What a difference a day makes. Or perhaps that should be, what a different an afternoon makes. That Casey Stoner took pole at Motegi in the MotoGP class should surprise no one: pole in Japan is Stoner's 10th of the year, a new record for a MotoGP season, and with it, he wrapped up the BMW M Award, getting to take home a shiny new BMW 1 Series M Coupe. And all that with three qualifying sessions left to go.
What was more of a surprise was the man who will start from next to him on the grid at Motegi. Yesterday, Jorge Lorenzo was the best-of-the-rest, capable only of following at a discreet distance, but a change after FP3 on Saturday morning turned the reigning World Champion's fortunes around. During qualifying, Lorenzo found he was matching the race pace of the Repsol Hondas, then as the pace was upped in the last 10 minutes, the factory Yamaha man found himself temporarily on pole, with a new pole record to boot. That would not stand - Stoner smashed both the old and the new pole record, bagging himself a BMW in the process - but the fact that Lorenzo was on the pace of the Hondas gave him heart. "I didn't expect to be on the front row," Lorenzo said, but the changes the team had made had worked. A front-row start puts him in touch with Stoner from the line, and going by the Spaniard's pace on race tires, capable of giving the Australian a run for his money.
Indeed, the race might even have the potential to be pretty interesting. All three Repsol Hondas - Andrea Dovizioso qualified ahead of Dani Pedrosa, though Pedrosa has slightly better race pace - are close in race trim, and Lorenzo is slap bang in the middle of their pace. Even though Stoner declared that he was pretty happy with the setup of his RC212V, and that he felt "really good around this circuit" on the Honda, a runaway victory looks difficult for the Australian. With the top four capable of running in the low 1'46s seemingly at will - though Pedrosa and Stoner have a fraction more pace than Lorenzo and Dovizioso - anyone wanting to win this thing will have to work.
The only question mark hanging over the race is which tire to use, the main decider being what the weather decides to do. Temperatures were markedly cooler on Saturday, and could be cooler still come race day. Both the harder and softer option will work here, but the softer tire is definitely the preferred option if it gets cold. Bridgestone has once again revised its tire allocation, going for a softer tire with faster warmup at the expense of tire life, as they did at Aragon. While the surface at Motegi is much less abrasive than the Spanish track, some tire conservation will come into play in the latter stages of the race. Keeping the tires intact will be the key to victory in Japan.
There are also the very first signs of what might perhaps be a little light at the end of the tunnel for Ducati. The change in weight distribution and seating position that Valentino Rossi tested at Jerez appears to be bearing fruit, the fickle Desmosedici finally responding to setup changes the way that Rossi and his crew expected. For the first time in a while, Rossi is looking a little more comfortable on the bike, comfortable enough to revive his old habit of waving his leg about. That trademark antic disappeared from Rossi's repertoire for most of this year, but the confidence he found with the new setup sees it making a return.
Watching qualifying, it was clear that his problems had not been for lack of effort. The Italian was pushing the Ducati harder under braking than he had done all year, a sign that the front end was starting to respond. The fact that Rossi ran on into the gravel a couple of times was testament both to the fact that the feel was not yet perfect, but was good enough to start exploring the limits.
Rossi's new-found confidence has brought out a lot of exuberant optimism from his long-suffering fans, but the Italian has tempered expectations. Predictions by many of a podium were played down, Rossi making clear that his first target was to fight with Ben Spies and Marco Simoncelli. If he can do that on Sunday, it will already be a big step forward.
While Casey Stoner is creeping ever closer to the MotoGP title, Stefan Bradl is seeing the Moto2 championship slip further and further out of his grasp. Marc Marquez took his 7th pole of the year and is looking ominously fast at Motegi. Early championship leader Bradl is three quarters of a second slower than the Spaniard, and will start from 8th on the grid. Bradl has left himself with a lot of work to do, and with just 6 points separating him from Marquez, there is a very good chance that the German will leave Motegi in 2nd place in the championship. Given the form that Marquez has shown since he stopped crashing in the early rounds, once he takes the championship lead, he is very unlikely to relinquish it again.
That leaves the question of what Marquez will do next year, as the Spaniard has little left to gain by staying in Moto2 for 2012. Marquez had the question of his plans for next season put to him once again, and like a true professional - and one with professionals surrounding and advising him - he deflected the question by saying that he was concentrating on winning the Moto2 title, and that MotoGP was not yet on his mind. Marquez has time to make a decision yet, perhaps even after testing the MotoGP bike after the final round at Valencia.
One last note about Motegi, and the sheer terror that suffuses some sections of the paddock around radiation at the track. Jorge Lorenzo was asked about rumors he was not showering while at Motegi, but had taken to splashing himself down with imported bottled water to clean up. Lorenzo admitted it was true, a precaution taken to protect himself. At Aragon, I had a long discussion with an Italian engineer - a man with an acute intelligence, and incredible insight into a very broad range of subjects - on whether showering in Japan would be safe or not. Given the contaminants often found in bottled water (including arsenic and various strains of Coli bacteria, on occasion), the tap water is probably safer than the bottled stuff.
Meanwhile IRTA - for all the teams - and Ducati - privately - continue to monitor for radiation and analyze air samples at the track. Every sample so far has come back clear, with radiation levels lower in Motegi than back in Italy or Spain.
In France, the conversation is not of radiation but of championships, and the chances of the World Superbike and World Supersport titles being wrapped up this weekend. With Carlos Checa on the front row at Magny-Cours, and Marco Melandri back in 8th, the Althea Ducati rider looks like clinching the WSBK crown in race 1 shortly after noon. Even if Checa crashes out of the first race, Melandri has not shown the dominance he will need if he is to win every race for the rest of the season. If anything, it is Castrol Honda's Johnny Rea who looks like dominating, the Ulsterman securing the second pole of his career during Saturday's Superpole. Coming on top of what would have been a double at Imola if a battery connector hadn't failed, Rea could be the dominant force in World Superbikes for the rest of the season.
Chaz Davies has been much more conservative in his approach to the World Supersport title, qualifying in 8th over half a second off polesitter Broc Parkes. The good news for Davies is that he sits directly behind Fabien Foret, the only man standing between him and the WSS championship, the Frenchman having qualified just a few hundredths faster than Davies. The Welshman can afford to drop 10 points to Foret and still be sure of the title. Though a win at Magny-Cours might be nice for Davies, a championship would be nicer.