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.
Then it was off to the press conference, and the good news was that Colin Edwards was there representing the CRT teams. While the Texan tried to be as diplomatic as possible, he was still as colorful as ever, describing working through the problems the bike has had as like "shoveling sh*t uphill". They have made progress on the bike, Edwards explained, but each time they solved one issue, they ran into another. At least now the bike was more comfortable to ride. "I spent the first couple of tests riding with a clenched ***hole," Edwards joked, but the progress on electronics had made riding the bike a good deal less worrying.
But it was at last a joy to see riders back out on track again. In the Moto3 class, Maverick Vinales confirmed his status as the man to beat, leading both sessions of free practice, though hotly-tipped youngster Danny Kent was sidelined in the first session with teething problems. In Moto2 it was Thomas Luthi's turn to dominate, the Interwetten Paddock rider topping both sessions of free practice ahead of a gaggle of Kalexes. The German Moto2 chassis is clearly the cream of this year's crop, and Claudio Corti, Scott Redding, Tito Rabat and Pol Espargaro have all looked impressive. Marc Marquez is in the bottom half of the top ten, but the Spaniard has missed so much testing since injuring his eye at Sepang last year that he really needs more time on the bike. The eye problems are completely gone, and even the bizarre light conditions at Qatar had not been a problem.
Times set in the MotoGP class are slower than the times from 2011, despite being 200cc up on capacity and 10% up on horsepower. The track was very dirty, the riders said, and last year, the race happened after a two-day test at the circuit. Track conditions were complicating things for just about everyone, with Valentino Rossi complaining that the dirty track was causing the rear to slide too much, aggravating the Ducati's tendency to understeer, while Casey Stoner told reporters that the dirty track was causing massive chatter. So bad, said Stoner, that he thought his teeth were going to fall out.
Despite the chatter, Stoner ended the day fastest, sneaking ahead of Jorge Lorenzo on the Yamaha and Nicky Hayden on the Ducati. The team had found a partial solution as the session progressed, reducing it from "three times Sepang" to just the same as Sepang, which was a massive relief for the reigning World Champion. Dani Pedrosa said that the issue was different in quality to Sepang, but he too, had been plagued by chatter.
For Jorge Lorenzo, his biggest problem was in tearing up the tires. Lorenzo had run the softer of the rear compounds, and had found that the tires had started overheating after about four laps. Andrea Dovizioso - now also on a Yamaha, this time at Tech 3 - had tried the harder rear, and this looked like a better solution to tire wear. But overall, the Yamahas are looking very strong, with all four Yamahas in the top 8.
Nicky Hayden's 3rd spot was very satisfying. "I've certainly had worst first practices at this track," he quipped, but his fast time had been set with the soft tire, he revealed. So strong was his performance that it started drawing favorable comparisons with Valentino Rossi, the multiple World Champion managing just a meager 10th spot, behind the satellite Ducati of Hector Barbera. But Rossi had only used the hard rear tire, not having tested with the soft tire, which will be important for qualifying if not necessarily for the race. His efforts had been hampered by the dirty track, the bike's tendency to slide making it difficult to use the rear power to help the bike turn, the bike wanting to run wide. Along with that tendency to understeer, the bike also had issues with wheelying, acceleration and sliding, Rossi said, with things looking very problematic for the race. There is clearly still a lot of work to be done on the brand new Ducati Desmosedici, but Hayden's fast time - soft tires or no - is at least a sign of some small hope.
The CRT machines are dividing opinion and providing some very heated debates in the paddock, with one team manager and a senior Italian journalist having a very vociferous disagreement over the issue in the middle of the paddock. The real problem with the bikes is visible in the top speeds: while the Hondas and Ducatis are 10 km/h faster than the 800s were last year, Hector Barbera hitting 337.2 km/h during FP1, the CRT bikes are a fair way off. Fastest CRTs were Colin Edwards, at 315, and Randy de Puniet at 314 km/h, while Danilo Petrucci was struggling massively with a lack of power, posting a top speed of just 288 km/h, nearly 50 km/h slower than Barbera, and only 10 km/h faster than the 600cc Moto2 machines.
According to Jorge Lorenzo, that speed differential was likely to cause problems during qualifying. "They are slow on the straights and slow in the corners," Lorenzo told the press, "Much worse here than in Jerez." If riders start trying to hitch a tow, then they could start getting in the way of the MotoGP machines and annoying the factory riders.
But overall, the CRT machines did much better than some sceptics had feared. All of them finished well inside the 107% qualifying limit, though PBM UK's James Ellison was nearly 7 seconds off the pace of Casey Stoner. But other than Ellison, the bikes were between 3.5 and 5 seconds a lap slower than the prototypes. That's a fair distance away, but many had feared that the CRT machines would all be upwards of 5 seconds slower than the factory prototypes.
A more realistic picture should start to emerge tomorrow, however. As the track gets cleaned - the Qatari Superbike championship is also racing at the Losail circuit - the times should start to drop and the problems caused by a dirty track should disappear. With two more sessions of practice under their belts at the track, then the CRT machines should start edging a little bit closer to the front. Whatever the outcome, it's good to be back.