It has been great to have some consistent weather, Casey Stoner said at the qualifying press conference at Barcelona, a sentiment that was shared by everyone at the Montmelo circuit, riders, teams, fans and media. Apart from the anomaly that is Qatar (a night race with practice in cooling temperatures) all of the MotoGP rounds held so far have featured massive changes in weather almost from session to session. With four session all with comparable temperatures - a little cooler in the mornings, a little warmer in the afternoons - the riders have been able to actually spend some time working on a consistent set up.
What they have learned is that the tires are going to be a huge part in Sunday's race. The 2012 Bridgestones are built to a new specification and a new philosophy, softer to get up to temperature more quickly and provide better feedback. This the Japanese tire company has succeeded in spectacularly well, the only downside (though that is debatable) is that the tires wear more quickly. This makes tire management critical for the race, with both hard and soft tires dropping off rapidly after 7 laps, and then needing managing to get them home.
In light of the tire management issues, Casey Stoner expressed his surprise that so many riders had spent time on the soft tire, but a quick survey of the paddock says that the soft tire is a viable race option. While Stoner is convinced that the hard tire will be the race compound, others are less certain. The Yamahas especially seem to prefer the soft tire, Andrea Dovizioso saying that the hard drops off more than the soft. Nicky Hayden found something similar: the hard spins too much, he told the press, and so the soft tire is easier to manage as the tires wear. Both are capable of lasting the distance, it will just be about which tire is in better shape at the end.
This promises much for the race. Big gaps may be opened early, as riders push on softer tires and then start to coast home, while others bide their time on hards hoping that they will last better. The difference in times between the two is very small, with the top all pretty close together. The top 6 riders in qualifying ended within four tenths of one another, and while the softer tire setup and closed some of the times up, it still looks pretty close. Casey Stoner, at a track that he loves - I asked him what he was looking forward to this year, and he said "My season starts here, with fast tracks like Barcelona, Silverstone, Mugello and Brno" - is comfortable, relaxed - more relaxed than I have ever seen him - and fast. On hard tires, he was capable of doing occasional high 1'41s, but spent most of his time lapping in the mid 1'42s, a pace which is well inside that set last year in the race.
Stoner's problem is that he is not the only one capable of that pace. Dani Pedrosa, at least in the cooler morning sessions, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso - the Italian said he had had the best pace on the hard tires - Cal Crutchlow, even Ben Spies, all are lapping at or around the same pace. This could be a fairly close race. It would come down to who wants it more, and the list of candidates for that is long. Stoner needs to make up ground on Lorenzo. Lorenzo wants to extend his lead in the championship, win at his home round and give his bargaining position - already the strongest in the paddock - another boost, adding another million or so to his asking price. Dani Pedrosa needs his first win of the season, at his home race, to strengthen his bargaining position with Honda. Crutchlow wants a podium at least, something he's got close to several times this season, and he needs to justify the 60,000 euros that someone splurged on the latest spec Brembo brakes for him. Andrea Dovizioso is auditioning for a factory ride at Yamaha - he reiterated again on Saturday that this was his goal - and to obtain that, he needs to podium at least. Ben Spies is on the road to redemption, working his way through a confidence-rebuilding exercise after the run of bad luck. This was the worst he had had, he said on Saturday, when I asked him if he had gone through anything similar. He had had runs of good luck, Spies admitted, especially during his days in the AMA, but in WSBK and in his two years in MotoGP he had both good and bad luck. Nothing quite so persistent as this, though.
In the end, the weather could also end up playing a major role. Depending on which weather site you consult, and more importantly, which one you decide to believe, it will either by cloudy and dry, a bit damp, or a fairly heavy downpour tomorrow. The riders would all prefer a dry race - with the possible exception of Valentino Rossi, the Ducati man struggling once again, though the gap to the front has been reduced. Rossi felt that he could have qualified 7th if everything had gone his way, but the 3rd row is all that is in the bike. A wet race would allow him to do another Le Mans, and fight close to the front. We shall see whether he gets his way or not.
The Grand Prix Commission also met on Saturday, to discuss the future rules for MotoGP. There are a host of proposals on the table - a rev limit, a single ECU, one bike per rider, steel brakes - but decisions have all been delayed until the next time they meet, at Assen. The Rookie Rule is also subject to discussion, though Carmelo Ezpeleta has expressed his strong commitment to keeping it in place. Andrea Dovizioso had an interesting take on the rule, saying that it had both good points and bad points. But most important, Dovizioso emphasized, was that the rule stay in place and not be changed for one rider. Riders come and go, but changing rules all the time to accommodate a specific situation just makes the rule - and more importantly, the people who created the rule - look silly.
Of course, a lot of this depends on Marc Marquez. After a difficult first day of practice, the Spaniard was well down the order, and talk of a factory MotoGP ride seemed a little bit premature. But after finishing 12th on Friday, Marquez ended up on pole on Saturday, justifying the hype. The Spaniard faces fierce competition from Pol Espargaro and Thom Luthi. With Espargaro living literally up the road in Granollers - so close that he commutes the 4.5 km from home, rather than staying in a motorhome or a hotel - he will want to show beat Marquez in front of his home crowd. There is an intensitty about Espargaro's Pons 40 HP Tuenti team, each and every one of them dedicated to beating Spain's golden boy Marc Marquez. Though Marquez has the edge in pace, Espargaro could pull a rabbit out of the hat in front of his home crowd. This truly is a fantastic rivalry, and promises to be a great race on Sunday.