Ever since he left Ducati at the end of 2010, Casey Stoner has cast a long shadow over the Italian factory. He was the ever-present specter, sitting like Banquo's ghost astride the Desmosedici that any other rider dared swing a leg over. There was a contingent of fans and journalists who, after every poor result by the riders who succeeded Stoner, would point to the Australian's results and say "but Casey won on the Ducati."
What impressed me most about Valentino Rossi's time at Ducati was the calmness and dignity with which he responded to the same question being asked of him, week in, week out. "Valentino," yet another journalist would ask each race, "Casey Stoner won on this bike. Why can't you?" Not once did he lose his temper, ignore the question, or blank the person who asked it. Every week, he would give the same reply: "Casey rode the Ducati in a very special way. I can't ride that way." More than anything, the dignity with which he answered every week were a sign of his humanity, and an exceptional human being. If it takes guts to attempt the switch, it takes even greater courage for someone repeatedly tagged as the greatest of all time to admit failure.
None were immune. Stoner's former teammate Nicky Hayden would be asked why he could not match the pace of the Australian. Andrea Dovizioso had the fortune to come after Rossi, but even he was subjected to comparison with Stoner. Cal Crutchlow was the same, a situation made worse by the fact that he said before he arrived at Ducati that he believed he would be able to ride the Ducati like Stoner. Since arriving at Ducati, he has admitted that he could not.
On Saturday, Andrea Dovizioso may have taken the first step on the path to expelling Stoner's specter from the Ducati garage. The Italian became the first rider to take pole on the Desmosedici since Casey Stoner did so at Valencia in 2010. In fact, he became the first rider other than Casey Stoner to secure pole position on a Ducati since Loris Capirossi in 2006. For Ducati, having Andrea Dovizioso on pole is a very, very big deal. Perhaps even bigger than the factory themselves realize.
Of course, it isn't entirely fair to compare Dovizioso's pole to those set by Casey Stoner. The Australian was riding the Desmosedici under the same rules and with the same tires as the Hondas and Yamahas. Dovizioso, on the other hand, had an extra soft tire at his disposal, the equivalent of an old-fashioned qualifier, and good for at least half a second. Ducati also are not affected by the engine freeze, which prevent Yamaha and Honda from making any changes to their engine design during the season. Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone are on their third engine update, the motor having been modified for both power and ridability.
That does not detract from Dovizioso's achievement, or the progress which Ducati has made this year. The exceptions made to the factory rules have worked for Ducati, allowing them to go some way towards closing the gap to Honda and Yamaha. At the post-qualifying press conference, Dovizioso was generous with his praise for Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, lauding his methodical way of working, and his ability to listen to his riders. Clearly, the Desmosedici GP14.2, which has some of Dall'Igna's handiwork in it, is a much more competitive machine than the GP14 with which they started the year, and which came largely from the pen of Dall'Igna's predecessor, Bernhard Gobmeier.
But Dovizioso's pole may be the catalyst for change. Currently, the rules state that if Ducati score a win, two second places or three thirds in dry conditions, they will have their fuel allowance cut from 24 to 22 liters. Only if they get three wins in the dry will they have the softer tire removed, and revert to the same allocation as the other factories. Pole positions are not taken into account, however: Dovizioso could start from pole from now until Valencia 2015, and the rules would remain unchanged.
That is not to the liking of many in the paddock, team owners, factory management and riders. They have no problem with the engine development, are prepared to accept the extra fuel Ducati get, but have a real problem with the softer rear tire Ducati are allowed to use. A number of leading riders have been pushing to have the tire removed from Ducati. Dovizioso's pole will merely fuel their crusade.
Would removing the tire make any difference to the Ducatis? It would certainly remove them from the front of the grid. Dovizioso's best time on the harder of the two rear tires available was a 1'45.5, which would have put him down on the fourth row of the grid. Even if we subtract a few tenths for qualifying pace, it is still questionable whether Dovizioso would have got up to the third row, especially as the top 10 at Motegi are separated by just over half a second. Starting from 11th, the chances of a good result are pretty close to zero.
A podium is a good deal easier when you start from pole, however. And the thing is, Dovizioso's race pace is strong, as is Andrea Iannone's on the Pramac Ducati. Even Cal Crutchlow is much closer to the pace of the front runners, despite being on a lower spec Ducati, the Englishman finally starting to find his feet as the season nears its end. The Ducatis will race the same tire as the Yamahas and Hondas, putting all three on an equal footing. The Motegi circuit suits the Desmosedici, with hard, straight braking, fast straights and lots of acceleration, all areas where the Ducati excels. But the riders will have to wait until Gigi Dall'Igna brings the GP15 before they get a bike that will go around corners.
Valentino Rossi was particularly annoyed at the Ducatis having the extra soft tire at Motegi, as it robbed him of his first pole since early 2010. Rossi has struggled with strategy for the fifteen minute qualifying session introduced at the start of last year, but judged it absolutely perfectly in Japan. He exited the pit directly behind his Movistar Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo – not a planned move, he insisted – and used Lorenzo as a marker to up his own pace. If it hadn't been for Dovizioso's dastardly Ducati, pole would have been his.
Dovizioso's pole time was so fast that it pushed Dani Pedrosa over the edge. Pedrosa had already set the third fastest time, but was chasing the mark of Dovizioso when he crashed at the penultimate corner. Front-end chatter meant the front tire just went as the Repsol Honda man tried to beat the time set by the Ducati.
Having both Rossi and Pedrosa on the row ahead of him puts them right where Marc Marquez doesn't want them to be. If Marquez is to bag his second world championship on Sunday, he has to finish ahead of the two men with the greatest chance of preventing him from taking the title. Marquez has looked out of sorts all weekend, and though his race pace was strong on Saturday, there were worried faces in the Repsol Honda garage. Marquez has said he will be going for the win, as he doesn't know any other way of racing. But after two crashes in a row, he will also be playing it safe if the win isn't there. He has three more races to wrap up the title, and needs to score as many points as possible to make sure.
The man Marquez really needs to worry about sits beside him, in fifth. Jorge Lorenzo has been back to his old form all weekend, with qualifying the first time he has slipped up even slightly. Lorenzo was careful not to criticize his teammate Rossi for using his tow to get ahead of him, but he was clearly not pleased. Each rider should set his own time, he told the media. This was not Moto3.
Given Lorenzo's strong starts and the wide track at Motegi, starting from fifth should not pose too much of a problem, and Lorenzo's race pace is simply blistering. The Yamaha man would be delighted to spoil the party for Honda at their home track, and especially for Marc Marquez. Yamaha's top brass are also at the Japanese Grand Prix, and after some trenchant criticism of the bike by Lorenzo at the start of the year, winning at the home of Honda would be the perfect form of redress.
Picking a winner at Motegi is hard, the times are all very close. Lorenzo looks strongest, and has the air of a winner about him, while Marquez can never be ruled out. Dani Pedrosa has quietly gone about the business of being blisteringly fast, and his race pace is very close to that of Lorenzo. But then, so is Valentino Rossi's, his team having found something during qualifying that made up the time they were losing during practice. Stefan Bradl's race pace is as strong as Rossi's, though the German is stranded down in 9th. Even the Ducatis are not that far off, and starting from pole, Dovizioso has as good a shot as anyone. Motegi is the one track where the extra fuel allowance helps the Ducatis, as it is the thirstiest track on the calendar. This contest could be wide open.
That is not the case in Moto2, however. Tito Rabat has spent the weekend trying to crush the spirits of the opposition during practice, with some success. Only Tom Luthi came close to him during qualifying, but the battle looks like being for second rather than first. That could be entertaining, though, with Luthi, Maverick Viñales, Mika Kallio, Johann Zarco, even Taka Nakagami all fairly evenly matched. They are unlikely to see much of Rabat after the first few corners, however, the Spaniard set on extending his lead in the championship.
Moto3 will likely be the best race of the day again, with a group of six or seven riders all in the frame for victory. Danny Kent has been outstanding all weekend, clearly bolstered by his podium at Aragon. Kent took pole in the Moto3 class, underlining his fondness for the track where he scored his first ever win. He will be one of the riders in the group battling for the line, and will need to show some aggression if he is to bag a second win here.
Kent is not the only British rider on the front row of the Moto3 grid. John McPhee put in a strong performance during qualifying to secure third spot on the grid. The title candidates will also be there at the end, Jack Miller starting from 5th, while Alex Marquez and Alex Rins are on the third row of the grid. The Mahindras of Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder are the wildcards, the Indian bikes going very well at Motegi.
The weather looks like it will hold at Motegi, typhoon Vongfong set to hit the region on Monday night, after the MotoGP circus has already packed up and departed. Race fans should be in for a treat on Sunday, with three races well worth getting up early for.