Saturday at Jerez was a crash fest, in just about every class. Why? The heat - well, perhaps heat is an exaggeration, but certainly the weather was better than anyone expected a few weeks ago. Once the heat hits the Andalusian track, the grip drops off a cliff, and the riders are left struggling to cope. In Moto3, MotoGP and Moto2, a lot of riders hit the deck on Saturday afternoon.
Alex Rins was one of the first to fall, crashing out during qualifying for the Moto3 class. It did not slow him down, the Spaniard grabbing pole for the second race in succession. MotoGP was much worse: during the final session of free practice, Cal Crutchlow threw his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha away at the start of the back straight. Later in that session, Crutchlow watched from behind as Marc Marquez fought a losing battle with gravity at the other end of the straight, the front folding and the rear whipping round on him despite valiant efforts to save it. "I was willing him to save it," Crutchlow joked afterwards, "but in the end gravity won."
The QP2 session was even more eventful, with Crutchlow crashing again, in a much more spectacular fashion this time, followed by Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi. While Pedrosa and Rossi walked away virtually unhurt (despite Pedrosa tumbling through the gravel, the Spaniard grateful for the airbag in his suit for protecting him from another collar bone injury), Crutchlow was less lucky. At the circuit medical center, they cleared him of any broken bones, but he still had blood on his kidney from where he hit the ground so hard. That was after he had been out for a second run, setting the fourth fastest time in the session.
Crutchlow was philosophical after the event, despite being in a good deal of pain. "We race motorcycles, and sometimes we crash," he said, before opining that he felt he could have been on the front row, and maybe even the pole, if he hadn't have crashed. His fastest lap was set almost by accident, the Tech 3 man concentrating more on not crashing than on pushing for a fast lap. Ironically, the day before, former Yamaha boss Masahiko Nakajima had complimented Crutchlow on not having crashed so far during the season. Crutchlow then proceeded to make it up to him by flinging his bike up the road twice.
The problem at Jerez are the tires, and especially the fronts. The hard tires brought to Jerez are too soft, is the near-unanimous complaint, leaving the soft fronts usable only on the first outing of the weekend on Friday morning, to be set aside after that. Consensus among the riders suggests that the problem lies in the extra weight the MotoGP bikes are carrying, with three kilos added to bring the minimum weight up to 160kg. Ironically, the softer construction front was brought in after a couple of races last year, to help the tires get up to operating temperature more quickly. That is no longer a problem, but the heavier bikes mean they soon pass that optimum temperature and start to wear out fast.
This is going to be the main problem during the race, with tire wear likely to be a significant factor. Everyone can manage six or seven laps at full chat, but after that, the performance of the front will drop off. The rider who nurses his tire home best will win the race, most parties believe, and on the evidence so far, that will be birthday boy Jorge Lorenzo. The factory Yamaha man treated himself to pole on his 26th birthday, and judging by his pace will be a tough nut to crack in the race.
Assistance - if you can call it that - will come from the rear tires, which are also a problem for the teams. But while opinions are united on the front tire, that the hard is too soft and a harder option should have been brought, the riders are divided on what to do on the rear. The Yamahas can only really use the softer of the two options, the hard tire lacking the edge grip which the Yamahas need to maintain their high corner speed. The Ducatis, on the other hand, can use the harsh throttle response of the Desmosedici to help get the hard tire up to temperature, the Italian team not being able to make the soft rear last.
As for the Hondas, both Repsol Honda men were cagey in the press conference. They would not be drawn on which tire they had selected, suggesting that all options are open. The Hondas, with the more aggressive point-and-shoot style, may well be able to get the hard tires to work, and if they do, they should also be in much better shape to handle tire wear than the Yamahas, destined to use up the soft in a few laps, then nurse the bike home. Look at the timesheets and it is hard to bet against Jorge Lorenzo walking away with victory from the front, stringing together lap after lap in the low 1'39s. In reality, Lorenzo could well be rapidly caught again, as the Hondas and - maybe, just maybe - the Ducatis coming into their own with the harder tire. Betting against a Lorenzo victory may not be wise, but it is not the work of a madman either.
Whatever the outcome, the crowd are likely to see a pretty thrilling race, tire wear and conditions proving to be the great leveller. And that crowd is likely to be larger than last year, perhaps by a significant amount. The hillsides on Saturday already seemed fuller than 2012, the crowds returning to the Jerez race in some numbers. Attendance in the past few years has been pitifully sparse, by Jerez standards. That could all change on Sunday.
Where this improvement comes from is hard to say. Having a number of exciting and fast Spaniards surely helps draw in the crowds. The annual fair due to take place in the city of Jerez may also help, with visitors combining a trip to the races with a few days at the Feria in Jerez. It is also possible that the Spanish economy has reached rock bottom, and is showing the very first signs of rebounding. There are the first signs of optimism in the air in Spain, though I fear I maybe mistaking spring with optimism.
Whatever it is, it is certainly a very good thing. Optimism is what both MotoGP and the Spanish economy needs, to give themselves a boost. Sunday could go a long way towards helping in that respect.