A long time ago, when I worked at a software company, we had a timekeeping system that consumed hours of our productive time as we tried to keep track of the projects we had worked on every week. One member of our team was smarter than the rest of us, however. He figured he knew roughly what projects he would be working on for the next couple of months, and would fill in his timesheets about 6 weeks in advance. He saved himself a whole heap of time doing that, while we struggled.
Compare and contrast the lot of a MotoGP headline writer. The way things are looking so far, we could fill in the headlines for all of the practice sessions and races for the next three or four MotoGP rounds well in advance, and get about 90% of them absolutely spot on. Put the following words in any order: Stoner, Repsol Honda, Pedrosa, Dominate, Clean Sweep. Throw in a couple of conjunctions, and you are set to go for quite some time.
It goes without saying that the Honda camp are happy, with both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa half a second ahead of the rest. Stoner confessed to having spent some time watching videos from the 1997, 1998 and 1999 seasons, in which Mick Doohan, Alex Criville and Tady Okada battled all year long for the championship aboard Repsol Hondas. There was even a Yamaha fly in the ointment, in the shape of Max Biaggi, Jorge Lorenzo's hero as a child.
Stoner said he had not even really started pushing the bike yet, and - in a not-so-veiled reference to his former employer Ducati - emphasized that he had not yet felt close to the point where the front wheel would start to let go. That was what put Stoner out of contention on the Ducati last season, and those problems appear to be continuing on to 2011.
Stoner's teammate Dani Pedrosa was the last of the Honda riders to confess to the HRC magic going on in the gearbox, after Pedrosa's manager Alberto Puig had earlier denied that anything was different in the box. Pedrosa reiterated what Stoner and Andrea Dovizioso had said about the new gearbox, saying that it made upshifts much smoother, especially when the bike was leaned hard over. The only negative point was that shifting down while decelerating where a little aggressive, which explains why the Honda riders spent so much time working on the clutches and engine braking at Sepang.
We also asked MotoGP Technical Director Mike Webb whether he had checked the gearbox, and he confirmed that he had, and that it was "100% legal". All he would say about the gearbox itself was that it was "very, very nice" before clamming up entirely on the subject. As Mike Webb is one of the nice guys in the paddock, we decided not to push our luck.
But there is a huge veil of secrecy surrounding Honda's gearboxes. Apparently, there is only one engineer from each team allowed to actually open the gearbox and make changes to the gear ratios. To do so, that engineer takes the engine out of the pit garage to a closed room in the paddock where they can make the changes, reassemble the gearbox and slot it back in the bike.
There is confusion over chassis in both the Honda and Ducati camps, though for entirely different reasons. Dani Pedrosa still hasn't decided which chassis he wants to use for the season, alternating between the final 2010 season version and the new stiffer 2011 version being used by both Casey Stoner and Andrea Dovizioso. Pedrosa feels happiest on the 2010 chassis, as he understands it best. The 2011 is more stable under braking, but is a little bit harder to turn.
Nicky Hayden then contradicted what Vito Guareschi told MotoMatters.com yesterday about which chassis he was using. It was not a special chassis, he insisted, but merely a standard chassis with the headstock set a little looser to give it a little bit more flex. It certainly hadn't helped much, as Hayden is continuing to struggle to get the bike to work.
The euphoria on the other side of the Marlboro Ducati was short lived. After posting a highly promising 5th fastest time on Thursday, the two sessions on Friday saw little improvement by Valentino Rossi. His shoulder was causing him a lot of pain in the many right handers around Qatar, but the squad had still not found a significant improvement in the setup. While everyone around him was going significantly faster, Rossi had only found a couple of tenths, ending the day in 8th.
The Yamahas were faring much better, both Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo pleased with their progress so far. Lorenzo's runs were particularly impressive, but were not producing the sort of information that shows up in the timesheets. Even then, though, both Lorenzo and Spies didn't believe there was much they could do about the Hondas. Spies said he would be happy if he could fight for the podium, and would be disappointed if he finished outside the top 5.
So far, it looks like we will have two separate races on Sunday: between the first two Repsol Hondas, and between Spies, Lorenzo, Dovizioso, and maybe Simoncelli and the one man you can never count out, Valentino Rossi. It may not be one great big giant dust-up, but the times between the groups look pretty tight indeed.
While guessing the exact podium is turning out to be trickier than it might seem, there is no doubt about who is going to end up in last place. Toni Elias' return to MotoGP has been dismal, the reigning Moto2 champion consistently 3 seconds off the pace, and half a second or more behind MotoGP rookie Karel Abraham.
Elias' problem is entirely down to the combination of his unusual riding style and the direction the Bridgestone tires have taken in the past couple of years. Even back in 2008, the construction Bridgestone was using had a softer carcass. Now, though, with the stiffer, new generation Bridgestone Battlax MotoGP slicks, the stiffness of the carcass was preventing Elias from getting any heat into the rear tire, and the slick was simply never getting up to temperature properly. Until the tire and suspension techs can find a solution to this, Elias - rumored to have bought his way into the LCR Honda ride - is destined to be stuck at the back.
Despite being a dead cert for last, Elias' chances of picking up some points ironically improved on Friday night. Alvaro Bautista had a huge crash in the final left-hander during FP3, tumbling through the gravel and breaking his left femur. He was immediately taken to hospital, where he is expected to have a pin inserted on Saturday, before being flown home to Spain.
Bautista's absence sparked a wave of speculation as to who would replace him, with John Hopkins ruled out by the fact that the American was already back in California, and couldn't be flown back to Qatar in time for qualifying, which he would have to take part in to qualify for the race. By a process of elimination, some paddock insiders hit upon Ant West on the hopelessly inadequate MZ to replace Bautista tomorrow. West has experience on a MotoGP bike and with the Bridgestone tires, having ridden a Kawasaki until the end of the 2008 season. But it may be wiser to skip Qatar altogether, if Dorna is willing to let Suzuki do such a thing.
The tire situation is exactly what has made making sense of the Moto2 class such a difficult task. Spec tire supplier Dunlop brought two choices of tire to the Qatar race, a harder compound and a softer compound. The hard compound is universally loathed in the paddock, and no one can get any use out of it. Several crew chiefs independently described the tire to me with a single, four-letter word. That word always rhymed with "kit".
The terrible tire caught a lot of riders out, with Kenan Sofuoglu one of the high-profile victims of the tire. The Technomag CIP rider spent Thursday on the worthless hard tire, and left the track fuming and confused at his fate. Friday turned out much better for the Turk, Sofuoglu getting more into the swing of things, though still down in 15th place, and a second off of the pace of Marc Marquez in 2nd place.
Sofuoglu was just one of many. I spoke to Robertino Pietro of the Italtrans STR team on Friday, and he said that after FP1, he'd been just about ready to quit. The tire had felt as if it had oil on it, and he had been dismayed to see he was nearly 8 seconds off the pace. After he put the softer tire on, he cut 4 seconds off his best time, and though not exactly up front, was at least in contention with the rest of the field.
All of the Moto2 teams are looking forward to Jerez, though. Dunlop is bringing the new tire they tested at Jerez to the race, and Scott Redding's crew chief Pete Benson reckoned that tire alone would be worth a second a lap. With the Moto2 class still so new, there's still a lot of work to be done on the tires.
As for the results, a picture of who is competitive and who is not is starting to emerge. Marc Marquez, Stefan Bradl, Scott Redding, Thomas Luthi, Andrea Iannone, Julian Simon and Yuki Takahashi are all fast, and all are looking competitive. It is probably Marquez who has looked most impressive, given that the Spaniard has yet to race aboard a four-stroke. Marquez is already being referred to as a potential winner.