There were plenty of big names to watch out for at Jerez, but the real star of the show was the weather. She turned out to be such a prima donna that she almost completely halted on-track action for the first session of MotoGP, though not so much through her ferocity as by her fickleness. A rain shower at the end of the previous Moto3 made the track just greasy enough for it to be no use for slick tires, and nowhere near wet enough to get any useful information from wets, and so the vast majority of the MotoGP grid spent all of FP1 suited up but twiddling their thumbs.
Though the night race at Qatar is spectacular, the paddock at Jerez feels like a proper paddock. There is a bustle missing from Qatar, and the return of the hospitality units means that it is an altogether more colorful place. The presence of the hospitality units also means seeing more old friends, the men and women who slave all weekend putting the units together and ensuring that everything runs smoothly within them, and that the guests who spend their time there - including, most importantly, the people who foot the bill for this whole MotoGP malarkey - pass it as pleasantly as possible. These are the people who are the backbone of MotoGP, the foundation on which it is built, and it is always a happy moment meeting them again.
The night schedule at Qatar means that writers and journalists end the weekend in a state of utter exhaustion. To bed at dawn for a few hours fitful sleep, up around noon, off the to the track for a full day's - or night's - work, then do the same thing over again. Race day is worse, the schedule is tougher, the adrenaline rush greater, the comedown even bigger. And there's usually about twice as much work to do as well. It is still the greatest job in the world, of course, but it makes you long for sleep a couple of times a year. Qatar race-night round ups tend to be terse, and given my usual verbosity, this is no bad thing.
The races. The Moto3 race looked a lot like a 125cc race with a different soundtrack. The great thing about Moto3 is that with a level playing field, we get a slighly different cast of characters, but the best riders remain at the top. The winner's name had been pencilled in since the preseason, Maverick Vinales clearly the cream of the crop in the most junior Grand Prix class. Third man Sandro Cortese was another podium regular, but sandwiched in between was Romano Fenati, a rookie to the class and a name few people who had not been following the preseason testing or the European 125cc championship will have heard of. Fenati is the real deal, giving a sterling account of himself and only wilting under the relentless pressure from Vinales at the very end.
On the evidence of qualifying at Qatar, we're in for a cracking MotoGP season. A very tight battle for pole settled in the final minutes, a surprise front row sitter, and plenty of on-track action are the ingredients for a great QP session, and the changes the sport have undergone are overwhelmingly positive. The same was true in Moto2, where a smart strategy outwitted a late last lap, and Moto3 saw another battle that went down to the wire.
In the Moto3 class, the leveling effect that the new rev- and price-limited bikes have had is plain, just as it was when the Moto2 class replaced the 250s back in 2010. To see the names of Sandro Cortese and Maverick Vinales in 1st and 2nd on the grid is no surprise, but Louis Rossi in 3rd is a bit of a shocker. The Frenchman has spent most of his career on third-rate 125s, and qualified mainly between 10th and 20th in 2011. Since climbing aboard a Moto3 bike, he has been a top 10 regular throughout testing and featured prominently at Qatar. A front row start is richly deserved, and with the front three close, and the top 10 all having been somewhere near the front at some point in the weekend, the inaugural Moto3 race promises to be as good as the 125s it replaces, despite the fact that the times are over a second slower than last year.
After the euphoria of the first day at Qatar, it was back to work on Friday, with riders, teams and even journalists turning their focus back to the task at hand. While most of the attention was focused on MotoGP, the premier class seeing fascinating stories start to develop in the two sessions of free practice the class had in the irregular and rather confusing schedule which the night race at Qatar forces on the paddock, a pattern is also starting to emerge in both Moto2 and Moto3.
It's been a long time - too long, is the general opinion in the paddock, 5 months without MotoGP allows fan enthusiasm to sag - but MotoGP is back again. No more phony wars, this time, it's serious out in the desert.
Serious, maybe, but also very confusing. Thursday is normally a day for setting up, ending with the pre-event press conference, but not at Qatar. Here, because practice is spread over four days instead of three, to allow all of the bikes to get time on the track before the dew starts to form on the track, turning the conditions treacherous, Thursday starts with the group photos, is followed by the press conference, and then rounds up with five sessions of free practice for the three classes.
The group photo of the MotoGP class turned into a demonstration of just how radically things have changed in the class. Traditionally, Dorna assembles a line of bikes with one bike from every team. As the grid has gotten smaller, so the bikes themselves have been fewer. This year, all of a sudden, there were a whole mess of bikes on the grid, and it took Dorna's press staff and the team mechanics a long while before they got it all figured out. Even then, one photographer complained, they did not manage to center the bikes and the floor sign proclaiming the class of 2012, leaving it all slightly askew. Seeing that many bikes on the grid, and so many riders in the group photo is gratifying, whatever the relative competitiveness of some of the bikes.
The preseason is finally over. The final day of the final test at Jerez saw a familiar pattern unfold, with the factory Hondas and factory Yamahas fastest, the rest some way behind. Jorge Lorenzo led the session for seven hours and fifty minutes, until Casey Stoner stepped up the pace. Was it so important to stage a last-lap dash and steal top spot, one journalist asked? "Nope, just trying to be cheeky!" The World Champion responded.
Despite sitting just off the top of the timesheets for much of the day - until he decided to make his point rather forcefully, that is - Stoner is blisteringly fast. In the middle of the day, the Australian posted a run of 10 laps, all but one of which were in the 1'39 bracket, the only aberration a low 1'40. Both Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo also posted long runs, but their pace was all low 1'40s, the 1'39s only coming on shorter runs with new tires. But for all three, what is most impressive is the metronomic rhythm of the lap times, Jorge Lorenzo being the most robot-like of the trio.
"What we should do," the Jose Maroto, the Spanish editor of Motociclismo said to me, "Is organize MotoGP in Ethiopia, or anywhere they are having a drought. It hasn't rained here in Jerez for 70 days, and this is what happens when we arrive." It had happened in Sepang, and it happened at Jerez, the weather was the major protagonist on the second day of testing at the Spanish circuit, with high winds and heavy rain dominating much of the day.
It almost had a remarkable effect. Avintia Racing's Ivan Silva was one of the few riders who went out early in the morning while the track was still dry, and it looked for a long time like the Spaniard would end the day on top of the timesheets, a first for the FTR Kawasaki CRT bike. But the weather cleared up in the last few hours of the test, leaving an almost dry track for the final 30 minutes, and seeing most of the riders go back out to prepare some work for Sunday. In the process, they stole Silva's chance of glory, demoting him to 6th spot at the end of the day.
The first day of the final test ahead of the MotoGP season, and normal service has been resumed. The factory boys - well, the factory Hondas and Yamahas - are top of the pile, and fairly comfortably ahead of the rest. In bright, sunny, but very windy conditions, it looked like Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa would battle it out for top honors, rather as they did at last year's race, but just as everyone in the press room - your humble author included - was trotting out the old "Jerez is Stoner's bogey track" chestnut, the Australian turned up the wick and took half a second off his best time, propelling him to the top of the timesheets, and well under race lap record pace.
With the Moto2 and Moto3 trucks all departed from the paddock, the Jerez circuit is now the domain of the MotoGP teams for the final test ahead of the season opener at Qatar. Thursday, the eve of the test, saw a massive amount of pit lane activity, but mainly among the photographers as they chased up and down the track shooting the riders in their full season livery for publicity shoots and the official MotoGP.com website.
Jerez is the first time that all of the bikes, both the CRTs which have tested in Spain and the factory prototypes which have tested in Sepang, hit the track at the same time. The difference was immediately obvious, from a mosey up pit lane with a camera. At the CRT end of pit lane, garages were open, and mechanics were working on their bikes in full public display. I strolled past bare chassis with engines standing separately waiting to be fitted, bikes in various stages of undress, and stood taking photographs as mechanics worked on their bikes, undisturbed by my presence.