Three races in 15 days, right in the middle and most important part of the season. MotoGP lines up at Assen with one third of the season gone. By the time the triple header is finished at Mugello, just over two weeks' later, we are half way through the season and the title is a lot closer to being settled. These three races are crucial.
Not that it changes anyone's approach. During the press conference, I asked the riders if they took a more cautious approach, knowing that the cost of injury is much, much greater now than it is when there is more time to recover between races. They looked at me as if I were stupid - a conclusion they have some justification for drawing - and told me that they treat these three races the same as the first race, the last race, and every other race in between. Flat out, and trying to win. It is impossible to win championships without winning races, as Casey Stoner likes to point out, so it is better to focus on that than on worrying about what might happen.
Winning races for Stoner and Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa is no easy thing. The Honda still has debilitating chatter, making the bike - or rather, the factory bike - very hard to ride. The chatter at the rear is fixed, or very nearly, but the new Bridgestone front tire created chatter at the front, negating any gains from fixing the rear chatter. HRC's list for Santa Claus is very short: all they want is the 2011-spec front Bridgestone back again, and the championship would be blown wide open. That tire, though, is gone, and so they have to deal with the "33", the new-spec front Bridgestone. It's like the weather, one engineer commented to me: you have to deal with what the world throws at you, and what is out of your control.
For now, Honda's work is damage limitation, trying to keep the gap between Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo as small as possible. Lorenzo's recent form has been relentless, struggling occasionally in practice but always coming good during the race. The Yamahas are working well, and Lorenzo's is working better than anyone's. Andrea Dovizioso tried to explain what he had learned from following Lorenzo the last couple of races: what he could see was that Lorenzo was braking earlier but carrying more corner speed, and this, paradoxically, gave him more margin. Where Dovizioso, Ben Spies and Cal Crutchlow were all on the limit in mid-corner, Lorenzo had bought himself a little safety thanks to his corner entry, carrying more speed through and out of the corner, yet risking less.
That lesson had been an eye opener for the Italian, and something he was determined to exploit at Assen. After spending all of his career riding a Honda, Dovizioso is now a Yamaha man through and through. He now understands the bike and believes he can get on the podium regularly, though winning is a little more tricky given the level of competition and the fact that the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha satellite bikes are two engine steps and one chassis step behind the factory bikes, at least according to Cal Crutchlow.
Dovizioso has his eye on the prize, and that prize is the second seat in the Factory Yamaha team. Dovizioso was cagey on his options on Wednesday, saying only that he was talking with a few parties, as is customary at this stage in the season. He was cautious on suggestions of going to a satellite Honda squad - the Italian media have been linking him with a bike at Gresini - pointing out that what was important was the bike, not the team. His aim was the Factory Yamaha seat, on this, Dovizioso was clear, but reading between the lines of his answers to the questions put to him about next year, then only a firm commitment of a factory bike and factory support would tempt him to Gresini and away from a satellite Yamaha. This bike, he said, gives him his best chance of performing.
Dovizioso faces some stiff competition for the Factory Yamaha seat - MotoGP's hot seat for 2013 - from some big name riders. Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Cal Crutchlow is hoping for a factory ride, and if he does not get one from Yamaha, then the 7-figure offer he has received from Ducati will tempt him away. He believes he deserves to make the step from satellite to factory equipment, Crutchlow said, as winning on a satellite bike was nigh-on impossible. "I came to MotoGP with ambitions of being world champion," Crutchlow said, "but you're not going to win on a privateer bike." A factory bike was a prerequisite, Crutchlow kept repeating, and Ducati were hard at work trying to make the bike competitive. Next year's bike, Crutchlow affirmed, will be much better than this year's bike. The problem is, the same is true of the Honda and Yamaha.
Valentino Rossi is now the key player in MotoGP's silly season, and he waved away comments from Carmelo Ezpeleta about being on a competitive bike in 2013. As far as he was concerned, Rossi said, that bike would be the Ducati, which by then should well be competitive. Work continues apace, but progress is slow, and for every step that Ducati makes, Honda and Yamaha make one that is bigger. The mountain they have to climb just does not seem to ever get any smaller. The new engine expected for Laguna may be a small help, but the changes to that engine are only minor, aimed at improving engine response and making the power delivery less aggressive. Rumors of an altered engine angle were just that, rumors, Vitto Guareschi told Italian website GPOne.com. The engine was the same, but with altered internals to improve power delivery. From the outside, he told MotoMatters.com at Silverstone, the engine will look identical.
On Friday, the Grand Prix Commission is set to meet, ostensibly to seal the future rules which will govern the series from 2014 onwards. So far, though, the major changes - a rev limit and a spec ECU - do not look like being settled here. The rule package for 2013 will be more or less the same as the 2012 rules, though the Rookie Rule will be officially dropped. But the proposals for one bike per rider and the ban on carbon disks look like being rejected. The one bike rule was never a serious proposal, more a symbol of good will on the manufacturers. But despite having proposed it, they secretly opposed it, working behind the scenes to get it dropped. The cost of carbon disks looks like being contained by Brembo, and with the one bike rule dropped, the need to switch from carbon to steel has disappeared.
All this, however, is just small beer. The really big stuff - the rev limit and the spec ECU - will not after all be decided here, the decisions being kicked down the road for further consideration. That they will happen is not in doubt; that they will have a profound impact on the current manufacturers is also not in question. The real question is when will the rule changes be introduced? As early as 2014, as Dorna and IRTA want? Or 2015 at the very earliest, as the manufacturers would like to see? That is a question that might take some time to answer. Friday is too early to say.