The first race of the season hasn't even happened yet, but the Honda story is already starting to get old. The headlines are writing themselves, the only thing that an editor has to do at the moment is cast a cursory glance over the wording to check whether it was Casey Stoner or Dani Pedrosa who spotted the fastest time.
Despite the disparity with the rest of the field, qualifying actually turned into a pretty exciting spectacle. It was a race of two classes - the two lead Repsols matching each other's times, while the rest of the field battled valiantly for the rest of the places on the two front rows, but it still gave the viewers something to get engrossed in.
Stoner's 1'54.137 is a spectacular improvement over last year, cutting the best part of a second off his pole time from 2010. And it was the first time we got to see Stoner really pushing, starting to sling the Repsol Honda around like he used to muscle the Marlboro Ducati around in 2010. He admitted in the press conference that he had been a lot closer to the limit than he had been so far during practice, saying he had even managed to get close to tucking the front at one point. The bad news - at least for the competition - was that he had not been that comfortable on the softer tires, and felt he had better pace on the harder race tires.
Dani Pedrosa looks much like Stoner: searingly fast in the Doha desert. The Spaniard swapped pole position with Stoner throughout the session, slashing vast swathes of time off his best time of the weekend. The comparison with last year is astounding: in 2010, Pedrosa said that his bike "felt like shit" but he has few complaints this time around. Pedrosa's time from 2010 was a 1'55.990; on Saturday night he posted a 1'54.342. An improvement of over 1.6 seconds, and a sign of how far the RC212V has come in a year.
Incredibly, this is the first time the Spaniard will start from the front row at Qatar, and when Pedrosa was asked what it would be like to start with nobody in front of him, Stoner chipped in with a joke, saying he expected to see the Spaniard three rows ahead of the rest by the time he hits the first corner. Stoner lavished more praise upon the Honda - and mild criticism on the Ducati - saying that he had never had a problem with the Honda or its clutch during all of the test starts he had done. The clutch on last year's Ducati could be notoriously fickle getting off the line, bogging both Stoner and Hayden upon occasion.
The factory Yamaha riders are both resigned to the fact that they won't be able to compete with the Hondas. But both Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies are confident that they will be battling for 3rd, but it feels very much like fighting over the scraps that fall from the Repsol Honda table.
The pair should not be underestimated, however. The focus on Stoner and Pedrosa has given both Spies and Lorenzo a chance to work quietly on improving their setup. Anyone witnessing a seething Jorge Lorenzo on the Monday night after the test would barely have recognized the calmer face that Lorenzo presented to the press at the post-race qualifying session. If Stoner and Pedrosa start getting in each other's way, then there's every chance that the factory Yamaha boys could catch the Repsols and mix things up a little.
The reduction of testing time is also becoming apparent in the choice of equipment the riders are choosing. Dani Pedrosa has elected to stick with the 2010 chassis and the 2010 Ohlins because it is a package he understands well, and by the end of 2010, it was a pretty good package. Likewise, Jorge Lorenzo chosen to switch back to the 2010 Ohlins suspension, mainly just because the team has oodles of data on the forks and how they work. At Jerez, both men will once again switch to the 2011 equipment, but with the first race coming up, they have decided to play it safe.
Over at Ducati, things are looking a whole lot less rosy. The gap from Valentino Rossi's Desmosedici to the Hondas - and even the Yamahas - has grown wider, with the seven-time world champion looking a little less relaxed about the situation. He spoke once again about an improvement in the setup of the bike that the team had found, but he also noted that while Ducati had been making some progress, the other manufacturers have gained a lot more, leaving Ducati with a lot of work to do.
Rossi told the thronged media (and it really was a media throng, a crush of - mainly Italian - journalists stuffed between two rows of the cabins that serve here as offices) that his shoulder was costing him maybe half a second a lap, and the Honda gearbox was probably worth another four tenths. The reference to the gearbox was pointed, as was mention that Ducati will not have anything to test until "after the break," the break now being the gap between Jerez and Estoril where Japan was due to take place. Whether that might include a new gearbox or not is a question we will have to wait to see the answer too.
But Ducati's problem is that even taking account of Rossi's shoulder and the Honda gearbox, they would still be behind both the Hondas and the Yamahas. The bike still refuses to turn as both Rossi and Hayden wish, though Hayden noted that turning was just one of the problems they had tonight. Hayden's press debriefs are getting shorter, which is generally a sign that things are not going well.
With Rossi and Hayden falling short of expectations, the fastest Ducati on the grid was Hector Barbera, once again. The Mapfre Aspar rider has been - rightly - accused of stealing tows to set his times, but he could well be better than he seems. Barbera could throw up a couple of surprises on Sunday.
Another rider who impressed was Cal Crutchlow on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. After a difficult start (and carrying a horrific and painful injury), Crutchlow found a fine burst of pace and ended his first qualifying practice in 8th spot. Given just how tough it is to switch from World Superbikes to MotoGP now, that's a much better result than it may at first appear.
As reported earlier, there will not be a Suzuki on the grid for the first race at Qatar. John Hopkins had flown back to California earlier in the week, and when Bautista broke his left femur, it was too late for Hopkins to fly back in time for qualifying. So the chase was on for a Moto2 rider who could have a stab at riding the Suzuki on Sunday.
That would require some experience of a MotoGP bike, and that really left only two candidates. One, Aleix Espargaro, has title ambitions of his own, and was therefore not interested. The other, Ant West, was keen to do it, but was banned by his MZ team manager Martin Wimmer. Wimmer said that West was needed to help develop the MZ chassis, but looking at the position West is on the MZ, missing one race isn't going to make a whole heap of difference. The refusal by Wimmer - allegedly egged on by another former MotoGP rider, no longer racing - is confusing to say the least: if Ant West had been allowed to wear his MZ leathers, MZ would have gotten a lot more publicity than they will with West running round in 37th.
Moto2 continues to be a confusing class, and hard to make sense of exactly what is going on. Stefan Bradl and Marc Marquez dominated again, but the pair have a huge gap back to 3rd-place Thomas Luthi. The same gap from Bradl on pole to Luthi in 3rd covers places 3rd through 12th, the gaps once again miniscule. The tiniest mistake drops you five places on the grid, causing a good deal of anguish among the teams.
And so we see riders such as Andrea Iannone down in 16th place, Scott Redding in 10th and Kenan Sofuoglu in 28th. A mistake here, a problem there, and you're well off the pace. After problems with tires, and a lot of riders reporting really bad chatter, the Moto2 class remains something of an enigma, especially here at Qatar. FTR's "gaping maw," the large intake hole on the front of the bike, is definitely working well, as the British-designed chassis has 7 of the top 11 top speeds. But a full lap is different, with a Kalex on pole, and bunch of Suters, the Moriwakis, and the Tech 3 of Bradley Smith filling out the top 10.
There was also a meeting of the Grand Prix Commission, which confirmed the final version of the Moto3 regulations - more of which in a separate story later, as the rules are long and complex, now that they include the spec ECU and the details of the engine management system.
It also confirmed that Phillip Island would stay where it was on the calendar in October, instead of moving to March as Dorna, many of the riders and the fans had wanted. But the organizers feared that having two Grand Prix on adjacent weekends (the Melbourne Formula One race takes place around the same time) would have had a profound effect on visitor numbers, as there is a large fan overlap between the F1 race and MotoGP. For now, MotoGP heads to Phillip Island in the antipodean spring.
It was good to see qualifying once again, as it felt like the first skirmish in a hot war, after months of sitting in the trenches staring at the opposing forces through binoculars. On Sunday, hostilities are joined in earnest, and there is nowhere left to hide. Like just about every other MotoGP fan on the planet - including everyone here in the paddock - I am ready. It's going to be a great race.