On a normal Saturday, we'd be talking about qualifying, who was on the front row, and who will do what in the race. But this was not a normal Saturday. It started going pear-shaped from MotoGP QP, and went downhill from there.
But let's start with qualifying. Your front row is Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, who put in a fast late lap to bump Marco Simoncelli back to the second row. The race looks like it could actually be pretty close, with Pedrosa and Lorenzo both having excellent race pace, though maybe a tenth or so slower than Stoner. Don't discount Andrea Dovizioso either; though the Italian only qualified in 6th, the third Repsol Honda rider's pace on hard tires is very strong, and he should be capable of running with Pedrosa and Lorenzo. The only obstacle to Pedrosa scoring yet another podium in Germany is his shoulder, though the Sachenring's long sequence of left handers is kind to his right shoulder, so he could well last the distance.
The big news from qualifying is at the back of the grid, rather than at the front. In 16th and penultimate spot is Valentino Rossi on the Ducati Desmosedici GP11.1, with only replacement rider Sylvain Guintoli behind him. The Italian even joked that it was a good job Loris Capirossi was injured, or else he would have been dead last in Germany. The session was an unmitigated disaster for the nine-time World Champion. Perhaps the worst thing for Rossi was the sympathy he was treated with by the riders on the front row, all of whom were asked what they thought of his problems. "He is not where his talent says he should be," Stoner summed up the feelings of the trio. When your rivals start to pity you, then you are in a very bad place.
The problem is the GP11.1, and the switch made at Assen. Rossi said the decision had been made together with the team to ditch the GP11 that he had also not got on with in favor of the destroked version of the 1000cc GP12 which he tested at Jerez and Mugello. The decision had been made for good reasons: "We made this mistake because we did not want to disappoint the fans," he told the press, though the key word in that sentence is "mistake."
The basic problem with the GP11.1 is still a lack of front end feel, the same problem the previous version had. They had made the switch because the GP12 felt much better, but the improvement appears to have been due to the different nature of the larger capacity engine. With more torque and more acceleration available, precise corner entry is less important, as Rossi said he could use the power of the bike to load the front end, and get heat into the tire. Destroked to 800cc, the engine lacked the power to do that, and without heat in the tires, the front end does not provide the feedback Rossi needs to go fast. They gambled and lost, though the gamble was a brave one.
And so the GP11.1 is likely to be consigned to the dustbin in the next few races. Rossi wants to run a back-to-back test with the GP11.1 and the original GP11 at the Brno test on the Monday after the race, though as that has now been designated a 1000cc test, there may be some complications there. It is not clear that such a test would be legal, though doubtless Race Direction will clear that up in the next few days.
If Rossi did revert to the GP11, he would soon be in trouble with his engine allocation, but that is not currently a cause for concern. Rossi had earlier joked that he had "plenty of engines," conceding that they have basically given up on completing the year without taking an engine penalty.
Rossi's problems have also made Nicky Hayden wary of switching to the new bike at the next round at Laguna Seca. The American's story has changed, from looking to get his hands on the new bike as soon as possible, to hoping for the option of a GP11 and a GP11.1 at Laguna, in order to evaluate the bikes back-to-back. A decision is to be made on this on Sunday night after the race, and if he did decide to do so, this would open the door for Rossi to take one of Hayden's GP11 bikes to also run a back-to-back test. Hayden has two GP11.1's crated and ready to go to Laguna, but he may not want to take both of them.
The big news after qualifying is the news that the riders have decided to boycott the Motegi round of MotoGP. Instead of waiting for the independent report to be produced by an Italian agency with a lot of expertise in this area, all of the MotoGP riders - bar Hiroshi Aoyama - have decided they simply will not go. The report is to be finalized next weekend, with an official decision to be taken by the Motegi promoters - which, as owners of the circuit, eventually boils down to Honda - together with Dorna, the FIM and IRTA. If, as is expected, given previous reports by such fringe groups of wild-eyed lunatics such as the International Atomic Energy Authority, the UN's official body monitoring nuclear power, the report states that it is perfectly safe, then the riders will be in a state of open warfare with the series.
The problem is that this is a battle that the riders can only lose. Although the courage of Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo - the ringleaders of the rebellion, though suspicions remain that older, craftier hands in the paddock have exacerbated the situation by pressing the right buttons for the youngsters - is to be applauded, their cause is certainly not. Stoner was perfectly clear in the press conference: "I will not go to Japan," he said, with Lorenzo adding that his decision had also been made not to go. But although the riders who already have a contract for 2012 are relatively safe, the riders who are not such big names may quickly crumble under the pressure from their current and potential future employers.
Ambushed at a press conference to present ENI as the official oil and fuel supplier for both the Moto2 and Moto3 categories until 2014, Carmelo Ezpeleta made the situation perfectly clear. Dorna has a contract with the Motegi race promoter. Dorna has a contract with IRTA. IRTA has a contract with the teams. The teams have contracts with their riders. If riders don't want to go, they must be replaced by their teams. But teams may try and claim damages from their riders if they refuse to go to Japan, deducting money from their wages, or in the worst case, suing the riders for breach of contract. Riders who are not in such a strong position - after all, who in their right mind would not sign Casey Stoner or Jorge Lorenzo to a contract? - may find themselves struggling to find a ride next year. Anyone on a satellite machine refusing to race in Japan is unlikely to be offered a ride by the same manufacturer for next year, or even by another Japanese manufacturer. Once the riders who hope to stay in the paddock realize their predicament, the resistance is likely to crumble. A 16-rider boycott would be very serious. A 2-rider boycott would look like impetuousness.
The most moving moment of the day came when a Japanese journalist asked the MotoGP riders about their "With you Japan" stickers on the bikes. The show of support after the initial earthquake had touched the hearts of his people, the journalist said, but now the riders are refusing to visit the country, and not allowing his nation the honor of staging a MotoGP race. How did they explain that contradiction? As spokesman for the rebels, Stoner tried to explain that he was fully supportive of the Japanese people, but that he did not feel that his support would be any greater if he visited the country. Some paddock wags suggested that the wording on the stickers be changed, the word "with" replaced by another four-letter word.
Herve Poncharal expressed his anger at the riders' decision, saying that their refusal to go to Japan showed a fundamental lack of respect for the country. "Japan has done a lot for motorcycle racing," the IRTA president pointed out, "So we should do something back."
Will the boycott hold? We shall know after Laguna Seca. The teams have planned a series of meetings with their riders in which they can expect to have set out to them in no uncertain terms just how foolish it would be not to go. Their decision is based solely on fear, and on ignorance of the fundamental nature of radiation. Given their chosen profession, that is hardly surprising, but as both the World Endurance Championship and Indy Car are due to race in Japan, their position seems untenable. As one Moto2 rider who did not sign the petition put it: "These guys have had so many MRIs and X-rays, they already glow in the dark." But that, the MotoGP riders believe, is somehow different. Such ignorance must be bliss.