Marc Márquez will start Sunday's 28-lap Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring from pole position, the 77th career top-spot departure for the 25-year-old MotoGP championship leader. Factory Ducati teammates Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo will join their Repsol Honda rival on the front row of the grid. Just 0.135 of a second separated the trio.

Sound familiar? It should. The picture was virtually identical last year at the mostly right-hand 2.68-mile circuit, whose three dragstrips play to the GP18’s strong acceleration, while the predominantly left-turning middle squiggles are Márquez territory. Dovizioso won the race and Márquez was a final-corner dive-bombing second, with Lorenzo fourth after leading 11 laps.

On Saturday, which began wet and ended dry, Márquez posted the quickest lap in every session—Free Practice 3, 4, and Qualifying 2. His first at-speed lap in picture-perfect 15-minute Q2 was the quickest of the weekend, and his pole-winning second to last, 1:23.241, was within 0.99 second of Andrea Iannone’s 2016 circuit best.

Andrea Dovizioso
“Normally, you have to save the tire and you have to save a little bit of fuel,” Andrea Dovizioso said about round 10 at the Red Bull Ring. “It’s a long race here because the circuit is quite short, but it doesn’t mean it will be like this.”Courtesy of Ducati

"When the tires are new, Dovi and Lorenzo are very fast," Márquez said, adding that he was faster than he imagined he would be, given the shortage of moisture-free track time. "We didn't ride a lot in dry conditions and we were only one-tenth from the lap record, so we were very, very fast. But, yeah, the two Ducati riders want to win, too, so they are pushing."

Dovizioso admitted he didn’t expect to be quite so competitive. “Today was a bit strange, especially in Free Practice 4,” he said. “With a lot of [overnight rain], there wasn’t maybe much rubber on the asphalt and I didn’t feel so good. But, at the end, the lap time came. First row was the goal, so first, second, or third is not a big difference.”

Lorenzo, meanwhile, is still looking for more, especially in Sector 3. “I don’t think it’s the setting on the bike,” he said. “It’s more about my riding style. I’m going to study the video and see if I can do something tomorrow. In the warm-up, I’m going to try something that can improve braking so hopefully we can find some more tenths.”

With similar conditions to qualifying—sunshine poking through puffy clouds—forecast for Sunday, tire choices are not yet finalized. “With the soft, I was fast,” Márquez said. “After 25 laps, I was able to ride a 1:24.5, which is a good pace. With the medium too. If we have the chance tomorrow, we will try the hard rear to understand a little bit more.

Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo
Ducati has two wins at the Red Bull Ring. Can the Italian factory make it three in a row? “Tomorrow we will try to fight in Ducati’s land,” pole-position winner Marc Márquez said. “We will try to be competitive.”Courtesy of Honda

“It’s difficult because maybe sunshine comes and the temperature will be high. The front tire is more clear. If the afternoon is the same temperature, I will go with the medium. With the hard, maybe I can be slightly faster but it is more dangerous. Now is not the time to take the risk; I prefer to be slightly slower but safer.”

Both Ducati riders are in a similar tire predicament. “We are going into the race with a lot of question marks about the choice of the tires, the strategy for which we have to manage,” Dovizioso said. “I think we can fight for the victory and the podium. But we are very different, so everything can happen during the race.”

What of the rest of the field? Danilo Petrucci (Pramac Ducati), Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), Johann Zarco (Yamaha Tech 3), and Tito Rabat (Avintia Ducati) were also in the 1:23s, with a bit more than a second covering the first four rows. Still missing acceleration, the factory Yamahas—Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi—will start 11th and 14th, respectively.

Maverick Viñales
“We have some problems with the electronics, and the bike was not working well on the track,” Maverick Viñales said. “It is important to be inside the top 10 and get points for the championship.”Courtesy of Yamaha

Regarding the latter, Yamaha held a press conference during which YZR-M1 project leader Kouji Tsuya apologized for the performance shortcomings. “Today was a very difficult day for us,” he said. “We are struggling because we couldn’t achieve the power delivery to the riders more precisely. That’s why this is maybe the worst qualifying result for us.”

Rossi expected to suffer at the Red Bull Ring, in his opinion the worst track on the calendar for Yamaha. “I had to do Qualifying 1,” he said. “The soft tire is very difficult to manage, even for two laps. You feel a little better grip, but the tire is too soft and I wasn’t able to arrive in Q2. I have to start from the fifth row tomorrow, and that is very difficult.”

Márquez, meanwhile, expects a fight from Dovizioso and Lorenzo. “I know we will arrive if not together then very close,” he said. “Last year I arrived on the limit, but I needed to try. This year, I hope to arrive in a different situation, but I cannot forget Dovi is 68 points behind me in the championship and Lorenzo is 76. They are fast so it is better to lose five or nine points than 25.”