Qualifying at Misano ended up giving an accurate reflection of the key battles in all three classes (or four if you include WSBK Superpole at the Nurburgring, where Carlos Checa sits on pole, with rivals Max Biaggi and Marco Melandri alongside him on the front row). In MotoGP, there was little to choose between Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, the three men qualifying within 0.180 of each other, and well ahead of the rest of the field. In the Moto2 class, Stefan Bradl held off the assault of Marc Marquez to secure his seventh pole of the season. And in the 125cc class, Frenchman Johann Zarco lines up on the grid, with the championship leader Nico Terol on the outside of the front row, in 3rd. These men will share out the handful of world championships between them, with the losers being left only with thoughts of revenge for next year.
The balance of power is most interesting in MotoGP. Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa have all been running very similar pace all weekend, at least once Lorenzo and his team reverted to the Mugello settings on Friday afternoon, to great success. Who has the best pace is another question altogether: During qualifying Jorge Lorenzo put together an outstanding run of laps in the 1'33.7s and 1.33.8s, but he did so on a soft tire. Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said that the soft tire was probably their preferred option, but they were fast with both tires, and both would last race distance fairly easily. The softer option had a little more edge grip, while the harder option had a little bit more drive.
Casey Stoner felt that the hard tire was the better option of the two, and reacted waspishly when Lorenzo's pace on the softer tire was pointed out to him. "It looked like Jorge was going really fast, but it wasn't a hard tire, so if he did that sort of times on a hard tire this afternoon, it would have been different, but he was a little slower than me on a hard tire, so you have to look at things logically. He was doing some really good consistent times, but soft tire times for sure." Lorenzo might race the soft tire, came the counter-argument, but Stoner was having none of it. "If he races the soft, we're able to do 1'33.1."
With the harder of the tires, all three men look capable of running 1'34.0s with ease, and we could have ourselves a bit of a race on Sunday. Certainly, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo are on collision course at Misano, with Stoner growing in confidence coming off the back of three wins in a row, while Jorge Lorenzo is fired up with his newly-rediscovered speed and the knowledge that he has to start winning races if he is to have any hope of defending his title. Earlier in the weekend, Stoner told reporters that Lorenzo was a rider who would never give up, and the Spaniard's demeanor on Saturday was that he was going to come out fighting, no matter what the end result.
Then of course there's Dani Pedrosa, very much the Third Man in the Alien party. Pedrosa has gone about his business quietly and with deadly efficiency all weekend, and has been so quiet he has barely been noticed. Until, that is, you look at the timesheets, and you see his name worrying close to the top every single session. The Repsol Honda man could well spoil things for either Stoner or Lorenzo at Misano, capable of running away for the win, but also of taking points from either of the other two protagonists, making the defense of either the title or of the title lead even more difficult.
If the atmosphere among the frontrunners is positively, even aggressively buoyant, over in the Ducati camp things are looking pretty bleak. Valentino Rossi can't even get a break, the Italian running into Randy de Puniet in the final hairpin on his fast lap, and losing half a second in the process. The extra time would not have put him on the front row of the grid, but Rossi would at least have had a shot at starting from the 2nd or possibly 3rd rows. Thanks to Rossi's bad luck - his career until last year seemed blessed with incredible good fortune throughout, but that well now appears to have run dry - he starts down from 11th, and with a lot of traffic between himself and the second group he had hoped to run with.
It was always going to be a difficult weekend, though. At home, in front of a huge crowd who came mainly to see him, and in the hot conditions that the Ducati just doesn't seem to get on with, Rossi was on course for humiliation. Added to the lack of front-end feel, Rossi also had a recurrence of the gearbox problem which saw the bike hitting false neutrals on the downshifts. With no engine braking, Rossi was finding himself running wide with little warning. The gearbox problems were a consequence of the rush to use the GP11.1, where the seamless gearchange transmission is still not fully developed. Oddly, only Rossi has had problems with the gearbox, while teammate Nicky Hayden has had no issues at all.
As is his tradition for Italian races, Rossi has a new helmet, featuring cartoonesque speech bubbles full of the kind of symbols used to represent swearing in comic strips. The helmet represents "What I think when I ride," Rossi said, though he played down suggestions it was particularly when he rode the Ducati. He had chose the symbols "because a helmet with the word 'f**k' is not polite."
The helmet is symbolic of the amazing composure and good humor which Rossi approaches every weekend, which continues to astound the journalists who question him. Rossi faces the same questions week in and week out: how long can this go on for, how long can you keep hoping for an improvement, how long until you decide that this move had been a failure and you look for other options? And every week he gives the same answers: there is always hope, and everyone in Bologna is working very hard and taking this situation with the seriousness it requires. Parts are being built and should be forthcoming soon, but more parts could once again require an engine redesign to fit the chassis to, and that in itself means that it will have to wait until next year. While others would have gone positively postal, and started badmouthing everyone and everything involved in the project, Rossi remains calm, retains his composure, and even manages to be something approaching cheerful. As a Spanish journalist friend said to me, "if you get angry, you make twice the work for yourself: once to get angry, and then once again to stop being angry."
The same cannot be said for poor Nicky Hayden. The Kentucky Kid is sounding ever more dejected every week. Hayden, too, puts a brave face on everything that he can, but the effort is clearly visible. Hayden's 15th spot on the grid was his worst qualifying of the season, and Hayden didn't take it well. It's been a long year for everyone at Ducati, and the problems don't look like going away soon. All hope is now pinned on 2012: all the work this year is going to help make next year's bike much better. It had better work.