World Champion Marc Marquez will start from pole position as he begins the defense of his MotoGP title at the season-opening Qatar Grand Prix.
Marquez and a squadron of factory bikes busted open the form guide in qualifying with hot favorite Aleix Espargaro slumping to ninth on the third row for the 22-lap race.
Marquez, 21, has been cautiously but meticulously building to top pace as he recovers from a broken leg suffered six weeks ago in a dirt bike accident.
He claimed the first pole of the season with a time of 1:54.507s.
Despite the huge benefit of an extra-soft tire and power-boosting fuel allocation, Espargaro could not maintain the form that had seen him dominate three days of practice in Doha.
He crashed twice in the session to qualify ninth on the third row.
“It’s a great surprise because yesterday I didn’t expect because a lot of riders, especially the Open riders, were so strong with the soft tire,” Marquez said.
“I am getting more confident with every practice but tomorrow it will be a hard race. There are many riders within one tenth and it has never been like that in the MotoGP category.
“It will be great for the fans but it will be hard for me at the end of the race because I’m struggling a little bit with the leg. I don’t have enough power and automatically I’m using my right arm more and it’s getting tired every lap.
“But I hope that against the other riders and with the adrenaline it will be better and I would like to do a great race.”
It was Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso who made the most of the rules gift allowed to the red team in a bid to end their embarrassing three year losing streak.
Dovizioso’s Ducati GP14 is a factory entry but allowed the soft tire and extra fuel of the Open class bikes, at least until it starts winning again.
“I am surprised it was so close in qualifying, I expected the factory riders to be slower,” Dovizioso said.
“But when they push really hard they can make a good lap time with our hard tire, so I think this is more the reality than what we have seen before in the weekend.
“I am really happy about the speed we have. We’ve made a big improvement from last year but the bike still doesn’t turn and that makes the difference in the race.
“We can’t change that but we have improved our speed because we can brake harder and enter the corner faster. I am happy about that but the race will be very difficult.
“We will have the possibility to go much faster than last year but for the position in the race it will be very difficult. We are not in the situation to fight.”
Indications that Espargaro could fight for the podium in Qatar took a big hit in qualifying and he will struggle for clear air in the frantic battle for track position in the early laps.
Espargaro is sandwiched on the grid by two hardcore racers – Valentino Rossi (Yamaha) in 10th and Ducati’s Cal Cructhlow in eighth.
Rossi again qualified poorly and was more than 0.5s slower than Marquez’s pole time. Crutchlow was 0.1s quicker than Aleix Espargaro.
Marquez’s Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa will start from sixth, one spot behind fellow Spaniard Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha), who was fifth fastest qualifier as he bids for a third consecutive MotoGP race win in Qatar.