If you switched on for the last 10 minutes of qualifying at Le Mans this afternoon, you were in for a treat. A thrilling finale to qualifying reminded everyone of why MotoGP doesn't really need Superpole, as exciting as that can be on a World Superbike weekend. Casey Stoner finally secured his third pole of the season by just 0.059 seconds, or fractionally more than a bike length. Marco Simoncelli had been using his lanky frame to muscle the San Carlo Gresini RC212V around the track in pursuit of Stoner's time, but the Italian came up just a fraction short. With Simoncelli this close in qualifying, it should be a pretty close race, right?
Ask Colin Edwards, and he'll rid you of that delusion straight away: "I'm willing to make a wager," the Texan told MotoGP.com, "Stoner's going to win hands down unless someone takes him out or something strange happens. Looking at his lap chart, it's just phenomenal, he's doing lap times on the hard tire that I can't even qualify at." And indeed, looking at the race pace the riders were clocking before they put in soft rubber and stowed their common sense for a spot on the grid tells another story altogether: after putting on a fresh set of hard tires to finalize his race setup, Casey Stoner posted a bunch of laps in the mid-1'33s, where the other riders were happy to get close to low 1'34s in race trim.
More worrying than Stoner's stupefying pace was a look in the manufacturer column of the results sheet. Places 1-4 are Hondas, 5-8 are Yamahas and then 9-11 are Ducatis. This is not a MotoGP results sheet, this is what you expect in Formula One, where the car you are in determines what position you will finish in. This, too, was something that everyone remarked on, everyone not on a Honda mentioning it with a look of bewilderment in their eyes. Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi both said that 5th was the best they could realistically hope for, and neither man looked particularly happy about the situation.
But to say that they'll be finishing in order of manufacturer is to go a little too far. Casey Stoner is clearly untouchable, the 2011 forks and setup tweaks the team have applied have given Stoner the confidence in the front end he had lacked a little at Estoril, thanks to a little more stability under braking and a little more edge grip. Unless something happens - and he has Marco Simoncelli beside him on the grid, a rider known more for his valor than for his caution - then taking Edwards' wager would be a good way of losing money.
Beyond Stoner things get a little more complex. Simoncelli is once again fast, just as he was at Jerez and Estoril, and not just during qualifying. Matching Stoner's pace is probably beyond the Italian, but a podium should be within his reach. If, that is, he can stay on the bike, and that, he reiterated, is his main goal this weekend, rather than scoring a particular result. After throwing the last two races "in the dustbin" as he put it, he needs points on the board, not to lead and then crash out.
Dani Pedrosa has the pace for a podium, though doubts still linger over the pain in his shoulder. Le Mans is not a good track to be racing at with a painful shoulder - a point which also affects Valentino Rossi, despite the huge progress the Italian has made - and Pedrosa may lag a little in the latter rounds.
That may open up opportunities for Jorge Lorenzo, the Spaniard having better pace than he looks, but still being a worryingly long way off the pace of the Repsol Hondas. Yet despite getting trounced during qualifying and practice, Lorenzo has bagged a win and and second places, and sits comfortably atop the championship. The factory Yamaha riders consistency is what keeps him in the race to prolong his title, and with a little bit of luck, he can get himself another podium and stave off the challenge from the Hondas.
It isn't easy though, as the look on his face betrays. Lorenzo has made his frustration with the situation perfectly clear, the 2011 Yamaha not matching the improvements that the Honda has made, with paddock rumor suggesting Lorenzo either has switched or is considering a switch back to the 2010 chassis. Given that Lorenzo has failed to improve his time from last year, there is still a lot of work to do.
At least the Yamaha is relatively competitive. The problem at Ducati is that the new chassis has still not solved the understeer and front end vagueness that has plagued the bike since, well, really since around 2009. The test at Estoril had brought an improvement, which went missing again on Friday. But Saturday brought a few more solutions, and the bike was better than it was previously for Valentino Rossi. However, when you tell the media that 5th would be a good result, then you're still in a pretty deep hole. Progress is definitely being made, but - unless it rains, in which case all bets are off - a podium would need a minor miracle.
Amidst all this talk of the usual suspects, one little gem is being overlooked. Cal Crutchlow is booking remarkable results, qualifying 6th on the grid at a track he hadn't seen before Friday. Even more impressive is the gap to 1st, just over six tenths of a second, and less than two tenths off of 3rd. Crutchlow is gaining many plaudits behind the scenes, with talk from inside the Monster Tech 3 garage of the Briton exceeding expectations, and even looking better than Ben Spies when the data from the two is compared. There are definitely big things to come from Crutchlow.
The big question mark tomorrow remains the weather, though the forecast is improving with every new reading. Cloud cover is likely, though this is better than the rain that had previously been forecast for the race, but cooler temperatures make tire selection even more difficult. Nobody has decided whether to run the softer or harder race tire on Sunday, and a decision will probably only be made just before the bikes roll out for the sighting lap. The softer tires have lasted well in the cooler conditions, but any warmer and the hard tire will be needed.
There was also news of the future of a couple of races on Saturday, and they were both greeted with mixed feelings. An extension of the contract for the French MotoGP round was announced, the organizer retaining the rights for the next 5 years. The good news was that the contract was awarded to the organizer - who, to be fair, does a fantastic job of promoting the event - rather than the track - which, to be unfair, is a toilet with a boring layout. The bad news is that a debate among journalists of various nationalities on Twitter came to the conclusion that Le Mans is the only track in France that currently has both the FIM homologation and the accommodation facilities to house the crowds (of paddock folk as well as fans) likely to attend a MotoGP event. Hearts were stirred by talk of Paul Ricard, but a lack of accommodation, fan seating, and the fact that the track is owned by one B. Ecclestone of Formula One fame made the option of that stunning track in the South of France a remote possibility indeed.
The other race that was on everybody's lips was the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi. When the race was officially postponed shortly after the massive Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck the east coast of Japan, it was widely assumed that the postponement was merely a polite way of letting the race slip off the calendar. Given the situation in the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant - some 120 km away from the Twin Ring Motegi as the crow flies - neither the teams nor the riders were particularly keen to go there, until the radiation threat had abated.
Yet Carmelo Ezpeleta walked into the Safety Commission on Friday night, and informed the riders - or rather, the MotoGP riders - that they were about 90% certain to be racing at Motegi on the rescheduled date (now October 2nd). The riders were rather taken aback, and are just about unanimously opposed to the decision. Valentino Rossi has even talked about organizing a boycott, though such a boycott would require absolute unanimity among the riders. That would normally be hard to achieve, but this might just be an exception.
The riders accepted that the situation in Japan lay beyond their field of expertise, with no one claiming to be an expert on nuclear radiation and its effects. They did express an interest in receiving opinions from experts though, but even then, they were not keen on holding the race there. "I think a motorbike race is not the most important thing there right now," was how Casey Stoner summarized the situation, to general agreement of those present at the press conference. A mutiny is likely should Dorna try to press the situation.
A rather less serious - or at least for some - subject was also discussed in the Safety Commission, and that was the subject of dangerous riding. Jorge Lorenzo had organized a posse to go to the meeting, taking along Casey Stoner - who had previously abandoned the Commission as being a waste of time - Andrea Dovizioso, Toni Elias and Hector Barbera. There, they faced Valentino Rossi, Marco Simoncelli, Nicky Hayden and Loris Capirossi, and talked about dangerous riding.
Suggestions were made by what is being referred to by some as the Lorenzo camp to post rules on overtaking. The other side of the argument - either the Simoncelli or the Rossi camp - countered that such rules were unnecessary and impossible to police. Given that the rule book already contains rules on dangerous riding, and grants the authority to Race Direction to police those rules, extra rules would appear to be both unnecessary and merely overburden the already busy Race Director. And given the presence of Hector Barbera on the pro-overtaking rule side - a rider who was known in 250s for his propensity for assisting his competitors in joining him for aa tumble in the gravel - that may have undermined their position.
It is clear that motorcycle racing is a dangerous sport, and that dangerous riding needs to be punished. It is also clear that some riders have a more wanton disregard for their own safety - and occasionally the safety of others - and have demonstrated that over the past couple of years. But it seems likely that a few stern warnings at rider briefings and the occasional stiff talking-to after on-track incidents will probably be enough to take the edge of danger of the incidents, without remove the edge of excitement from the races.
It is also clear that these boys need to race more: All this spare time has given them too much time to think, and the devil has made work for idle hands and minds. From Barcelona, we enter the guts of the season, and the hectic schedule that every June and July seems to hold. From that point on, they'll be too busy for all the off-track nonsense, and we can get back to business. Everyone, even the riders, are crying out for that.