After two days out on track, the excitement of the Stoner retirement is starting to die down, and people are starting to concentrate on the racing again, rather than the politics and everything else surrounding Stoner's announcement. Qualifying helps focus minds, of course, because something serious is at stake again, a spot on the grid.
And focus was exactly what was needed, in all three classes. After three dry - if rather cold - sessions of free practice for Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP, the rain started to fall around lunchtime, letting up towards the end of Moto3 qualifying, before sprinkling on and off for MotoGP and Moto2 (though it returned once again with a vengeance once qualifying was over).
The Moto3 riders had it probably easiest of all, with the track very wet at the start and still fairly wet at the end, but the conditions still threw up some problems. Not for Maverick Viñales, though. This is the track Viñales won his first race at, and he clearly likes it here, taking pole by nearly a second. He had a little help from his rivals, however: both Sandro Cortese and Miguel Oliveira crashed at inconvenient parts of the track, and paid the penalty for the single-bike rule. Cortese was lucky enough to get his bike back in time to go out and set a decent lap to take 6th, because if he hadn't, he would have been stuck way down close to the back of the grid. Oliveira had already set a pretty decent time, and looked like challenging for pole until he dropped it at Chemin aux Boeufs, landing on the outside of the esses, his bike taking too long to get back to the pits for the Portuguese rider to get back out again and improve his time. He starts from 3rd, but from the way he was going this weekend, he clearly had his heart set on pole.
MotoGP qualifying required a bit of strategy, a smattering of gambler's bravado and a great big dollop of luck. The track started wet, but was drying fairly quickly, forcing everyone to go out on wets, which they then proceeded to tear up on the drying surface. Instead of the usual 40 minutes of setup time and 20 minutes of qualifying, we appeared to have four 15 minute sessions of qualifying, each in different conditions. Only the last 15 counted, of course, and Dani Pedrosa bagged his first pole of the year with a very strong lap indeed. His timing was impeccable, going out just as an empty track opened up ahead of him, like the parting of the Red Sea. No such luck for Casey Stoner or Jorge Lorenzo, who ended up stuck between the returning waves and the Pharaoh's chariots - in this case, the CRT bikes, which made setting a pole lap a little tricky. Stoner already had a banker in the bag and will start from 2nd, so losing his last couple of laps is not a problem, but Lorenzo is more concerned, ending the day in 4th, and forced to start from the second row of the grid.
Part of Lorenzo's problem is the speed of the satellite Yamahas, the Monster Tech 3 bikes of Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso flying at the team's home Grand Prix. Both men have been fast all weekend, and Dovizioso was right on the pace during qualifying. He starts from the front row of the grid after setting a scorching pace in the latter stages of qualifying, and could even have improved if it hadn't been for a fuel problem. On the out lap for his final run, his bike started misbehaving, so he immediately returned to the pits thinking it was an electronics problem. It wasn't, it was merely a lack of gas, but despite missing the last five minutes, Dovizioso is still on the front row. He is especially happy about the improved feeling with the Yamaha, having got his head around how to ride the bike at Estoril. Missing so much testing with the broken collarbone he suffered at the start of the year meant he lost a lot of time which he should have spent adapting to the bike, and he is only now catching up.
Dovizioso's improvement is having the required effect on his teammate Cal Crutchlow. The Englishman has had an outstanding start to the 2012 season, spurred on in no doubt by the arrival of someone truly competitive on the other side of the garage. The tension between the two - certainly on Crutchlow's side - is tangible, with both men's press debriefs scheduled directly after one another. Crutchlow has been heard to refer to Dovizioso as "The Rockstar" in an unguarded moment, and the tone used was not one solely of admiration. Though Crutchlow starts from 5th, he felt he had the pace for the front row, and maybe even for pole, but the team tried a new setting in the afternoon which did not work as well as the one they had been using already.
If a person were of the gambling persuasion, such a person could do worse than to put money on a Tech 3 bike on the podium. Either man would deserve it, and both are capable. No doubt both men will appear on the box before the season is out. There remains the minor problem of the three current aliens, of course. "The top three riders are very strong," Dovizioso told MotoGP.com, "Especially in the race." Even so, the race pace of Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Dovizioso, and maybe even Ben Spies and Alvaro Bautista - a welcome addition to the front group - is pretty close, and both Crutchlow and Lorenzo expect there to be a large group slugging it out, at least in the early stages.
In 7th, his best qualifying of the year, sits Valentino Rossi. It may have taken them a while, but Rossi and his team appear to have finally found the right direction to follow with the Ducati, since switching to the "Ducati" set up they focused on at Estoril. Both Rossi in his press debriefs and mechanic Alex Briggs on Twitter spoke of gradual but encouraging progress. The changes they made were always improvements, and the bike responded as they hoped. The Desmosedici is still too aggressive on the throttle, especially the very first crack, but there are real signs of improvement. The second group is probably still just a little too far away, but there are once again signs of hope from the Ducati camp, and that itself is progress.
But one main remains seemingly untouchable.Though Casey Stoner qualified "only" 2nd on the grid, retirement has done him the world of good. He dominated free practice, and looks far more relaxed now that he has both made up his mind and announced his intention to the world. The last couple of races, he told the press conference, he had had a lot of things going on in his mind. Now that he has made his decision, he can ride free of any thought other than going as fast as possible, which in his case, is nigh on unstoppable.
His main obstacle will be his teammate: pole, plus the Spaniard's legendary rocket-assisted starts means that Pedrosa will have the opportunity to take off into the distance from the start. But as Pedrosa himself pointed out, the start is probably only 5% of the race, and the races are long. Being strong in the first 5% is nice, but it's the other 95% which Pedrosa is most concerned about.
That and the weather. Moto2 had the worst of it, with conditions neither one thing or the other, and rain starting and stopping throughout. Qualifying for Moto2 mostly took place during the first 10 minutes, with Marc Marquez coming out on top. Many tried to improve later on, but conditions were treacherous and many also paid the price, including Marquez who dropped the bike at Garage Vert. Only Thomas Luthi, conforming entirely to stereotype, kept his head cool enough to improve, ending up beside Marquez on the front row of the grid. With Pol Espargaro in 3rd and Scott Redding in 4th, the favorites are all together, promising a fantastic race.
The animosity building between Espargaro and Marquez is maturing nicely, providing a proper grudge match between the two. Marquez vs Espargaro is turning into the rivalry of the season so far, closely followed by Crutchlow vs Dovizioso. A further factory animating the latter rivalry is the question of brakes. The satellite-spec Yamaha M1 comes as standard with the previous generation of Brembo brakes. The upgrade is available, but costs money - 60,000 euros for the season to be precise - money which Tech 3 team boss Hervé Poncharal is either not able or not willing to shell out. Andrea Dovizioso has sprung for the upgrade - consisting of a slightly larger disk and larger caliper, with a larger braking area - out of his own pocket, but Cal Crutchlow has refused to pay the extra himself out of principle. Riders should not be paying for parts themselves, Crutchlow believes. Though it is easy to sympathize with his position, a glance up and down the grid in all three classes reveals a host of riders paying for far more than just brake calipers.
Crutchlow's predicament also sheds some light on the problems facing MotoGP, and what is being done about it. The carbon brakes are exorbitantly expensive, and have no direct application to the street. The only real benefit is the ability to make beautiful pictures in the dark, as Scott Jones discovered when he went to Qatar for the first time, producing a shot that would become imitated by photographers around the world. But their cost bears no relation to the value they add, nor even to the cost of production. Reportedly, when Carmelo Ezpeleta suggested banning carbon brakes because of the cost, Brembo immediately responded by offering to slash prices.
A lot of parts on the bikes which are regarded as indispensable are being priced more in line with their perceived value, rather than their actual benefit. The difference between the brakes used by Dovizioso and Crutchlow illustrates the point perfectly: Dovizioso shelled out the equivalent of a luxury Mercedes sedan for brakes which are marginally better, but his teammate, using the "cheap option" is just as fast.
There are clearly severe pricing inefficiencies in MotoGP's supply chain, based on the perceived benefits of certain parts. The obvious comparison is to another paddock favorite, expensive watches. Though a Patek Phillippe may give you a certain cachet, it won't tell the time any more efficiently than a $10 digital Timex bought from a market stall. Not having the alleged best material appears to have given Cal Crutchlow the ability to find the difference in himself, rather than in the equipment. If MotoGP is still 70% rider and 30% bike, then finding 1% in extra motivation, the underdog feeling of not having the very best kit, may be both cheaper and more efficient than springing for overpriced brakes.
For race day, the weather is looking highly unpredictable. Diluvian rain started falling once qualifying was finished, dampening spirits in the post-apocalyptic scenes that are the Le Mans campsites. A lighter rain is expected to fall in the morning for warm up, but it should have mostly cleared by the time the Moto2 race starts, if not for Moto3. All bets are off if the rain comes, or even worse, if the track is half-wet, half-dry. Tires will be destroyed, and risks will be taken on slicks, making for an interesting race, if not necessarily an accurate reflection of the relative strengths of the riders. If it is dry, we should see simple wins for Viñales and Stoner, and a massive scrap in Moto2. If it is wet, it is anyone's guess. If it is half-wet, half-dry - given the season so far, the most likely conditions - then things could get very interesting indeed.