Retirement obviously hasn't slowed Casey Stoner. After announcing last night that he would be retiring from MotoGP at the end of the 2012 season (and no, that does not mean he will be going to World Superbikes instead), the Australian climbed aboard his Repsol Honda RC213V, banged out the fastest time, a second quicker than anyone else at the time, on just his 3rd lap out of the pits, and went on to top the timesheets in both FP1 and FP2. He had felt a little strange when he rode out of the garage in the morning, he told reporters, realizing that this was the last time he would ever ride these tracks, but thanks to the miracle of compartmentalization - a mental trick that all top sportspeople can perform, tucking away anything not related to the task at hand into a corner of their minds, and focusing their full attention on performing to the peak of their ability - he got on with the business of going very, very fast indeed.
Both factory Hondas are fast. Stoner and teammate Dani Pedrosa took a one-two in both sessions of practice, but Stoner is still a step above the rest, getting close to the lap record Pedrosa set during last year's race, despite the track being cooler than in 2011. Stoner spent his time trying to generate some chatter - more difficult in cooler temperatures and on the Le Mans circuit's less grippy asphalt - to at least try to gather some data after the Estoril test was rained off, but both he and Pedrosa clearly have a race set up, should the rain hold off on Sunday.
Jorge Lorenzo is not far off the Hondas, after moving weight towards the rear of the bike to try to improve corner entry. The Factory Yamaha rider was much more comfortable on the bike after the change was made for the afternoon session, and ended up less than four tenths off Stoner, but just 0.131 behind Pedrosa, his first target. Lorenzo is also ready for a dry race, though given the way that rain has affected the first half of the past few MotoGP seasons, such a prospect seems unlikely. The forecasts at the moment are for serious rain on Saturday afternoon and a small amount of rain on Sunday, though the question of when it will fall will be the decisive factor.
Ben Spies has perked up considerably at Le Mans, finishing 4th in FP1 and then 5th in FP2. Spies is feeling the pressure, but he is confident of his pace now that they have sorted the bike out. His results are pretty dismal, but his underlying pace is much better.
More impressive was Alvaro Bautista. After a difficult first few races aboard the San Carlo Gresini Honda, the Spaniard is finally starting to jell with the bike. Some smallish suspension changes (Gresini is the only team using Showa suspension, rather than the industry standard Ohlins) made a big difference to the bike, and Bautista was immediately much more comfortable and much faster. His pace was consistent, and this could perhaps be the corner that Bautista needed to turn. Saturday will show whether this was a one-off improvement or whether Bautista will be a more permanent fixture at the front.
In Moto2, the bikes continue to improve year-on-year, as they get more development under their belts - there's a lesson there for judging the performance of the CRT machines - and in the afternoon, Scott Redding took nearly half a second off the existing lap record, despite less favorable conditions and it just being the first day of practice. Both Redding and Thomas Luthi were under the previous lap record, while 3rd place man Simone Corsi fell just a few thousandths short of it. Corsi has been a firm fixture at the top of the timesheets on the first day, ironic, as the CAME Ioda rider is using the FTR chassis, which has fallen out of favor with the rest of the paddock. The FTR is still clearly fast, but that is not sufficient for some teams. Racing a motorcycle is about confidence, and racers appear to always want to be on the same bike as their rivals, perceiving any differences between their own bike and that of their rivals as a disadvantage.
In Moto3, Maverick Vinales demonstrated why he is still hot favorite for the championship. The Spaniard - aboard the FTR chassis, which is the hot Moto3 ticket, in contrast to the fortunes of the Moto2 bike - topped both sessions of practice, taking a massive gap in the afternoon. Championship leader Sandro Cortese is struggling, posting just the 12 fastest time in FP2, while Luis Salom - a man who is clearly on the verge of his first victory, but like so many riders before him, finding actually crossing that threshold much more difficult than he expected - is the man who is closest to Vinales. Louis Rossi is making French hearts beat faster, the Racing Team Germany (there is irony for you) rider, like Salom, just needing a little bit of luck to come his way to score a solid result. If there's a place to do it, it might as well be your home Grand Prix.
Off the track the talk was naturally of Casey Stoner's retirement, and the consequences that will have for the rest of the paddock. Almost everyone was surprised that he had decided to retire at the end of this year, the consensus being that they had thought he would continue for one more season. Jorge Lorenzo put Stoner's retirement into perspective, telling the official MotoGP.com website that it was "a big loss for everybody, for the spectators, for the riders, because he's one of the most talented riders in the history of the world."
Only Ben Spies was not surprised, the Texan being closer to the Australian than most of the paddock. "He wants to have another life, and racing's not his whole life," Spies told MotoGP.com "That's his decision and you've got to respect it. After what he said and the way he said it, you can understand it." Nobody - not his rivals, at least - expects Stoner to make a comeback, nor to have any regrets about his decision. Once Stoner's mind is made up - for better or for worse, as I have learned in discussions with him - it will not be changed.
The final decision was taken only recently, Stoner told the press, though it had been long in coming. Last Sunday, Stoner had slept on it for one more night, and woke up with his mind made up. He told his wife and father first, then HRC, and then his team. On Thursday, after leaving the press conference in which he had just announced his retirement, he returned to his motorhome, he said, and found his young daughter. He realized then that his decision had been the right one.
Stoner's retirement blows the lid off MotoGP's silly season. The rider market seemed pretty well settled, with most people likely to stay more or less where they were, but with Stoner taken out of the equation, all bets are off. The permutations are almost endless - it is tempting to express the rider merry-go-round as n!, where n is the number of possible candidates available and capable of riding a MotoGP bike, but that would be rather trite - but basically, almost any combination of the riders currently on a factory prototype could fill the expected prototype rides next year, or be dislodged by the expected influx of newcomers.
Even the riders who seemed firmly settled are refusing to rule out a switch. Jorge Lorenzo once again reaffirmed that his intention was to finish his career with Yamaha, though he added "for the moment" after a pause. Senior management at both Yamaha and Honda have said that it is imperative to have at least one of the four - now three, with the departure of Casey Stoner - aliens in the team, and with Livio Suppo telling Catalunya Radio that they were already starting to talk to Dani Pedrosa about an extension of his contract, and given his long history at the factory, the departure of Stoner puts him in a stronger position in Honda for the long term.
The complicating factors here are Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi, though the catalyst will surely be Jorge Lorenzo. Once Lorenzo makes up his mind - and it is foolish to believe that Repsol is not going through its war chest and trying to estimate whether they can afford to try to tempt him to join Honda, which Lorenzo in turn will be using a bargaining chip with Yamaha - the next round of possibilities opens.
A return to Honda seems unlikely for Rossi, though HRC boss Nakamoto told the media on Thursday that he would not rule the possibility out. Ominously, he said he would have to consult Honda in Japan, which could be a more formidable barrier to a return for the Italian. Rossi's departure from Honda and the depiction of them in his autobiography did not enamor him to Honda bosses, and they will be wary of taking him back.
But if Lorenzo jumps ship to Honda, the door could be opened at Yamaha. There is a pro- and an anti-Rossi faction inside Yamaha, and though the anti-Rossi faction currently has the upper hand, the departure of Lorenzo may change the balance of power. From the outside, a return to Yamaha looks much more likely than a return to Honda, but in the current circumstances, anything could happen.
The question is whether Rossi would leave Ducati, though. In a live question and answer session hosted on the internet, Rossi told fans that he still wanted to win on the Ducati, and not just a race, a championship. His legacy demands that he succeed, but in reality, that requires Ducati to finally build a bike that he believes he can win on. The question of whether Rossi stays at Ducati or tries his chances elsewhere comes down to whether he believes that Ducati is able and willing to change fast enough.
The other major fly in the ointment is one Marc Marquez, regarded by one and all as a future alien. That Marquez will be moving up to MotoGP in 2013 is certain, but the rookie rule - which is certain to stay, after Carmelo Ezpeleta postponed the rev limits for an extra year to satisfy the factories, in exchange for keeping the rookie rule - prevents Marquez from going to a factory team. But the Spaniard is not an easy fit in a satellite team either, as it will not just be him moving up, but his entire Monlau Competicion team. Satellite teams such as Tech 3, Gresini or LCR are assembled over many years, with personnel largely remaining the same from year to year. If Marquez goes to a satellite team, they would have to sack a bunch of people to make way for the group surrounding Marquez, knowing that it would be just for a single season as the Spaniard is a shoo in for a factory ride in 2014, and will be taking all of his team with him again when he leaves.
Speaking with someone close to Marquez at Estoril, I learned that their preference is for a separate team for Marquez, but that would cause a number of problems. If the number of prototype bikes is limited by regulation to two in the factory team and two in satellite teams, then one bike would have to be taken from an existing team. However, if such a rule is not adopted, then Marquez, Repsol and Monlau will simply be provided with a factory-spec machine (just as Simoncelli had at Gresini) and the team will run itself.
As for the rest of the positions? Anything is possible. Andrea Dovizioso back at Repsol Honda? Not unthinkable, but then the factory team is another option. Cal Crutchlow at factory Yamaha? Why not? He is clearly performing well. Ben Spies to Repsol Honda and Nicky Hayden to the factory Yamaha team? It is entirely feasible, and would help promote the brands in the key US market. The possibilities are not quite endless, but certainly enough to fill many thousands of column inches over the coming months. Casey Stoner may have unleashed silly season, but it will not really start to take shape until Jorge Lorenzo puts pen to paper. He already makes a very handsome salary, but now looks set to get a very nice raise.