The talking is over, the bikes are on the track, and a collective sigh of relief has risen from the paddock. We're racing again - well, practicing, but racing will come - and the pent up frustrations of 85 testosterone-addled, hypercompetitive, overactive young men have finally found release. That's not to say that there wasn't still plenty of talking going on - there was, mostly about Motegi, more of which later - but for once, we could talk about what was going on on track.
And that was pretty much a repeat of Le Mans, in all three classes. In MotoGP, Casey Stoner topped both sessions, and did so in intimidating fashion. His performance in the afternoon FP2 session was particularly impressive: with the track wet from the light drizzle that blighted the circuit on and off all day long, Stoner waited in the pits, watching what the other riders were doing in the conditions; fitted a set of wet tires to his Honda RC212V, went out on a fast lap and put two seconds on the field on his first complete lap out of the pits, did another lap and then came back in. He then sat waiting until conditions improved and the track dried out, then went out to do a few more laps, beating 2nd place man Marco Simoncelli by half a second, nearly nine tenths on Jorge Lorenzo in 4th, and two seconds on Valentino Rossi back in 7th.
The Australian did relatively few laps, saying afterwards that the conditions were neither one thing or another - or as the Spanish say, "ni fu ni fa", I learned today from one of the extremely talented Spanish TV guys who crowd the paddock - meaning that there was little to be learned from the session. The morning session had been only marginally better, with little more than half an hour real practice time, the team hadn't got much work done, Stoner said. Given Stoner's dominance, that's a worry for the rest of the field.
There are just three men within a second of Stoner, and only Marco Simoncelli looks anywhere close. Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo fingered Stoner and Simoncelli as being in a class of their own, but from there back, it was much closer. What was interesting was the different take that the two riders had on their relative position. When asked about the two seconds that Stoner had on him, Rossi moved quickly to say that he knew that there was nothing he could do about the Repsol Honda rider. He was much more encouraged about the gap to Lorenzo, however, clearly setting his former teammate - and increasingly bitter rival - as his first target. The fact that that gap is still over a second did not seem to deter the Marlboro Ducati Man.
Speaking to the Spanish press, Lorenzo admitted defeat in comparison to Stoner, but had his sights set on Simoncelli and the podium. Until Yamaha provides a real engine boost, Lorenzo is just limiting the damage, focusing on scoring as many points as he can and holding off Stoner for as long as possible. Speaking to the English press, he said nothing about the way his day had gone, as he faced a barrage of questions on Motegi, more of which (I repeat myself) later.
Simoncelli is the real wildcard in all of this, the only rider looking capable of preventing Stoner's dominance from looking embarrassing. The events of Le Mans, the death threats before the Barcelona weekend - a photo of bullets on a table, I was reliably informed by one Italian paddock veteran - and the inquisition in front of Race Direction have done nothing to dent the San Carlo Gresini man's speed. Simoncelli met a predictably hostile reaction, though given that the Italian has been a hate figure among the Spanish fans for several years - one Spanish newspaper had a list of Simoncelli's crimes against other riders (all but one of whom just happened to be Spanish) throughout his years in 250 and MotoGP - this was hardly a surprise. That didn't appear to faze him one bit, though.
Speaking after practice, he gave his side of the story on what transpired between himself and Race Direction. Simoncelli reiterated that he thought what had happened with Pedrosa was a racing incident, but with the benefit of hindsight, he now realized that making that pass, with 10 laps to go and while clearly much faster than Pedrosa, had been unnecessary, and that had he been a little bit more patient, he could have passed Pedrosa without risk at any time in the future. I asked him whether he would do things differently in the future, and he said that he would. It is of course easy to say that while standing in an (unusually crowded) pit box, things being perhaps different in the heat of the moment. Simoncelli certainly looked like he meant it, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the saying has it.
In the support classes, Nico Terol did his usual thing, making the rest of the 125cc class look silly. The fight for 2nd is tight, Sandro Cortese ahead of Efren Vazquez in Barcelona, while Sergio Gadea, Adrian Martin and Maverick Viñales are all another half a second behind Cortese. In Moto2, it was Simone Corsi who was fastest on the day, but the entire field was exceptionally close. The top 19 are within a second of Corsi, while even Ant West, in lowly 30th spot, is just over a second and a half slower than Corsi, on just his second race on the FTR and still plenty to learn. Most heartening of all in Moto2 was the diversity of chassis, with 6 different chassis filling the top 6 places, from Corsi on the FTR through Stefan Bradl on the Kalex.
Off the track, there is much talk of Motegi, and very few riders are interested in going. The ringleaders of the resistance are Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, the bitter rivals united in this at least. Rossi told the media "Everybody in the paddock comes to me and says they don't want to go," and Lorenzo said that he too did not want to go to Japan. Legendary Eurosport commentator - and a man with a training in science - Julian Ryder put up a stout defense of the situation in Japan, demanding to know what basis their fear had in the facts. Neither Rossi nor Lorenzo could counter any of Ryder's arguments, expressing only a vague unease at being near radiation. They were almost surprised to hear the facts about the radiation - there is a UN report which states that radiation levels in the region near Motegi are lower than those in Rome, there is an IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) group currently in Japan examining the situation at the Fukushima power plant, and the riders would be absorbing much more radiation on the flight to and from Japan than they ever will in five days in Motegi - and confessed that what they really needed was more information. Directly after his debrief, Lorenzo rushed off to a Safety Commission meeting, to discuss the issue with representatives from Dorna, but he did so with the seeds of doubt planted firmly in his mind.
There seems no doubt that MotoGP will be going to Motegi, however. The Indycar series today confirmed that they will be racing the road course at the Japanese circuit in September, a month before the MotoGP race is due to be run. The circuit and the race promoters are keen to see the round go on, and the Japanese manufacturers are pushing to hold the race there. The only way that the race could be stopped, both Rossi and Lorenzo agreed, was if all of the riders agreed not to go, but with the Motegi round now so late in the season, the fear of losing points may eventually outweigh the fear of losing their hair (and other parts of their anatomy, generally considered more important by young men).
Valentino Rossi had a popular solution to the dilemma, but one which is frankly impossible to implement: "Let's go to Suzuka!" he told the press, to general acclaim. Given the fact that the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix takes place a week after the MotoGP round in Japan, that simply won't happen.
Besides Motegi, there were plenty more subjects to occupy the paddock's mind. Preparations for the Moto3 series continue apace, with Dunlop being named official tire supplier (seizing the opportunity to also extend the Moto2 contract to expire at the end of 2014, at the same time as Moto3), an announcement that KTM and Kalex will be working on KTM's Moto3 machine, and the presentation of Honda's Moto3 NSF250R.
Of the three, the launch of the Honda was the most significant, the specially designed and built 250cc four-stroke single clearly bound to dominate the class. The engine is sloped backwards, features a reverse-entry exhaust, and revs to 13,000 revs (1000 under the permitted maximum) as well as a host of other innovations. Where other manufacturers are basing their engines on their motocross engines, this is a purpose-build roadracing engine, and like all HRC engineering, a jewel to behold. Much more on that at a later date (complete with pictures from Honda's press kit).
The other big announcement we are all awaiting is the list of 2012 MotoGP entries. British chassis manufacturer FTR looks set to be doing good business in the class, supplying at least three different teams using three different engines. The variety in engines is surprising, with teams using units based on the Kawasaki ZX10-R, the Aprilia RSV4 and the BMW S1000RR. But no concrete information was available, as even the teams involved were uncertain of their places. The cutoff date for paying their security deposit was midnight Friday night, so a full list of teams will only be available on Saturday or Sunday. That list looks like it might spring a few surprises yet.