The atmosphere in the paddock at Valencia is an odd mixture of fatigue, excitement and anticipation. Fatigue, because it is the end of a long season, and the teams and riders are barely recovered from the three back-to-back flyaway rounds; excitement, because this is the last race of the year, and the last chance to shine, and for some, the last chance to impress a team sufficiently to secure a ride next year; and anticipation, because with so many riders switching brands and classes, they are already thinking about the test to come on Tuesday.
Or in Casey Stoner's case, thinking about a future outside of MotoGP. As his departure from the championship grows near, it is clear that he has had more than enough of the series. Asked if he was worried about the politics in V8 Supercars, where he is headed in the near future, he said he wasn't, because he understood that V8 Supercars is a different kind of championship. MotoGP, though, was supposed to be a professional championship, and in his opinion, it was 'a joke'. Four races in Spain, another just over the border in Portugal, this was not a truly world championship, Stoner said. Instead, MotoGP is too much of a European championship, and it needed to rediscover its roots.
There is still a sense of disbelief that Stoner could retire from MotoGP at the tender age of 27, but he has been consistent and clear. This was not a decision he had reached just a couple of weeks ago, this is something he has known was coming for a long time, he told the pre-event press conference on Thursday. It would be unwise to bet any money at all on Casey Stoner ever making a return to the series. The loss of his talent is a tragedy for the championship, but as in an unhappy marriage, it is better for the two parties to go their separate ways.
The race, however, looks promising. With Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa on six wins each, and Casey Stoner having five, there is plenty at stake at Valencia. Stoner told the press conference he would be approaching the race just as he had Phillip Island, words which must have struck fear into most of the paddock given the Australian's utter domination at his home track. Fortunately for them, he added that he did not expect it to be quite as special as Phillip Island.
If I had to call it, though, I would say that Jorge Lorenzo exudes the most determination at the moment. With the weight of the championship off his shoulders, he can ride a little more freely, he told the press conference. The fact that he is only equal with Pedrosa on race wins was not a concern, nor the fact that he could end the season with fewer wins than his Repsol Honda rival if Pedrosa were to take victory at Valencia. "This statistic doesn't worry me too much," he said. "I just want to try to win, and for sure I will take more risks than the last race." Earlier, when complimenting him on a near-perfect season, I mentioned that he needed to finish either first or second to keep the streak alive. "I don't like second position," Lorenzo quipped. "I will go for the win." The competition has been warned.
Lorenzo's flawless season received much attention from some quarters, his run of six wins and ten second places drawing universal admiration. Ducati's Nicky Hayden was effusive, when he was asked about Lorenzo's year so far. The American had seen portents of Lorenzo's title even as early as Malaysia, but there was one factor which Hayden believed had been crucial. "Lorenzo is really strong mentally," Hayden told the press on Thursday. "Even this winter, we got to the Jerez test after being in Malaysia for two tests, and me and Filippo Preziosi were talking about something, saying Casey this, Casey that, and I said I think if I had to pick a champion, I thought Lorenzo was the favorite."
Lorenzo's preparation and attitude had been decisive, Hayden said. "He works extremely hard during the weekends, during testing. In the first practice, he'll be the first guy on the track, and the guy with the most laps." High praise indeed, coming from the man who as a rule has the most laps every single test. "Even in the winter in Malaysia when we were testing, when it was hot in the afternoon and most people were staying in the box, he was out doing really long runs. Some people talked about long runs, but he was doing full race simulations, and it was clear he was ready, he was very hungry for this title," Hayden said.
Lorenzo's team boss at Yamaha concurred. It was his work ethic and his preparation which had made the difference, Wilco Zeelenberg said. "You saw it in the first few races. What were Casey and Dani complaining of? Arm pump. Jorge was ready, he knew the 1000s would put more strain on his arms." Lorenzo had been putting in the hard work in testing, running full race simulations so he knew just how much more effort the 1000s would take to ride. He had adjusted his training and testing schedule to cope with the differences, and it paid off in spades.
Beyond Sunday, and even beyond the test on Tuesday - speaking of anticipation, Valentino Rossi almost had to remind himself he was still riding for Ducati when he was asked about riding the Yamaha on Tuesday - a rulebook for 2014 and beyond looks to be drawing near. The battle which was being played out both in the press and behind closed doors has settled into a debate, and for the first time, there is real progress, one source told me. Though the rules are still not completely settled - when asked whether the spec ECU would be enforced or not, the reply was "this is changing hour by hour" - the trench mentality has disappeared, and a genuine dialog is taking place. There is give and take on both sides, and both sides are actively making proposals to move the process forwards.
On the side of the manufacturers, things which had been deal breakers - such as a spec ECU, which Carmelo Ezpeleta told the French magazine Moto Journal that Honda is now very close to accepting - have now become bargaining chips. From the side of Dorna, there is a recognition that the investment the factories made in the switch to 1000cc needs to be respected and appreciated. Honda, Yamaha and Ducati all signed up to the 1000cc, bore-limited rules, and spent the extra money to build new bikes to suit the formula, just as Dorna asked them to do. They supported the championship, and the championship needs to respect that.
But the manufacturers have also accepted that Dorna needs to have something they can sell as an entertainment product to TV companies. That, after all, is what helps pay for the championship, where the R&D merely costs money. The grids have to be filled, and too much of a disparity makes selling the show a tough proposition.
The turnaround in relations came at Motegi. Two developments were key here, one old and one new. The old development is one which has been discussed at length previously: the use of CRT machines to fill the grid demonstrated all too clearly to the manufacturers that Dorna was willing to run a championship without them. There would be life after the MSMA, if the factories decided to pull out in protest at any proposed rule changes.
As a result, the MSMA may at last find a way of filling the grids, producing affordable racers to be made available to the teams. This has been the desire of Dorna and IRTA (the teams) ever since the financial crisis struck, but all previous requests to produce cheaper versions of their prototype MotoGP machines, either for sale or for lease, have fallen on deaf ears. With Dorna having it made clear that they can find cheap ways to fill the grid if the factories depart, it is starting to appear like the factories may have finally caved in.
The new development is more obvious, and has received pages of press coverage in the past. With Dorna taking over the World Superbike series, the factories' threat to leave the series and do their R&D in the other world championship was effectively neutralized, with Dorna prepared to impose regulations to put a stop to any such suggestion. Ironically, the takeover by Dorna may actually end up saving World Superbikes in a recognizable form. With the threat of factories jumping ship from MotoGP neutralized, there is no need to limit World Superbikes much more than they already are. WSBK is unlikely to gain much technical sophistication in the medium term, but there is less reason to limit it a great deal. If the MSMA do start producing cheaper machines for the private MotoGP teams to use - leased engines, a production racer, etc - then the performance gap between MotoGP and WSBK can be maintained without hobbling WSBK.
The Grand Prix Commission meets on Saturday, and it looks likely that a set of stable rules to be applied through 2016 will be produced here. If not at Valencia, then certainly at the final GPC meeting in December.
This is the key to MotoGP's long-term future. With stable rules, other factories can make realistic projections about the cost of entering the series. Once the 2014 rules have been agreed, discussions for more far-reaching changes can be discussed for 2017. That, though, is far enough in the future to give the factories time to prepare. MotoGP is set to turn a corner. At long, long last.