Writing about MotoGP is hard at the moment. There are so many great stories to tell - the astonishing rise of Romano Fenati out of nowhere in Moto3, the legion of Kalexes taking on Marc Marquez in Moto2, the frenetic pace of development among the CRT machines, the ascendancy of Dani Pedrosa as a challenger for Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, the rebirth of Cal Crutchlow as a serious force to be reckoned with, the HRC design gaffe that left the RC213V seriously afflicted by chatter, just to name a few - but it is hard to get around to telling them. Because the vast majority of fans only want to read about one single subject: the enigma of Valentino Rossi's continuing battle with the Ducati Desmosedici, and his fall from championship contender to mid-pack straggler.
Each race adds another chapter to the epic saga that Rossi's problems have become, and the weekend of the Spanish Grand Prix is no exception. It is a tale that needs to be told, however tiresome it may have become to some, and I shall return to later on. But first, we have three fascinating sessions of qualifying which need attention.
The weather is still a key player at Jerez, the rain slowly dying out after lunchtime, leaving different conditions for all three classes. For Moto3, it was pretty much wet, and for Moto2, it was just about completely dry, with MotoGP once again left to suffer in between. Fortunately, the track was drying quickly, with only a few damp patches right at the very end.
Moto3 was dominated by two young Australians, Jack Miller seemingly having a secure hold on pole for most of the session, and former Red Bull Rookie Arthur Sissis, who was close. In the end it was another rookie who took the pole, young Spaniard Alex Rins grabbing the top spot with a last-ditch lap. Sandro Cortese and Miguel Oliveira complete the front row, but like Moto2 before it, Moto3 has thrown up a host of new names, previously consigned to riding uncompetitive bikes. Alexis Masbou rarely set the world on fire on a 125, yet he starts from 4th on the grid on Sunday. Likewise, Louis Rossi, once a shambolic backmarker, is now regularly at the sharp end.
Rins' pole was down to choosing the right strategy, fitting slicks and timing his lap just perfectly, also helped by his extensive local knowledge. Rins' experience from racing in the Spanish championship means he knows Jerez well, and without a new track to learn, the Spaniard excelled. Rins may have been helped a little by the shortcomings of the two title favorites, Maverick Vinales and Romano Fenati. Vinales elected not to use a slick tire, choosing safety over speed with an eye to the title chase, ending up in 9th, just ahead of Fenati.
Moto2 saw a tense battle between Spanish heroes Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro, with Takaaki Nakagami, Thomas Luthi and a reborn Mika Kallio adding a little variety to the mix. The clash between Marquez and Espargaro is shaping up to be a classic confrontation between the Golden Boy and the Wild Outsider, in the vein of Wayne Rainey vs Kevin Schwantz some twenty years ago. Marc Marquez is Spain's anointed champion - and rightly so, the boy oozes talent from every pore - while Espargaro is just some kooky kid who happens to be really, really fast. Both men were new to the class last year, and while Marquez hit the ground running - helped, no doubt, by having almost unlimited testing, given the nearly unlimited budget of the team - Espargaro took a while to find his feet. But once he understood how a 600cc four stroke works, his results improved massively, and the switch to the Kalex has been the missing link. Marquez is clearly the favorite for the race tomorrow, but pleasingly, the list of challengers is getting longer, ensuring that Moto2 retains its title as the closest racing series in the world.
But the MotoGP qualifying session turned out to be heart-stopping, and an example of why an ordinary 60 minute QP can be just as exciting as any other qualifying format. The excitement was helped along by the weather, with the track drying fast throughout the session, with a few remaining wet patches adding to the tension. There were two such patches at Turn 1 which caught several riders out, including Casey Stoner and Alvaro Bautista. The reason for that, Ben Spies explained, was because both of them were on the ideal line, and riding around them was made extremely difficult.
The wet patches made things even harder for Casey Stoner at Jerez. The Spanish track is one that the Australian has never liked, and has never had a good race at, but adding insult to injury was the fact that while the wet patches on the racing line were drying out as riders used them, Stoner's less orthodox style means his lines are different, leaving him to deal with track that was still wet. The reigning champion believed that had he taken more risks, he could have cut another half a second off his times, but while that would have put him on the front row, the other half a second he is missing needs setup work to achieve.
Cal Crutchlow helped liven qualifying up, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riding proving that his 4th at Qatar was not just a one-off. The Englishman went back and forward with Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa for the lead, but once Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo started ratcheting up the pace, Crutchlow had to let them go. If the weather conditions permitted it, he told reporters, he would be gambling rather than playing it safe. He knows he is not in the title race, and so would rather crash out of the lead than ride around in 6th collecting points.
But the real battle for tomorrow's race will the same one that unfolded during qualifying, with Jorge Lorenzo just getting the better of Dani Pedrosa at the last minute. Every time he passed his pit board, Lorenzo said, he saw Pedrosa's name in 1st, and a small gap for him to close. He crossed the line and saw a better time on his lap timer, but by the time he got back round again, Pedrosa would be back in the lead again. In the end, Lorenzo came out on top, but in reality, there is nothing to choose between the two.
His strength has been a confidence booster for Lorenzo, but it is Dani Pedrosa who looks capable of upsetting the apple cart. With all the talk preseason - at least, all the talk that wasn't about Ducati - of the battle between Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo, it is Pedrosa who has come out looking stronger and faster than he has ever done since moving to MotoGP. Pedrosa is riding with more aggression than in previous years, aggression he readily demonstrated in Qatar. Where for the last couple of years, Pedrosa has not been able to put up much of a fight, expect Lorenzo to have his hands full with his compatriot. The 2012 Spanish Grand Prix has all the marks of being a classic, with the added bonus of seeing two Spaniards fighting for victory in front of a home crowd. Only the weather may dampen proceedings.
Which brings us to Ducati, via the front row of the grid. For the first time in a very long time, there is a Ducati on the front row. But it is the Ducati of Nicky Hayden, rather than that of Valentino Rossi, which will start from 3rd spot. After yesterday's euphoria, with Rossi posting the 2nd fastest time in the wet, the Italian was brought back down to earth with a thump. A thump hard enough to put a massive dent in his confidence, and perhaps harm his increasingly fragile mental state.
Nicky Hayden, meanwhile, is getting on and riding the Ducati, and not worrying about what is wrong or right with it. Though Hayden described the bike as "the Ducati with the most potential I've ever ridden," it is far from perfect. But Hayden grits his teeth, puts his head down and finds a way to use the rear to work his way around the problems the bike is having at the front. Hayden's podium is well-deserved, for finding a way to ride the bike, and for his team and crew chief Juan Martinez finding a setup that works for the American.
And that is where Valentino Rossi is falling short. Rossi simply cannot ride the bike, and his crew, led by the legendary Jeremy Burgess, simply cannot find a setup for him that allows him to ride it. Rossi had tried Hayden's setup, but the Italian cannot replicate Hayden's style, which allows the American to get to full lean much quicker without running wide. Rossi is losing too much time right there, in the transition from braking to full lean, and his crew has not been able to find a solution to it.
The problems for Burgess and co, according to Rossi, are the same as those of Rossi himself. They have all spent plenty of time on different bikes, and learning how to get the best from those different bikes, but it turns out that the difference between those bikes was not as great as they thought. The style of bike - the design philosophy and direction, if you will - was more or less the same, so lessons learned on one bike could be adapted to the next bike with very little difficulty. The same could not be said for the Ducati: it required a completely different mindset, and left both Rossi and his crew quite bewildered.
The situation is starting to wear Rossi down, and was probably made worse rather than better by the Italian's promising time in the wet on Friday. Going from 2nd and thoughts of a podium to 13th on the grid, last of the Ducatis and stuck behind a CRT bike is a blow to Rossi's confidence that should not be underestimated. Rossi's demeanor at his daily press briefing was flatter than usual, the spirit slowly draining from him with each passing debrief to talk about how he still can't ride the bike.
His situation isn't helped by the barbs being aimed by other riders, with Casey Stoner pointing to the performance of Nicky Hayden and opining that the problem was not just down to the bike. Even Jorge Lorenzo, when asked if he would object to Rossi being given a Yamaha to ride, said that it would be good for Yamaha to have "another fast rider" to keep the brand competitive. "Another fast rider" is quite a comedown for the man so many refer to as the greatest of all time.
There is no easy way out of this situation. Different power characteristics would help, but what is really needed is a narrow angle V. Rumors that the engine might make an appearance at Estoril are being scuppered here in Jerez, the talk now being of Le Mans, Barcelona, or even much later in the year. For any top sports person to perform to the maximum of their ability, Rossi said, they had to find enjoyment in what they do, and much of that enjoyment comes from being able to compete at a top level. That enjoyment is gone for the Italian. Without it, even Estoril seems a very, very long way away.
What will Rossi do? That is impossible to say. For the moment, all he can do is either suffer miserably at the back, or override the bike in an attempt to do a little better than 5th. For Rossi's sake, he would do better to choose the path that brings him most enjoyment. Otherwise, we may have already seen the best of the Italian.
The final and undeniable sign that decline has set in will be when he is turned upon by the Italian press. So far, they have sided with Rossi against Ducati. When I asked one Italian journalist when the Italian press would start to write Rossi off, his answer was simple: "Never. He puts bread on the table for too many journalists." If he keeps finishing outside the top 10, that might start to change.