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.
The 2012 preseason is over for Moto2 and Moto3, as the support classes pack up their things after three days of testing at Jerez and get ready to ship out to Qatar. The teams leave the final test of the season with a much better idea of where they stand, as the playing field had been leveled in Moto2 by the use of the official Geo Tech engines, and in Moto3 by the arrival of the Geo Tech kits for the Honda engine, giving the NSF250R a much needed power boost with respect to the KTMs.
In Moto2, a clear group of contenders has established itself, consisting mainly of the men who have been fast just about all preseason. Claudio Corti was fastest, but the Italian was never outside the top 3, gaining a place every day of the test. Thomas Luthi was his constant companion, the Interwetten Paddock rider finishing ahead of the Italian on every day except the last, when Corti just sneaked ahead by four thousandths of a second. Luthi, Corti, Pons rider Pol Espargaro, and rather surprisingly, Marc VDS Racing's Mika Kallio were consistently at the top of the timesheets, and more importantly looked fast every time they were on the bike.
The introduction of the Claiming Rule Team regulations into MotoGP has divided fans and followers into two distinct camps. The anti camp have decried the CRT machines as thinly disguised World Superbike machines, claiming that allowing the use of production machinery into MotoGP is a betrayal of the spirit of Grand Prix racing. The pro camp, on the other hand, argue that the CRT machines are MotoGP's salvation, and a return to Grand Prix racing's roots - the Manx Norton was, after all, a development of the Norton International, and the very first 500cc two stroke machines to be raced were based on roadgoing engines from Suzuki and Kawasaki.
Much of the debate has of course centered on the ability of the CRT machines to be competitive, or whether they will be so slow as to form a danger to the factory riders, being lapped several times a race. While the CRT machines had barely turned a wheel on track, those questions were impossible to answer, but now that the CRT machines have had a few outings in public, it is possible to start drawing some preliminary conclusions.
The weight increase in the MotoGP class introduced for 2012 - from 153kg, as originally agreed when the 2012 regulations were drawn up back in August 2010, to 157kg - has had many repercussions. The addition of 4kg to the 1000cc MotoGP machines has been blamed for causing the chatter that Honda's RC213V suffers from, and for complicating the pursuit of the ideal weight distribution for both Honda and Yamaha, which the two Japanese factories had spent most of 2011 perfecting ahead of the 2012 MotoGP season.
The decision was taken in a Grand Prix Commission meeting held on December 14th of 2011 in Madrid, and though it drew little comment at the time, once the MotoGP paddock reassembled at Sepang for the first test of the year, some intriguing details started to appear. Crash.net's Peter McLaren has an excellent reconstruction of the decision process, from which it is clear that the path to adoption the proposal faced was far more complex than usual. It also reveals some of the underlying tensions in both the Grand Prix Commission and the MSMA which will go on to play a major role in the rule-making process for 2013 and beyond.
At last a full day of testing: though Thursday started out overcast, the rain that threatened through the final day of the Sepang MotoGP test never really came in earnest, with only a few drops of rain keeping the riders off the track for an hour or so in the afternoon. After two days which were largely lost to the weather, worked was stepped up to an almost frantic pace to make up for lost time.
The name of the fastest rider of the day was as unsurprising as the direction the sun rose in the morning. Casey Stoner has established himself as the man to beat, realistically from the moment he left Ducati to join Honda. After yesterday's hiatus - forced on the Honda riders by HRC, after an engine warning light on Dani Pedrosa's RC213V saw the bikes confined to their garages as a precautionary measure - Stoner was back in charge, topping the timesheets comfortably once again.