unfortunately, I decided to opt for the slicks at the end of the session and it was too risky. In any case, I am very happy with the front row.”
Behind him, Alex Espargaró’s Aprilia astonished once again (+0.478), by now a sure thing for the top spots. The RS-GP finished the session almost three tenths ahead of Jorge Lorenzo’s GP17 (+0.766), whereas Dani Pedrosa rounds out the second row (+0.873).
On the other hand, it was a bitter finish for Andrea Dovizioso (+1.595) who was unable to do better than ninth place with rain tyres, a second and a half behind the leader and even beaten out by the surprising KTM machines ridden by Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaró, the fastest in Q1. Behind the GP17 was the Suzuki duo made up of Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone. Also noteworthy was Cal Crutchlow’s absence from Q2.