MOTEGI, Japan (AFP) - Yamaha's Johann Zarco produced a sizzling lap Saturday to claim a surprise pole for the Japanese Grand Prix with MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez qualifying in third.
With only a minute remaining in a wet Motegi session, the Frenchman Zarco clocked a quickest time of one minute, 53.469 seconds for his second career pole in the MotoGP class, pipping Ducati's Danilo Petrucci and championship leader Marquez.
Petrucci finished 0.3 seconds behind Zarco with Marquez a further tenth off the pace to complete the front row, followed by Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro, Ducati's Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa's Honda.
"We were ready to fight," said Zarco, who claimed his first pole in the Netherlands almost four months ago. "I'm just so happy, it's perfect motivation because in your rookie season you expect that maybe one time pole position was good enough."
Marquez's chances of extending his lead in the title race could be boosted with his closest rivals Andrea Dovizioso and Maverick Vinales back in ninth and 14th respectively on the grid.
Spaniard Marquez, who like Yamaha's Valentino Rossi paid for his decision to switch his Honda to slick tyres, has a 16-point advantage over Dovizioso with four races left.
"This time maybe I sacrificed a little bit to attack more to understand different things because I saw that Valentino was on slicks too," said Marquez.
"But anyway, I'm happy because the front row was the main target and we are there, we are in front of our main rivals so this is important."
Vinales admitted his hopes of catching Marquez were hanging by a thread after a dismal qualifying, the Spaniard missing out on an automatic spot in second qualifying.
"Every time I go out on the track and see myself in 10th position, I see the title slipping away," said the Yamaha rider, complaining of a traction problem.
"Especially because my rivals are in the first positions," added Vinales, who trails Marquez by 28 points. "For sure, it's a shame but I can't do anything more with the bike we have right now, it's impossible."
Meanwhile, seven-time champion Rossi qualified 12th on the grid for Yamaha as he continues his return to fitness after a double leg fracture.
Marquez, chasing a sixth victory of the season this weekend, wrapped up his third MotoGP world title at last year's Japan race.