This is going to be a big weekend in MotoGP, perhaps one of the most significant in a long while. The outcome of Sunday's race is unlikely to be earth-shattering - the chance of the top three being entirely Spanish, and composed of two Repsol Hondas and a Factory Yamaha is pretty large - and the championship will look much the same on Sunday night as it does now. Yet this weekend will be key.
Much of the interest - and intrigue - revolves around the test on Monday. The most visible piece of the MotoGP puzzle will be in the Suzuki garage, where their brand new MotoGP machine is due to make its first real public debut. The bike has had a number of private tests, some more secretive than others, the latest being last week at Motegi with Randy de Puniet. The times that were leaked from that test were respectable, though with only test riders for competition, it is hard to put them into context.
At Barcelona, a public test, with official timing, and up against the full MotoGP field, there will be nowhere to hide. Will the Suzuki be able to match the times of the Hondas and Yamahas? Unlikely, the bike is still at an early stage of development. But it should be faster than the CRT machines, and close to the Ducati satellite bikes. De Puniet's first target will be himself, and the time he sets during practice and the race on the Aprilia CRT he rides for Aspar.
Even more intriguing at the test is what Yamaha will be bringing. Rumors abound that the seamless transmission which the factory is working on is due to be tested soon, with many believing it could get its first official run out in the hands of the factory riders at Barcelona on Monday. Raising further suspicions that something major is afoot in the Yamaha camp is the fact that they also have a test scheduled for Aragon later in the week. If the gearbox is not quite ready to be raced, then Yamaha could wait to try it at Aragon; if it is ready, trying it at two different circuits would be a good way of giving it a thorough workout. The difference between a seamless and a conventional gearbox is audible, so we should know soon enough.
Yamaha really do need the help of the seamless gearbox. Right now, the Honda is the superior package, though the Yamaha was still plenty good enough for Jorge Lorenzo to take an imperious victory at Mugello. At other tracks, though, the tenth of a second or so a lap a seamless gearbox would gain on corner exit would be the difference between victory and a podium.
Ducati, too, will have items of interest to test on Monday, with the race-ready version of the GP13 lab bike set to make its first appearance on the track for Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden. The lab version has proved a small step forward over the bike they started this season with, though it is not the miracle cure which the Ducati men had been hoping for. Any improvement is welcome, though, on Ducati's long march into the future.
But the person with the most at stake this weekend could well be Valentino Rossi. After a solid preseason and promising race at Qatar, Rossi's results have stagnated, the Italian now just 6th in the championship after five races, behind Andrea Dovizioso on the factory Ducati and 24 points behind Cal Crutchlow on the satellite bike. There are many mitigating and explanatory factors, but the biggest problem is his poor qualifying. This did not use to be the case: up until his crash at Mugello in 2010, Rossi qualified on the front row of the grid nearly two thirds of the time. Since his crash, his only front row starts have been at Motegi and Estoril in 2010, with none during his time at Ducati and this year.
Is Rossi's poor qualifying performance the first sign he is losing the very keenest edge of his ability? At age 34, he is a veteran of the field, and by far the oldest of the front runners. Qualifying is the one session in which the riders are as close to the limit as they dare, as Crutchlow's crashes during the sessions this year will attest. It is the first session any loss of speed will show up, however small that loss may be.
Rossi had had high hopes of a return at Mugello, back in front of his home crowd on a bike he is now once again more comfortable on. A first-lap clash with Alvaro Bautista took him out of the race, and leaving him regretting the lost opportunity. Barcelona is perhaps Rossi's second-favorite track, the Italian having a similarly impressive record at the circuit - six wins and total of ten podiums in the premier class - and it is a track where he will be out to prove himself. The unforgettable last-lap thriller between himself and Jorge Lorenzo in 2009 will be at the front of his mind, as it is in the minds of many fans. When asked if we could see a repeat of that fantastic finish during the press conference, Rossi was as funny as he was realistic: "Only if Jorge waits for me."
Barring crashes and racing incidents, if Rossi fails to get on the podium at Barcelona, he will surely take it as a sign that his ability to fight at the front is over. He has the bike, and he is at a track he loves, if he cannot succeed at Barcelona, then he knows his hopes of a title must be over, and his chances of ever winning another MotoGP race are rapidly waning. The nine-time World Champion will start to wonder if he still has the passion and the motivation to be battling to be best of the rest. As a rule, that is not why riders go racing. For a man who has been the best in the world for such a long time, merely being one of the best is a step backwards.
In part, that is because the bar has been raised. The trio of Spaniards currently leading the MotoGP championship are a step above the remainder of the field. Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo faces the Repsol Honda pairing of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez determined to claw back some of the points he gave away early in the season and close down the gap in the championship. Pedrosa comes looking to build on his championship lead, while Marquez comes determined to prove - well, determined to prove that he is Marc Marquez, that he is a genuine threat for the title in his rookie season.
The trio arrived at Mugello with much the same intentions, but Lorenzo came out of that clash on top. That was in part due to the special heat-resistant tires Bridgestone has brought to the fast tracks this year. The weather at Mugello was cold - colder than on the Isle of Man, a thousand miles further north, where practice for the TT was being held - which meant that the tires were not reaching the temperatures expected. That hit the Hondas hardest, as it meant the tires lacked grip in the drive part of the tire, just off the edge, at the point where the Honda riders pick the bike up and open the taps. That is right where the Hondas are strongest, and with Jorge Lorenzo still able to carry his customary corner speed, the Yamaha man disposed of the Repsol riders with ease.
Those same tires will be used at Barcelona, but here, the tables could be turned. Tire technicians will have no worries about tires reaching their operating range, as the weather at the Montmelo circuit is perfect. A searing Spanish sun is set to blaze down on the track all weekend, so temperature will not be an issue. The Hondas should be able to use the tires properly, robbing Lorenzo of his advantage. Of the Repsol pair, Dani Pedrosa has the best shot at the win, but also the most to lose as championship leader. Marquez, meanwhile, may be a fraction more cautious after his unexpected crash at Mugello during the race, when both tires let go at the Casanova Savelli combination. The other big crash he had at Mugello - laying the bike down at 320 km/h to avoid a wall at the end of Mugello's long straight - has had no discernible effect, as his race at Mugello showed. The Spaniard is now healed well enough from that incident to race without giving it a second thought.
If the Hondas are doing well, Cal Crutchlow could have a tougher weekend than normal. Stefan Bradl finally seemed to find his mojo at Mugello, after it had gone missing for the first few races. A lack of confidence in the front end of his LCR Honda seems now to be solved, and Bradl is now starting to show some of the form he displayed last year. If he can get up to speed early at Barcelona, he could start to make life difficult for Crutchlow, who so far has been the only man to consistently get near the Spanish trio.
But that will need a big step from Bradl, as Crutchlow has been remarkable in his third year in the class. Coming off the back of two podiums in a row, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider is strong and determined. He is also keen to make a point, as he fights to persuade Yamaha to step up their support for him. He wants a factory ride, and every weekend he makes his point both on and off the track. A meeting at Mugello helped clear the air, and went some way towards bringing both sides closer to extending Crutchlow's contract for next year. Getting in among the Hondas at Barcelona would strengthen his hand even further with Yamaha.
The Moto2 race at Barcelona could be a real thriller too. Scott Redding comes into the weekend with a massive lead in the championship and clearly in control. After winning two races in a row, Redding has assumed the mantle of title favorite, a mantle he has taken from Pol Espargaro and the other Spaniard.
But the Montmelo circuit is truly the lion's den for the young Englishman: it lies just a stone's throw away from Granollers, Espargaro's home town, and the circuit always sees a large turn out of the Espargarins, the fans of both Espargaro brothers. With Aleix looking untouchable as the best CRT rider in MotoGP, and causing trouble for a number of the satellite riders, there will be pressure on Pol to perform. Espargaro's confidence has been shattered early in the season, after his debut win at Qatar, but an excellent test at Mugello may have restored his faith in himself. If he can be fast at Montmelo, and win over his home crowd, this may be just the boost he needs to get his title challenge back on track. He also wants revenge for last year, when he was knocked off his bike at the end of the race by Marc Marquez, and robbed of a certain podium.
But Espargaro is not the only Spaniard out for blood at Barcelona. Nico Terol has performed well all year, energized since the end of last season by his podium at Valencia, backing that up with a win at Austin. Tito Rabat has transformed himself from an occasionally fast rider to a man who is fast everywhere, and will want to perform in front of his home crowd, Rabat hailing originally from Barcelona.
Redding's hope is that Mika Kallio can get in among the Spaniards and slow them up a little. Kallio has been the consummate wing man for the Marc VDS Racing team, getting on the podium twice and taking two more 4th place finishes. Like Redding, his consistency has been the key to his performance, and his job will be to steal points from as many riders as possible. From all except Redding, of course, but in his current form, he may not need much help. If Redding can finish ahead of Espargaro and Terol at Barcelona, he will have struck a huge blow for the championship. This will be a big weekend for Moto2, as well as MotoGP.
Barcelona could turn out to be a key moment in the 2013 MotoGP season, the fulcrum around which the entire season revolves. Championships and careers could be changed on Sunday, and there is truly all to play for. It will be a momentous and an intriguing weekend.