MotoGP is back for the year, which means we are once again treated to the glory of bikes going very fast and duking it out in some of the most competitive racing you’ll spend your weekend enjoying. And that also means it’s time to start breaking down some of MotoGP’s mysteries, starting with qualifying.
I made it no secret that 2020 was really one of the first years I actually gave my full attention to bike racing, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. But the one thing that really confused me was qualifying, which functions differently than any other race series I watch. So, I’ll run you through everything you need to know.
(Welcome to Motorsport Explained, the series where we break down racing rules and concepts in easily digestible ways for all the beginners out there. If there’s something you’ve always wondered about or something that has never made sense, leave your topic in the comments or email me at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
MotoGP qualifying is divided into two different sections: Q1 and Q2. The division here isn’t exactly straightforward, though.
Only ten riders compete in Q2: the 10 fastest riders during the first three practice sessions hosted ahead of the race. Those fast times are calculated by taking into consideration the best laps the rider had in those previous practice sessions. If you’re fast, you can guarantee a starting position on the first three rows.
But Q1 takes place first. All but the 10 fastest riders take place in this session, but there’s a catch. The two fastest riders from Q1 are given the opportunity to compete in Q1 to better their starting position. Everyone else in Q1 is fighting for 13th place back.
From that point, the determination of the grid is similar to what you’d see in other qualifying sessions for other race series. The fastest rider stars in pole position, with the second rider being the second fastest, and so on.
Both qualifying sessions run for 15 minutes.
If you haven’t experienced this style of qualifying before, you might be destined to think Q1 would be boring, since it’s determining the ‘slower’ riders. But it can actually be quite a highlight of the weekend because of the fact that two riders get to move up to Q2 and possibly even nab pole position.
That’s right. There’s totally a chance that the slowest rider in every practice session could end up qualifying on pole. It’s rare, but it’s possible.
That being said, you’re more likely to enjoy a desperate battle for those two transfer spots by three or four riders who just struggled to get their shit together during the start of the weekend. It’s seriously a joy to watch them swap fast laps.
The first three practice sessions for a MotoGP weekend are 45 minutes long and are hosted in Friday and Saturday. When it comes to determining who was fastest in those sessions, there’s nothing crazy: the riders with the 10 fastest time in any of the sessions are the riders who are entered into Q2.
If you’ve watched other racing series, the practice situation is a good thing. It provides added motivation for riders to get out and treat every single session with sincerity. In Formula One, for example, you’ll have teams that sit out practice sessions or who just run a few, slower laps to gather a bit of information. It can make for boring television, and it can be especially boring for folks who headed to the track to see it in person.
MotoGP’s practice and qualifying formats, though, guarantee that you’ll have riders pushing themselves to their absolute limits and perfecting their bikes right up until the final moment. It’s like qualifying before qualifying.
Now, there are actually four practice sessions in MotoGP, but only the first three count toward determining qualifying sessions. The fourth practice session only runs for 30 minutes and is held just before qualifying. It’s a timed session, but those times are not used to determine qualifying sessions.
Basically, FP4 is designed to give riders a chance to adjust their bikes to accommodate for unforeseen conditions, like a dramatic change in weather or a crash that required extensive repairs.
There’s also a brief warm-up session on race day to take care of any other necessary changes.
Because bikes are small, MotoGP organizes its starting grid in rows of three instead of rows of two. So, the fastest three drivers will all start on the front row.