There is a storm brewing in the MotoGP paddock. The cause is well-known, and has been debated to death over the past three years: MotoGP is too expensive, for both teams and for factories and the grids keep getting thinner every year. After the departure of Aprilia, Ilmor and Kawasaki, it now looks as if Suzuki is on the verge of pulling out. And it's not just factories withdrawing, the number of satellite bikes available is reducing just as fast. While Honda has maintained six bikes on the grid almost every year since the introduction of the four-strokes, in 2012 they look likely to cut back to just four. Ducati, fielding a whopping six bikes for such tiny factory, a commendable effort, could see its participation cut back to just three bikes for 2012. This, though cannot be laid entirely at Ducati's door; the Bologna factory have kept their lease prices reasonable when compared to the massive price rise that HRC have pushed through for next year, but the miserable performance of the Desmosedici this season has combined with the growing poverty of the race teams to see Aspar split with Ducati, and Pramac holding out, possibly to withdraw altogether. Only Yamaha has maintained its position, staunchly keeping four bikes on the grid, though critics point to the six supplied by the much smaller Ducati and suggest that Yamaha could have matched the Italian manufacturer.
Phillip Island is the best circuit in the world, according to just about everyone in the MotoGP paddock. At least, that's what they thought yesterday, before they actually rode the circuit, and found out that the recent visits by the Australian GT series and the V8 Supercars have torn the track up and left bumps everywhere.
The verdict was unanimous, but as ever, Casey Stoner phrased it the best. "This year, the track's terrible," he told reporters. "It's always been a little bit bumpy into Turn 1, but this year, they're a lot more aggressive than they were in the past, and I'm not too happy with the condition of the track. I don't know what they've been racing around here, but it's made the track a lot worse." So bad was the surface that Jorge Lorenzo said he and the other riders would bring the subject up in the Safety Commission on Friday night, and ask for the track to be repaved.
Phillip Island, the best track on the calendar, according to just about everyone who races a motorcycle. There are those such as Dani Pedrosa, as he explained at the pre-event press conference, who have some bad memories of the track, from injury or, like Pedrosa, from riding here in pain, as he did last year when freshly back from surgery on his collarbone. But the track itself is spectacular, and offers all the thrills that riders love: long, fast corners where you slide the bike round at high speed. "You gotta be brave here," as Nicky Hayden put it.
Hayden is not short of courage, as he has proved many times in the past, and for once this season, this is a track that both he and Valentino Rossi go into feeling relatively confident. There has been at least one Ducati on the podium at Phillip Island every year they have competed in MotoGP, except for 2006, when Sete Gibernau was beaten into 4th by half a bike length by Valentino Rossi, so the bike has historically gone well here. That is largely down to the fact that Phillip Island is much more about rear traction than it is about front-end grip, and the rear end of the Ducati is in pretty good shape, especially since the GP11.1 design eliminated most of the pumping. The Ducati still has plenty of motor - when asked what is the strong point of the Ducati, Rossi invariably replies "the engine" - and so the bike suits a high-speed track like Phillip Island, despite the problems that remain.
The two-year contracts that all four of the MotoGP Aliens signed during 2010 have made for a very quiet silly season, with speculation on who will be riding where next season taking a very long time to get started. There are a number of reasons for this - talks about contracts have been lost in the general commotion surrounding the two big topics of 2011: Rossi's struggle with the Ducati Desmosedici and the controversy over whether to race at Motegi or not, and the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has badly hit motorcycle racing budgets as well - but as we approach the final few races of the 2011 MotoGP season, some movement is starting to be visible on the riders market. So let's take a stroll through what we know for certain, have a look what we think is likely and glance into the crystal ball of MotoGP's future, which comes in the shape of the Claiming Rule Teams.
What We Know
There are a few things we know for certain in 2012: the three major factory squads will remain unchanged for next season, as all six riders are in the second year of a two-year contract. Karel Abraham has a Ducati for 2012, the Tech 3 line-up has been finalized, and Simoncelli is back with Gresini with HRC support again for another year. Colin Edwards has taken the plunge as the first official rider for a CRT entry, but beyond that, it is mostly speculation. Here's what we know for sure:
It was a long and very full weekend of motorcycle racing, and to call it eventful would be one of the more obvious understatements of the year. In the 125c class, Johann Zarco finally got the win he has been chasing for so long, and did so in convincing style. In Moto2, Andrea Iannone produced the kind of display that everyone knows that he is capable of, but that he manages a little too sporadically. In the MotoGP class, Honda finally got a win at Motegi after seven years of having to watch their rivals come to their home track and triumph, but that was actually the least remarkable thing about the premier class race.
At Magny-Cours, at the penultimate round of the World Superbike series, two new champions were crowned, to general acclaim that their titles were fully deserved. The titles were clinched in contrasting manner, Carlos Checa becoming World Superbike champion in the dominant style that he had displayed all season, taking victory in both races, while Chaz Davies rode much more cautiously, crossing the line in 6th but still ahead of Fabien Foret, his only rival to the 2011 World Supersport championship. Davies had opted for the glory approach a week earlier in Imola, leading the race by a wide margin and enough points to clinch the title there, but a blown engine with five laps to go put paid to his ambition, and saw him choose the conservative route at Magny-Cours to his first World Championship. The title is just as sweet.
What a difference a day makes. Or perhaps that should be, what a different an afternoon makes. That Casey Stoner took pole at Motegi in the MotoGP class should surprise no one: pole in Japan is Stoner's 10th of the year, a new record for a MotoGP season, and with it, he wrapped up the BMW M Award, getting to take home a shiny new BMW 1 Series M Coupe. And all that with three qualifying sessions left to go.
What was more of a surprise was the man who will start from next to him on the grid at Motegi. Yesterday, Jorge Lorenzo was the best-of-the-rest, capable only of following at a discreet distance, but a change after FP3 on Saturday morning turned the reigning World Champion's fortunes around. During qualifying, Lorenzo found he was matching the race pace of the Repsol Hondas, then as the pace was upped in the last 10 minutes, the factory Yamaha man found himself temporarily on pole, with a new pole record to boot. That would not stand - Stoner smashed both the old and the new pole record, bagging himself a BMW in the process - but the fact that Lorenzo was on the pace of the Hondas gave him heart. "I didn't expect to be on the front row," Lorenzo said, but the changes the team had made had worked. A front-row start puts him in touch with Stoner from the line, and going by the Spaniard's pace on race tires, capable of giving the Australian a run for his money.
The first day of practice was summed up succinctly by Colin Edwards, in the TV interview that all of the riders do with MotoGP.com at the end of each day. The bike felt good, Edwards said, the front feels planted, he felt good on the bike. "It's just them frickin' Hondas!"
A quick glance at the timesheets and you can see his point: places one to four are taken by factory Honda RC212Vs, the three Repsols leading the San Carlo Gresini bike of Marco Simoncelli. The layout of the track helps a lot: a lot of slow corners leading onto long straights, and a fast back straight thrown in for good measure. The Honda's strong points are outstanding acceleration and good top speed, exactly what is needed to go around Motegi at a decent clip.
That should hardly come as a surprise. Motegi is owned by Honda, and as Casey Stoner pointed out, this track is one of the tracks the RC212V is developed around. Although Honda's test riders - including wildcard riders Kousuke Akiyoshi and the hoary veteran Shinichi Itoh, riding a stunning RC30 tribute HRC livery in red, white and blue - divide their time between Suzuka and Motegi aboard the MotoGP bike, Motegi remains a key track for the factory, where much of their development is done.
It was billed by the respected Italian website GPOne.com as "The Grand Prix Of Fear" and finally it's here. Unless something extremely untoward happens - highly unlikely, but the zone is one of the most geologically active regions in the world - by Friday evening, everyone will have gotten over themselves and we'll be talking about bikes on track again.
There are still plenty of signs of advanced paranoia in the paddock, however. The Italian media contingent is reduced to just a few brave souls, while the Spanish media is a little better represented, but still much thinner on the ground. The English-speaking media is actually a little more numerous than originally planned: out of sheer frustration with the panic-mongering being spread about by some of the more paranoid sections of the paddock, veteran MotoGP journalist Michael Scott has added Motegi to his itinerary, a race he would otherwise have covered from home.
The vast majority of riders are present, and all of the crew for the MotoGP teams, but a fair number of mechanics are missing from the support classes. In Moto2, for example, Alex de Angelis' team are all at home in Italy, their duties being taken over by local Japanese technicians for the weekend. In the 125cc class, the Mahindra squad only have their team manager and their riders with them, the mechanics having elected to stay at home, their places taken by temporary mechanics hired especially for this weekend.
Days like Sunday at Imola always remind me of what Nicky Hayden says after particularly poor qualifying sessions: "That's why we line up on Sunday; you never know what's gonna happen." Two championships were up for grabs at Imola on Sunday; one looked a dead cert to be wrapped up by Sunday night, while the most likely scenario for the other is that the race would still be open after the second World Superbike race.
It didn't quite work out that way. Sure, Carlos Checa and Chaz Davies are still the hot favorites for the World Superbike and World Supersport titles, but the dreaded "events" got in the way of seeing a double coronation in Italy. Every Sunday brings a surprise, and this Sunday was no exception.
Chaz Davies was the worst casualty of the weekend. The Welshman came into Imola leading by 59 points, and all that was required was for Davies to put it on the podium to bring home the title. But Davies was doing more than that: after a decent qualifying practice, he seized the race by the scruff of the neck and was dominating, as he has done so often this year. Leading the race by over 10 seconds, with less than 5 laps left to go, his engine let go in a big way, thick white smoke pouring from behind the fairing, a sure sign that something very major has failed. Davies cruised to a halt, any chance of securing the championship gone, and "completely gutted" as he described it himself.
It's going to be a big weekend at Imola. The World Superbike series should be crowning at least one champion on Sunday, and it is entirely possible that both the World Superbike and World Supersport titles are wrapped up at Imola.
The World Supersport class looks a shoe-in for Chaz Davies. The Welshman leads the series by 59 points, and just needs to finish on the podium to take the title. Even if he doesn't get on the box, his main rivals have not succeeded in putting much pressure on him throughout the year; David Salom and Fabien Foret have struggled to beat him even on his (very rare) off-days, and Broc Parkes trails by 67 points, a very big ask indeed.
Parkes demonstrated he hasn't given up completely, finishing 2nd behind Davies' teammate Luca Scassa during qualifying on Friday, but Davies looked like a man who was in control of the situation. The ParkinGO Yamaha rider ended QP1 with the 3rd fastest time, just over a third of a second behind Scassa, and confident there was more in the tank. Davies' calmness has been an asset all season, and so far, it looks like it is going to pay off.