On the evidence of qualifying at Qatar, we're in for a cracking MotoGP season. A very tight battle for pole settled in the final minutes, a surprise front row sitter, and plenty of on-track action are the ingredients for a great QP session, and the changes the sport have undergone are overwhelmingly positive. The same was true in Moto2, where a smart strategy outwitted a late last lap, and Moto3 saw another battle that went down to the wire.
In the Moto3 class, the leveling effect that the new rev- and price-limited bikes have had is plain, just as it was when the Moto2 class replaced the 250s back in 2010. To see the names of Sandro Cortese and Maverick Vinales in 1st and 2nd on the grid is no surprise, but Louis Rossi in 3rd is a bit of a shocker. The Frenchman has spent most of his career on third-rate 125s, and qualified mainly between 10th and 20th in 2011. Since climbing aboard a Moto3 bike, he has been a top 10 regular throughout testing and featured prominently at Qatar. A front row start is richly deserved, and with the front three close, and the top 10 all having been somewhere near the front at some point in the weekend, the inaugural Moto3 race promises to be as good as the 125s it replaces, despite the fact that the times are over a second slower than last year.
The Moto2 qualifying practice was chaotic, but interesting nonetheless. Thomas Luthi took pole, unsurprising given that the Swiss rider has dominated practice so far. At the press conference, Luthi revealed the maturity that has come with his consistency: the decision to put in an early fast lap had been a conscious one, he explained, knowing the chaos that the last few minutes of a Moto2 QP session produces could hamper any attempt at a shot for pole. He was right, and if anything, the loitering-with-intent has gotten even worse in recent years. If riders expended half as much effort trying to post a fast lap that they put in hanging around waiting for a fast rider to latch on to, their results may well be better.
Marc Marquez used a mixture of skill, luck and judgement to spot a clear opportunity for a fast lap. It worked for the Spaniard, and could even have nabbed pole for Marquez. In the end, he got within a tenth of Luthi's time, and had to settle for 2nd, but more importantly - for Marquez, his team and his fans - it proved that he genuinely has his mojo back, and has not lost any of his speed during his long period of convalescence, and any question marks remaining over his eyes are well and truly answered.
Just as in Moto3, there was little to separate the front three, but the gap to the riders behind is very deceptive. Several high-profile riders were casualties of the Moto2 trailer trash, hanging around hoping to hitch a ride, with Scott Redding and Tito Rabat among the most prominent. Sunday's race has all the hallmarks of turning into a thriller, as befits a Moto2 race.
That could possibly turn out to be just an appetizer for a real MotoGP race. If qualifying is anything to go by, then the combination of bigger bikes with more torque and significantly softer Bridgestone tires looks like a recipe for an intriguing race. The new tires look like being a decisive factor in bringing back some excitement to MotoGP. The tires warm up much more quickly, eliminating the cold-tire crashes that have plagued the series for the past few seasons. The trade-off is a tire that goes off quickly, needing much more management to maintain the pace. Qatar has always been a tough track for tires, and the new generation of tires will severely complicate the job for the riders.
This is no bad thing. The trade-off is worth the loss of grip later on, a late low side always better than an early high side. Tire deterioration will allow riders to choose strategies: go hard early and try to limp home in the lead; or take it easy at first, and hold your pace in the end, reeling in the riders who played the hare at the start.
The switch to softer tires that deteriorate faster is a lesson learned from Formula One. The switch from the highly durable Bridgestones to the much softer Pirellis has added a massive amount of spectacle to the series, and a softer tire should do the same for MotoGP.
The front row held two surprises at Qatar. The most obvious one was the appearance of Cal Crutchlow in 3rd, but then again, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man has been fast all preseason. Crutchlow is doing his best to look serious and concerned, but underneath the masque of seriousness, he, like all Yamaha riders, can barely contain his glee with just how good the bike is. The British rider was very careful to play down any chance of converting a front row into a podium, saying that his chances of staying ahead of Ben Spies and Dani Pedrosa are limited. Though there is an element of truth in that, it is also slightly disingenuous. Crutchlow's experience in managing the World Superbike Pirellis, combined with the more forgiving nature of the 1000cc MotoGP bikes - no longer requiring the scalpel-like precision of the 800s - have put him in position to pull off a surprise. An extra year in GPs and staying with his team for the first time in five seasons has given him the tools he needs to finish the job. A win is out of the question, barring incident, but a podium is a much more realistic possibility than Crutchlow is letting on.
The other front row surprise was the order of the two protagonists. Casey Stoner has pretty much owned Qatar since the very first time he rode here in his rookie year in MotoGP. Throughout free practice, Stoner looked to be cruising to his fourth straight pole in a row, but the return of the dreaded chatter put paid to that. The Honda has suffered chatter almost since its introduction, a by-product of the new, less stiff Bridgestone tires.
The finger of blame has been pointed at the tires and the extra 4kgs of weight that the bikes have to carry since the Grand Prix Commission imposed the changes in December, but the truth of the matter is that the Yamahas - faced with exactly the same challenges - have not suffered with the chatter at all. It looks like Honda have built a bike to suit the old, stiffer Bridgestones - witness the Honda riders' preference for the stiffer of the new front tires tested at Jerez two weeks' ago. Honda, in this case, have just got it wrong, and now need to modify the bike to handle the softer tires.
In the meantime, Stoner is getting frustrated at handling the chatter issues. A wrong direction taken during qualifying saw him struggle more and more with the bike, especially with the soft tires. In parc ferme, he pointed the finger of blame at his team, in terms reminiscent of his time at Ducati. According to the Australian, his team acknowledged that he was suffering massive chatter, but were not as concerned as Stoner felt they should be, because of the reigning World Champion's speed. That line of thought produced a bike that nearly broke Marco Melandri, and saw Valentino Rossi wobble about for a season in mid-pack. Stoner's natural ability to ignore bike problems and push to the limit of the tires too often works against him.
In the press conference, the Australian was much more diplomatic about the situation, diverting his ire into an attack on the rule changes which have taken place over the years, in response to a question about Ben Spies bizarre crash. Spies got caught up with his bike after losing control, getting dragged along beside the machine before finally separating. Spies denied that the problem had been caused by the new compulsory front brake lever guards fitted to all bikes, saying that review of the video had shown the guard had already sheered off when he got caught up. Just what it was that was entangled is still a mystery, but Stoner pronounced his opposition to the brake lever guards, saying that it was too easy for the guards to get tangled up with the inside of a glove, posing a danger to the rider. He had been against them from the start, he said, the situation being made worse once he found out it had been put into the rulebook.
He was then asked what his answer would be to solve the crisis in MotoGP. After expressing his firm opposition to the CRT concept - making some fair points about the difficulties an independent manufacturer faced in making a bike based on a production engine competitive with factory bikes that have been under development for many years now - he argued that the real problem was the constant changes to the rulebook. When it was pointed out to Stoner that it was the manufacturers who had pushed through almost all of those changes - the MSMA had a contractual monopoly on technical rule changes, up until December 31st, 2011 - Stoner flatly denied it, saying "Dorna can blame who they want for this, but they have the final decision," before backtracking a little once the contractual situation was explained to him.
Stoner has a point about the necessity of a stable rule package, the problem is that the time when we needed a stable rule package was in 2004 and 2005, when the decision was taken to go to 800cc. Right now, MotoGP has nearly bankrupted itself - in part by the manufacturers' manic pursuit of rule changes, and in part by Dorna's failure to attract new sponsors to the sport - and needs a new set of cheaper rules before locking down the rulebook and not touching it again for at least 10 years.
Stoner and his crew have a lot of work to do during tomorrow's 20-minute warm up, but the good news for the Australian is that the chatter on the bike tends to drop off as the tires wear. Some electronics tweaks should help smooth out some of the chatter, and the rest will be down to the Repsol Honda man.
On pole sits Jorge Lorenzo, looking for all the world like the Cheshire cat that got the cream. With four Yamahas in the top 6, it is clear that Yamaha have got their bike right. But Lorenzo, too, is on top of his game, and determined to regain his title. As the Hondas struggle with their self-inflicted chatter issues, Lorenzo gets on quietly and efficiently running a blisteringly consistent race pace. Before the weekend started, it seemed unthinkable that anyone other than Casey Stoner would win at Qatar. Right now, observers smart enough to have wagered a sizable sum on Lorenzo winning are looking set to earn a healthy return on their investment.
If you looked at the throngs of reporters that crowd round Valentino Rossi, you would not have guessed that he ended the day as the last of the Ducatis, as well as the last of the factory prototypes. Twelfth position is not where you would expect to find a nine-time world champion. They took a wrong direction in setup, Rossi told the media, a small change that had a massive impact. They then returned to a previous setting, but by then it was too late to make much improvement. The team will now take a look at Nicky Hayden's data - the American was best Ducati, qualifying an extremely respectable 5th - in the hope of learning something new.
Things are bad. Perhaps not as bad as they look, but they are still bad. Where Rossi - or perhaps it would be better to say, his hordes of tired, despairing fans - can be hopeful is in his race pace, which is not all that far off the pace of the group fighting for 5th. Rossi always finds a little extra in the can for the race, as Cal Crutchlow explained when asked if he stood by his assertion that Rossi might be sandbagging, and the Italian is also extremely good at managing worn tires. But the best that Rossi can hope for is 5th spot, not something that he would have signed up for when he put his name to the Ducati contract.
So what has happened? From the outside - and that is currently the only place available for inspection, the internal politics of the situation hermetically sealed from the outside world - there is nothing obvious to blame. The bike is clearly better, but the engine - though powerful - is still not providing the right weight balance for the front end to grip in the way that Rossi wants. An overly aggressive engine was making it hard for Rossi to control the spinning in the rear - though Hayden, with his background in dirt track, is having much less problem with that. The spinning rear tire is causing the front to push wide, and for the bike to understeer.
But despite the dignity of Rossi's bearing - and given the massive pressure the Italian is under, the calmness and simplicity with which he answers the questions put to him is truly remarkable - it is hard to avoid the question of whether Rossi still has the fire to push for results. Has his mindset changed from racer to test and development rider? Is his crew able to translate the feedback he is giving correctly, and pass it on to Ducati Corse? And is Corse - as personified by Filippo Preziosi - listening to the feedback being given? Someone, somewhere, is falling short, and perhaps the most likely explanation is that it is all three parties.
A backlash is brewing. Discipline at Ducati is tight, and the Italian media are still too tightly entwined with the legend they have helped create around the persona of Rossi. True, a massive proportion of the crowds that come to MotoGP events come for one man, and one man only. But the tone among fans is starting to change. Die-hard Rossi fans are starting to vent their frustration, unaccustomed as they are to such a continuous run of poor results. Unless something radical happens to turn Rossi's fortunes around, this will surely end in tears. Tragically for the Italian, for Ducati, and for the fans of both, the signs are not good at all.