Kaito Toba secured Friday honours after two Moto3 free practice sessions in Qatar this evening with 2’04.839 the time to beat heading into Saturday.
Less than three-tenths of a second separated Toba from the all-time Losail lap record, with the CIP rider’s effort a painfully narrow 0.042s ahead of second-best-man Jaume Masia, Gabriel Rodrigo sat third as 0.1 separated the top-six. Scotland’s John McPhee put himself firmly in contention for tomorrow’s qualifying with an eighth place finish, just two-tenths away from the top.
After completing three days of testing just last week at the Losail circuit, the majority of teams and riders had their initial base settings already under their belt but that didn’t stop the pack flooding the track as soon as the green flags were waved for FP1. Romano Fenati and the two Leopard riders, Dennis Foggia and Xavier Artigas, the only riders to take their time as the 40 minute session got underway.
With last year’s top-five enjoying promotion to Moto2, six rookies join the lightweight class for 2021 - Izan Guevara the reigning Moto3 Junior World Champion, Artigas, his Vice Champion, Pedro Acosta, last year’s Red Bull Rookies victor, Adrian Fernandez, Andi Farid Izdihar and Lorenzo Fellon.
The latter Sic58 rider becomes the youngest in the class at just 16 years and 256 days come race day, a somewhat stark comparison to the elder statesman, McPhee, who sits a decade and a day ahead of the fresh talent.
Ayumu Sasaki and Toba took the early lead from Niccolò Antonelli as the session began with McPhee taking over at the top and running 2’07.1 pace after four laps on track. Andrea Migno, Guevara and Antonelli were the first riders to break into the 2’06’s before a lull in the mid-session saw the field return to the pits.
The closing 10 minutes of FP1 saw Toba return to the top with a 2’06.554 as Guevara continued to improve in second, the leading pair shaving fractions from their respective times as the session counted down before Masia slid into second, the pace still two seconds away from his pre-season test-topping 2’04 best.
The final minute saw McPhee, then Acosta, initially hold the standings, with Ryusei Yamanaka and Masia splitting the pair moments later. A last-second effort from Darryn Binder put the Petronas rider just 0.089s behind Acosta’s 2’05.809, demoting his teammate to fifth in the process.
Migno settled for sixth as the chequered flag flew with Jason Dupasquier, Toba, Stefano Nepa and Guevara concluding the top-10.
As dusk fell, the floodlights illuminated the returning players for the second practice session - their first experience of riding at night for this year after the test schedule failed to provide the opportunity. High afternoon temperatures gave way to a gentler 25℃, with times expected to reduce with similar intensity as track conditions became more favourable.
McPhee and Binder were the first riders out on track, circulating in tandem as they worked together, closely followed by the KTM duo of Acosta and Masia doing likewise but it was Rodrigo who set the pace in the opening minutes.
The teamwork seemed to be paying off as Acosta returned to the lead on his fifth lap of the evening with Masia in second, the rookie improving once again on his next attempt - this time with a 2’05.531 - as Sergio Garcia separated the pair shortly after.
As the second half began, McPhee sat outside of automatic Q2 qualification, in 19th, as Foggia advanced the times by almost three-tenths. Migno sat second from Acosta and Carlos Tatay, with both Petronas machines returning to the garage, alongside the majority of the pack, ahead of their final runs.
A frenetic final 10 minutes kicked off with Masia returning to the top with the first 2’04 of the weekend, Dupasquier and Antonelli jumping into the top-three before McPhee demoted the Avintia rider with his 2’05 dead effort. Further shuffles saw Rodrigo and Garcia now in second and third, with Toba and teammate Max Kofler up to sixth and eighth respectively and sitting each side of the Scot.
The closing minute allowed impressive improvement from Toba as he set the fastest time so far, opposing fortunes for Guevara saw the rookie find the limit at turn four.
With the session complete, Toba retained his dominance from Masia and Rodrigo, Garcia, Dupasquier and Antonelli completing the top-six. Jeremy Alcoba bettered McPhee with a late attempt as Migno, Kofler, Tatay, Foggia, Sasaki and Acosta claimed the final promotion spots heading into Saturday’s FP3.
Binder missed out on a potential Q2 place to sit 15th at the close of play ahead of Yamanaka, Fenati, Yuki Kunii, Artigas and the fallen Guevara. While Ricardo Rossi, Adrian Fernandez, Deniz Öncü, Tatsuki Suzuki, Nepa, Filip Salac, Izdihar and Fellon completed the roster.