The last of the 990 pole records finally went at Valencia, along with the last record held by Valentino Rossi at any of the tracks currently on the calendar. Dani Pedrosa's astonishing last lap was inch perfect, and put him 0.158 seconds faster than Rossi's time, set in 2006 at the infamous season finale in which Rossi got a dismal start, then fell off trying to catch Nicky Hayden, handing the American the world championship in the process. Pedrosa's lap really was something special, though the Spaniard was not as impressed as the onlookers. He had had a few good laps in his career, he told the press conference, and this was definitely one of them. Pedrosa has looked ominous all weekend - actually, since Indianapolis - and if it were going to stay dry, then you would be hard put to think of anyone who could beat the Repsol Honda man.
Jorge Lorenzo is keen to try, and is fast all the way round the circuit to the final sector, but is losing a couple of tenths just in the acceleration out of the final corner and towards the line. The Hondas dominate there, good round the long left before the final corner - both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were hanging the rear out all round that turn, showing a hint of the old tire-smokin' 990 days - but absolute missiles on acceleration. That has been Lorenzo's complaint all year, not sufficient acceleration and not the wheelie control which the Hondas appear to have. If Lorenzo arrives at the final corner with a Honda behind him, he will fear for his position.
Despite the lack of acceleration, Lorenzo looks imperious on the Yamaha. Standing track-side and watching the Spaniard change direction at will, sweeping through corners in a glorious echo of his hero, the now-retired Max Biaggi, Lorenzo truly is a joy to behold. He has his work cut out to hold off the Hondas, but at least he is tooled up for the fight.
The weather may throw a spanner into the works, however. The main victim of wet conditions - especially if it is only slick and not properly wet - is likely to be Casey Stoner, the Australian being fast in the dry but still not willing to risk permanent injury on his ankle, he said. As much as he wanted to win - like all racers, Stoner has a pathological obsession with beating anyone who dares to cross his path - he was aware of the consequences of a bad fall. Dominating his home GP at Phillip Island had slaked his thirst for victory sufficiently that he can leave the championship without ever looking back.
And he really will not be back. Stoner's patience and tolerance is starting to wear thin, as he knows he has just a few more hours of facing stupid and pointless questions from overweight, middle-aged men. Stoner has never suffered fools gladly, but being in the paddock and the demands of his sponsors meant he was surrounded by them all too often. Stoner will need to scratch his competitive itch, his speed itch, and his bike itch; in future, he will scratch them all separately, rather than trying to soothe them all in a single hit of motorcycle racing. But he is finding the politics and the atmosphere increasingly toxic, and the number of people he will truly miss will be remarkably small.
If it does rain, then there could be some surprises. On Friday, Nicky Hayden was very happy in the wet, telling reporters that a relatively modest tweak to the rear of the bike (a shock change and revised damping) had given him back the confidence he had previously had in the rain. Hayden was fast, so fast that on Saturday, Cal Crutchlow tipped the factory Ducati man for the win on Sunday, if the rain turns up as promised. It is entirely possible, especially as the rain is expected to be relatively light. When told of Crutchlow's prediction, Hayden admitted the thought had crossed his mind. "I ain't gonna lie and say I'm not hoping for rain," the American told the media.
While Hayden is strong in the wet, Valentino Rossi looks to sign off his Ducati career at Valencia in the same disappointing style with which it began some 24 months earlier. He and his team have struggled, both in the dry and in the wet. During qualifying, they had not managed to find a setup to get the right-hand side of the harder of the front tire options working, forcing them to use the softer of the two options, which then caused problems on the left-hand side. The wet had not been much better, and it is hard to believe that Rossi is not just hanging on by the skin of his teeth, hoping that the nightmare will end in two more days. Yet there are no guarantees that Rossi will be fast once he returns to the Yamaha. The game has been moved on, and Rossi needs to rebuild the confidence which has gradually seeped out of him in his time at Ducati.
To see hungry riders, look no further than Moto2. Pol Espargaro has not so much dominated as made the rest of the field look like rank amateurs at Valencia, finishing the morning session of free practice three quarters of a second ahead of the rest of the field. In the afternoon, he soon had a massive gap over the rest of the field, before stacking it heavily with twelve minutes to go. His margin all weekend had been sufficient that he only really needed to post a few laps to secure pole, yet he was determined to push hard enough to risk crashing right to the end.
Espargaro's arch rival Marc Marquez was much the same: the Spaniard already knows he must start at the back of the grid, the result of a penalty for an overly aggressive move on Simone Corsi on Friday. Yet during qualifying, the Spaniard was pushing hard enough to tip over the limit and slide into the gravel, walking away unhurt. Marquez ended the session in 2nd, a meaningless result given the existing penalty. But racers hate to be beaten, even when it doesn't really matter.
Away from the track, there was plenty of big news, for both the immediate and the long-term future of the series. News has been emerging that Filippo Preziosi is to be relieved of his duties at Ducati, with Audi moving him out of the way after his failure to retain Valentino Rossi at the factory. Audi have now engaged Suter to build a chassis for the Desmosedici, a rather odd choice under the circumstances. The Desmosedici has problems with excessive chassis stiffness and a lack of feedback, and so engaging a chassis builder with a reputation of favoring stiffness over flexibility is hard to understand.
Most riders were relatively cagey when asked about the reported removal of Preziosi, not wanting to get involved in a war not of their making. Nicky Hayden flat refused to answer questions, until he heard anything official. Valentino Rossi was a little more forthcoming - though not much - saying only that the news of Preziosi's removal would have done nothing to change his mind about his decision to leave Ducati and head to Yamaha. Audi bosses had approached him for advice on how to reorganize Ducati Corse, Rossi told reporters, but he had told them that he did not want the responsibility of making that kind of decision. He was still just a rider, he said, not someone who should be dispensing management advice.
Casey Stoner was one man to leap to Preziosi's defence, when he was asked for his opinion on the subject. "If it's the truth, then I'm sure he's almost decided it himself," Stoner told reporters. "I think he's had a lot of pressure on him over the years, a lot of criticism, especially these last two years could not have been easy on him at all. For him to be able to take the weight off his shoulders like that, he's probably going to start enjoying life a little bit more. Honestly, I think it's a great loss, being able to work with him and know what he's capable of, I think if people actually followed his direction, things would actually be a little better there, but most of the time it was difficult for him to get the budget to move forward on what he was thinking. So if it's the truth, I feel sorry for him in some ways, but in other ways, I'm very happy for him."
The blame lay not with Preziosi, Stoner said, but with the amount of money which Ducati Corse had to spend. "[Money] was the problem for us anyway," Stoner said. "They wouldn't produce things that we really wanted. Even when we had a frame, a chassis that we knew was better than the old one, halfway through the season, we couldn't get it for the rest of the season, they wouldn't produce it for us, they didn't have the budget. The budget increased severely for the next couple, but I think our success could have been much greater at Ducati if we'd just had a bit more support, a bit more belief in us."
For the long term, new rules for 2014 were finally announced at Valencia. At first glance, the rules look like a compromise which favor the factories, but after some though, the new rules look like a bit of Tae Kwon Do on the part of the men behind Dorna. The paddock will continue to be divided, but the CRT classification will disappear. From 2014, the field will be divided between bikes fielded by MSMA members (in other words, the factory and satellite bikes) and non-MSMA bikes, which will be a mixture of the current CRT machines, Honda's production racers and leased Yamaha engines in bespoke frames.
The fulcrum around which the division revolves is the spec ECU, with MSMA members allowed to write their own software, and granted the reduction in fuel to 20 liters and engines to 5 for a season which they had asked for. The MSMA had wanted an engineering challenge, one source close to the negotiations told me, and the reduction in fuel had been the goal they had chosen to pursue. Dorna was willing to grant them the ability to write their own software for the spec ECU - there will be a spec ECU, data logger and electronics package from 2014 onwards - if the factories were prepared to accept a spec ECU and to agree to fill the grid, with production racers and leased engines, both of which at affordable prices. The production racers - non-MSMA bikes - will retain 24 liters of fuel, and have 12 engines to play with over the year.
Reducing fuel will add nothing to the show - in fact, it will make it even worse, electronics becoming even more important, exponentially raising costs, just as it did after the switch to 800cc - but it will at least limit horsepower growth in the immediate future. That, and the 24 liters the non-MSMA bikes have, mean that the gap will be closed over time. The most intriguing prospect is a leased Yamaha M1 engine in a bespoke frame, but with 24 liters of fuel. That could be a very interesting machine indeed, and possibly get very close to the satellite bikes, with the right rider on board.
The biggest risk in the new rules is to the existing manufacturers, but especially to Yamaha and Ducati. Honda are a giant company, and can continue to raise spending for a while - especially as MSMA teams are limited to just four bikes. Yamaha, on the other hand, are already struggling to support their existing program, and tightening fuel restrictions is going to be very costly for them indeed. The same is true for Ducati, with the added danger of Audi and Phillip Morris withdrawing funding for the project. The factories may have found that they have priced themselves out of racing.
If entertainment is important, these rule changes will not help improve the show. To do that, the spec tire must be tackled, with Bridgestone still building a conservative tire with maximum performance available in a very narrow band. At some point, Bridgestone will have to start dumbing down their tires, to produce a little bit of movement in the bike, and introduce an element of tire management. If Bridgestone are not interested in helping, then alternative solutions will surely be found.