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.
Thomas Luthi has the intermediate class in a vice-like grip. The Interwetten Paddock rider has topped all three sessions of free practice, and the rider has looked calm and in control throughout. Add to that the fact that Luthi is on a Suter amid a sea of Kalexes, the only other Suter anywhere near him the Repsol wunderkind Marc Marquez, and you get an idea of just how impressive Luthi's performance is. The Swiss rider has a sound and strong rhythm, can respond when he needs to and has the measure of everyone on a Kalex. It would be foolish to bet against him in either QP or the race, and even if he should miss out on pole, a front row start would be good enough for him to wrap up the first race of the season. The Kalex hordes behind him are all pretty close, with little to choose between Claudio Corti, Tito Rabat and Scott Redding, and Pol Espargaro possibly the pick of the bunch. With Marquez still easing his way back into the season after missing so much pre-season testing, and concentrating on being consistent and scoring points, Luthi should be able to build a decent start to the season at Qatar.
The Moto3 class looks like turning into a worthy replacement for the 125s, with the top riders all very close indeed. After dominating on the first day, Maverick Vinales was demoted to 4th in FP3, though there was just 0.135 between him and fastest man Sandro Cortese. Between two of the big names from last year were a couple of surprises, Luis Salom perhaps less surprising given his strong performances last year. But Romano Fenati will be an unfamiliar name to most people, though the European 125cc champion had already raised a few eyebrows at the Jerez tests. Insiders - especially Italians - have marked Fenati out as the real deal, and he is clearly a dark horse for this year.
While the Moto3 bikes' level of competitiveness has impressed most observes, the one thing that has been complained about most is the noise. The flat, turgid drone has had fans saying they miss the sharp two-stroke whine of the 125s, though frankly, that too could be annoyingly wasp-like. In truth, the bikes sound better in the flesh, and sound positively appetizing through the twisty sections, where the riders are on and off the gas. But along Qatar's front straight, they sound like the soundtrack of a World War II movie about the bombing of London.
The noise has also made it a little more difficult for the journalists speaking to riders. On Thursday, the media got to speak to the MotoGP riders outside in the paddock, in the middle of the Moto3 FP2 session. The media debriefs turned almost farcical, as it became apparent that the new, deeper tone produced by the Moto3 bikes put their peak volume right in the middle of the spectrum of the human voice. Unless you stood directly in front of the riders, it was almost impossible to make out what they were saying, especially to ears that have taken a battering from racing motorcycles over the years. Fortunately for us, our voice recorders are far better than our ears, so we had to wait until we got back to your computers to actually hear what the riders said.
In the MotoGP class, it is clear that the battle will be between Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo. Stoner is ever the same: blisteringly fast, deceptively so, given that he spent just about all of his time on a hard tire. "We know we can get an advantage when we put on a soft tire, but there's no point," Stoner said. The Repsol Honda man had put two full race distances on two hard tires, and after turning down the electronics to allow him to get a better feel for the rear tire, was feeling very confident. His biggest problem is persistent chatter, both from the front under braking and at the rear when the throttle is opened. A couple of changes in the third session made a big difference, so while the chatter is still there, it is manageable.
Concentrating on hard tires, a couple of mistakes on his own part - running wide at the end of the straight, after misjudging the braking point due to the changed conditions in the late evening - and a run in with Alvaro Bautista late in the session meant that he had been able to put in a clear run to show his true potential, Stoner explained. That had left him down in 3rd spot, but looking at his race pace, he has little to worry about.
Jorge Lorenzo - positively aglow with confidence - ended the session in top, and his race pace does not look a long way off the pace of Stoner. The hard tire is likely to be the race tire, Lorenzo explained, but he did not yet want to discard the softer option. The bigger engines meant that he would have to use his "mantequilla" - Spanish for butter, and a reference to the smooth side of his riding style - for as long as possible, as the tires start to go off after 10 laps. After that, the rear would start to spin up and slide more, robbing the bike of drive.
Tire management will clearly be crucial for the race, and the new generation Bridgestones look like adding a good deal of interest to the races. Cal Crutchlow, who impressed friend and foe at Qatar, leading FP3 at one point and ending the session in 2nd, behind only Lorenzo, spent a good while explaining to the media the difference the new tires made. The warm up procedure was now excellent, he said, but the problem now was tire wear. "The problem is on corner entry, which is where lap time is gained in MotoGP," Crutchlow said. "Now we're sliding around so much, we look more like Moto2."
"But it's our own fault," the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man added. "We complained the tires didn't warm up fast enough last year and they changed them. Now we're complaining the tires are sliding around too much. We got what we wanted, and now everyone wants to change!" But Crutchlow emphasized that the tires are definitely better. The endurance of the tires is not too bad, he explained. "They go off straight away, but you seem to keep the same lap time. But corner entry gets worse, and when you shut off, they come round on you, so you brake earlier and corner speed gets lower lap after lap."
"It will be the guy who has the best tire at the end of the race, but that's what everyone wants to see." Crutchlow added, and warned against setting too much stock in the recorded times. "You've got to be careful: Everyone thinks Valentino is sandbagging or has not got the setup; It looks to me like he's working for the end of the race. And he's so consistent, I think there's a few guys working for the end of the race, and a few guys out there working for the start of the race. But you can never tell."
The end of the race was where he was focusing, Crutchlow said. "I want to finish the race as strong as possible, so I'm working on the end of the race. I know we've got enough speed at the beginning of the race, but you've got to be careful, you can blitz a tire in a couple of laps. Over the winter, I think we've been pretty consistent, we've been using old tires all the time, and maybe it suits me a little bit from the Pirellis (in WSBK). Maybe these guys are too used to going in a straight line with the Bridgestones and the electronics. Maybe I'm a bit used to sliding around."
But the same names will still be winning the races, he added, simply because they were the best in the world. "If you put Lorenzo on my bike, he'd go no slower than he's going now," Crutchlow explained. But the need to manage tires better and the possibility of different strategies - running fast early, or running fast late - would make the racing closer, and see more passing. "Maybe not here, but definitely at places like Jerez. Tire management is going to be a big thing. Who can ride hardest the longest will win the race, and they're quite physical bikes as well."
Crutchlow's claims that Rossi may be sandbagging will be music to the ears of his many disillusioned fans around the world. Just to what extent Rossi's lowly times are down to him working on setup section by section, and how much down to the fact that Italian is still struggling to get to grips with the bike remains to be seen. The fact is that Rossi is the third-fastest Ducati, behind Hector Barbera, whose time can be discounted as it was made while drafting a faster rider, and Nicky Hayden, whose time cannot be discounted, as Hayden is managing to ride the bike using the rear tire better than Rossi has been able to.
"For me, this is difficult," Rossi explained, "Because I always ride with the front. Maybe this is why this bike is better for some riders and not for others." At least the bike provides feedback from the front and allows the setup to be changed. The power delivery was still too aggressive, Rossi said - "We have a lion in the cowling" - and needed to be made softer and smoother, to reduce wheelies and be gentler with the tires. But the understeer remained, in part because of the need to use the rear to get the bike to turn, without spinning up the rear and losing drive and still running wide.
But is it really a question of fixing the bike so that Rossi can ride it? Judging by the insane rumors emerging from the less reliable sections of the Italian press, they, at least appear to have lost faith. One Italian newspaper was reporting that Coca Cola had stepped up to put Valentino Rossi on a privately-run factory-spec Yamaha M1 for 2013. Such a move is improbable at just about every level: Coca Cola is such a huge sponsor that they tend to back events rather than individual sportspeople; and Yamaha has neither the resources nor the inclination to provide an M1 for Rossi, having firmly placed their faith in Jorge Lorenzo. As Luca Bologna, the Italian journalist who runs the excellent Infomoto2 and Infomoto3 sites joked, this rumor was about as reliable as reports that Rossi was to pilot the Millenium Falcon.
But after years of winning, the strain of struggling to fight with the second group - somewhere between 4th and 6th - must be starting to tell. After years of domination, failing to master a bike that he thought just needed some minor adjustments must be starting to make Rossi doubt his own abilities. Even if he were to be placed on a factory Honda or factory Yamaha, it might still take Rossi a while to find his confidence and get up to speed.
Even then, he faces the generation of riders who grew up knowing that he was the man to beat, and training and learning to be able to achieve that goal. Jorge Lorenzo is one of the smoothest, most precise riders the world has ever seen, and Casey Stoner may well be the rider with the most raw talent ever to throw his leg over a motorcycle. Both men have a ferocious intelligence and the assistance of brilliant crew chiefs, which helped them to get the better of Rossi. Put all three on the same machinery, and Rossi could well find himself still getting beaten more often than not.
Valentino Rossi is the most significant figure in motorcycle racing for a couple of generations, and possibly the most important rider in the history of the sport. His mixture of unfettered talent, innate charm and natural showmanship made him a global superstar, and attracted hordes of new fans to the sport. Securing nine world championships and a total of 105 victories in three classes speaks of the stature and talent of the Italian. But the problem with being the best in the world is that the generation behind you has placed a target on your back, and are doing whatever it takes to surpass your achievements. Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo have first matched, and have now perhaps surpassed the Italian.
There is an old paddock adage that you should never write Valentino Rossi off too soon. Maybe too soon as passed. But then again, it is only day 2 of the 2012 MotoGP season. There is a long road ahead, but it is neither easy nor certain. It should, however, be fascinating.