Pol Espargaro will start the Styrian MotoGP from pole position for the first time in his career as he rewarded both himself and KTM the best possible opportunity to challenge for a much desired victory on home soil at the Red Bull Ring.
Two weeks after KTM celebrated a landmark and unexpected maiden MotoGP victory in Brno with Brad Binder, it is Espargaro etching his name onto the latest milestone this time after a formidable performance in an incredibly competitive Q2 session.
Though Espargaro and KTM did in fact start from pole position at the restart around the Red Bull Ring last weekend, this is nonetheless the first time they have every qualified for the feat. As well as KTM’s first achievement since its full debut at the start of the 2017, this is Espargaro’s first MotoGP pole position at his 110th attempt.
Elsewhere though, it was a difficult afternoon for the title contenders with Fabio Quartararo only able to secure ninth on the grid, while Ducati’s strength ebbed away as Andrea Dovizioso went just one better in eighth.
The surprises didn’t end there either with Espargaro heading up - on paper at least - a front row few would have predicted after Takaaki Nakagami and Johann Zarco turned in laps quick enough for second and third places respectively.
Another measure this year’s sheer openness, it is nonetheless also a reflection of riders like Nakagami making a step forward this season. Coming into the weekend with a best starting position of only sixth place– achieved fittingly enough in Austria last year – the Japanese rider is confident he will be in contention for the podium this weekend despite his year-old machinery.
Third on the timesheets represents a huge result for Zarco just days after fending off controversy over ‘that’ accident with Franco Morbidelli, but for going under the knife for surgery to his scaphoid. Having only taken part in FP3 ahead of qualifying, Zarco not only made it through to Q2 via Q1 but would emerge as the surprise Ducati leader on its favoured circuit.
Alas, unfortunately for the Frenchman his second front row results in three races on the Avintia Ducati GP19 is for brags since he will start from the pit lane as punishment for his role in the aforementioned crash.
As such, Joan Mir’s personal best of fourth on the grid is upgraded to a maiden front row on the Suzuki, the Spaniard no doubt eyeing up a victory challenge after finishing second days ago.
With Zarco demoted, Jack Miller is promoted to top Ducati representative with a gritty run to fourth on the grid. The Australian is nursing a painful shoulder following a fall in FP3 and it told as he wrestled the Pramac Ducati around the circuit.
He is joined on row two by Maverick Vinales – the best of the Yamaha riders in an otherwise anonymous session for the usual Saturday’s samurais - while Alex Rin consolidates one of Suzuki’s best-ever Saturdays to land sixth on the grid.
Miguel Oliveira finds himself in a much better placing than a week earlier in a promoted seventh on the Tech 3 KTM, ahead of Dovizioso, who will have work to do to make it four-on-the-trot around the Red Bull Ring from eighth position.
Similarly, Quartararo will be sweating over an unusually lacklustre qualifying session as he was shuffled down to what will become ninth position on Sunday. Petronas SRT Yamaha team-mate Franco Morbidelli starts alongside him in 11th, with Danilo Petrucci 11th as the other rider to make it through Q1.
Behind them, Iker Lecuona was just a thousandth shy of making Q2 for the first time in his short career as he at least got the better of KTM team-mate Binder in 12th and 13th positions.
Valentine Rossi, meanwhile, faces a tough Sunday after his hopes of qualifying higher than 14th was scuppered by a low-side crash at Turn 9 as he was fighting to climb the order.
He starts ahead of Alex Marquez, who had the boost of out-qualifying Cal Crutchlow for the first time, even if they have been both utterly outclassed by Nakagami.