If you have aspirations of winning the championship, the first qualifying session of the year is your first chance to stake your claim. Qualifying is the moment you stake your claim, show everyone what you have, and what they are up against. The rest of the year, pole position is nice, but the most important thing is to be on the front row, and get a good start. But at the first qualifying session of the year for the first race of the year, you need to send your opponents a message: This is what you are up against. This is what you face if you wish to beat me.
Champions know this. At Qatar, the champions made their presence felt, and announced their intent to the world. In MotoGP, the defending champion - and the man who starts the year as favorite - set a pace that none could follow, robbing upstart Cal Crutchlow of what would have been his first pole. In Moto2, Pol Espargaro made a mistake, crashed, and corrected his error as soon as his bike was rebuilt, pushing hard to take pole in the dying seconds of the session. And In Moto3, Luis Salom took his first ever Grand Prix pole by putting it on the line when it mattered, seeing off all-comers in the final moments, while Maverick Viñales gritted his teeth to ride through the pain and grab 2nd on the grid.
Racing at the desert at night, in the false noon created by the astonishingly efficient lighting system at the Qatar circuit, is always going to be a weird experience. But on Friday, events conspired to take it from the merely odd into the strangely surreal. The culprits? The weather was one, the odd fleetingly brief shower of thick rain drops sending everyone scurrying into the pits and scratching their heads over what to do. The other thing that had many people confused was the new qualifying rules. Though not necessarily particularly complex, like all rule changes, the effect they have on the system, the way the weekend operates, only becomes apparent once the changes are put into effect.
But before I get to that, some attention deserves to be paid to Marc Marquez. In his very first MotoGP weekend, he topped his second ever session of free practice, and followed it up by being fastest in his third session of free practice as well. He has now been quickest in the majority of the official MotoGP sessions he has ever taken part in. OK, that's only two out of three, and the conditions have been a little unusual, but to be this fast this early is astonishing.
It's back. The world is a better place now that young men are wasting fuel going round in circles at irresponsibly breakneck speeds on multimillion dollar motorcycles. (On a side note, someone pointed out today that a satellite 160kg Honda RC213V costs about half its weight in gold, at current prices, which suggests that a factory bike must be close to costing its own weight in gold). The lights in the desert are once again spectacularly lit, and the sandy void which surrounds the Losail circuit again rings with the bellow of MotoGP bikes.
Not that the desert void wasn't already a surprisingly packed place. On the other side of the access road to the circuit sits a massive building site, where work is being undertaken on the Lusail Iconic Stadium, one of the many stadiums being built for the 2022 FIFA Soccer World Cup. The scale of that work is vast, as is the amount of dust the work is kicking up, much of which is being blown over the track. When the Moto3 bikes hit the track - the first class to go out at the circuit, with the exception of a QMMF Superbike round earlier in the day - it looked like the little four-stroke bikes were blowing engines left, right and center, as they kicked up clouds of dust and trailed them behind them.
It's here at last. After a painfully long preseason - Qatar's position as the first race of the year, and their insistence on running at night, means that it is unsafe to run it much earlier, due to the danger of dew having disastrous effects on grip levels - the MotoGP paddock is assembled and ready to go racing. While there is always a sense of eagerness ahead of the first race at Qatar, it feels like the anticipation is even greater this year.
Whoever it is you happen to be talking to, the conversation always covers the same topics. Just how good will Marc Marquez be? Can Valentino Rossi really challenge for the championship again now he is back on the Yamaha? With Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa so evenly matched, who is favorite for the title? How quickly can Ducati return to form? And with six, maybe seven candidates for the podium at every race, how good is the racing going to be?
With the 2013 MotoGP season just a few hours away, it's time for a quick recap on the rule changes which come into effect this year. Though the technical rule changes are minor - slightly more significant changes are to be made for 2014, but that is a story for another day - the change to qualifying is significant, and will have a real impact on all of the practice session, albeit indirectly.
So here's what has changed for 2013:
The engine allocation for the MotoGP prototypes has been dropped from six engines per rider per season to five engines. The request for the reduction came from the factories themselves, in pursuit of further engineering challenges applicable to production bikes.
The reduction in engine allocation is unlikely to have a drastic effect. In his championship year in 2011, Casey Stoner only used five engines all season, and in 2012, Jorge Lorenzo managed relatively comfortably after losing a brand new engine at Assen in a first-corner crash. Even the penalty imposed on Valentino Rossi for taking an extra engine in 2011 was down to his desire to use a different frame, one for which his original engines did not have the necessary mounting points.
Every year, about now, there is one phrase which you will hear over and over again. With MotoGP testing behind us, and the start of the season imminent, every race fan chants the same mantra: "This could be the best MotoGP season ever!" Reality tends to intervene rather quickly, and the races never seem to pan out the way race fans had been hoping. Intriguing? Yes. Entertaining? Often. Thrilling? Not nearly as often as hoped.
And yet there is a genuine chance that this year could be different. Events inside MotoGP have been converging to a point which promises to see a return to the thrills of a previous era in MotoGP, one in which epic battles were fought out on the old 990cc machines. Though the days of tire-smoking action are long gone - killed off forever by the insistence of the factories that electronics must continue to play a major role in premier class racing - the battles could be back.
The ingredients which will spice up MotoGP? Two men, well matched in talent and in equipment - though both would dispute the latter claim, saying the other bike holds the upper hand. A grand old champion, returning to a bike he understands and knows he can ride and keen to prove he has not lost his edge. A fast young upstart, a fearless - some would say reckless - challenger, brimming with self-belief, overflowing with talent, and spoiling to make his mark. A talented underdog, a bull terrier desperate to get his teeth into the front runners, and bristling with resentment at the lack of factory support he believes he deserves. A stricken factory, fallen from its former glory, and determined to make amends, starting on the long road to recovering what it believes is its rightful place at the front. And a gaggle of young riders - some younger than others - determined to claim their place in the spotlights, and preferably on the podium.
The decision by HRC to stage a private testing session at the Austin MotoGP circuit in March unleashed a wave of criticism in some circles, especially from other teams. Yamaha eventually decided to join the Repsol Honda and LCR Honda teams at the track, but only after much internal deliberation, taking only a skeleton crew to the test. Ducati refused to go altogether as a political statement, saying that the costs were simply too high for them to ship all their equipment from Europe to the US, and then back again in time for the final IRTA test at Jerez. The costs involved have caused some inside the paddock to call for a ban on private testing, to prevent this situation from being repeated.
Certainly, the bare cost of testing at Austin was close to astronomical. Sources in Sepang reported that testing at the Circuit of the Americas would cost around 350,000 euros in total for the three days, including shipping, track rental, staff flights, accommodation, insurance and all the other odds and ends that are involved in traveling. That is a real stretch for Yamaha, the team already operating on a tight budget, and well beyond the reach of the satellite teams, with the exception of LCR Honda, who had some help in getting there. Even for the mighty Honda, largest and richest of the motorcycle manufacturers, dropping that kind of coin on a three-day test pushes budgets to the limit, and it is not a simple decision to take.
So how did HRC manage to afford it? The answer is simple: marketing footage. The private MotoGP test at Austin was not just a chance for Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez to get to learn the track at Austin. It was also a chance for HRC to unleash their marketing department, unhampered by the restrictions of filming at a Dorna-organized event.
Marc Marquez entered MotoGP surrounded by hype and with high expectations. After a wet test at Valencia, where he showed he was fast, but not quite how fast, the Spaniard went to Sepang, where he posted very good times in a private test. At the full Sepang MotoGP tests, Marquez was genuinely impressive, never finishing outside the top 4.
At Austin, Marquez stunned observers. The young Spaniard, still only a rookie in the MotoGP class, with only a few days on a MotoGP bike under his belt, dominated at the Austin test, topping the timesheets on all three days of the private test. It was not as if he didn't have any competition at the circuit: both the factory Yamaha and Honda teams were at the Austin test, and Marquez beat Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi to set the fastest time.
So it was something of a surprise when Marquez failed to duplicate his impressive pace in Malaysia and Texas when MotoGP rolled up at Jerez for the final test of the season. Though Marquez was 3rd fastest in the wet, once conditions improved - though they were never perfect - the Repsol Honda rookie got left behind a little, finishing the second day in 7th spot, nearly 1.2 seconds behind fastest man Valentino Rossi, and 5th spot on day three, 0.6 behind Cal Crutchlow. Marquez left the three day test as 6th overall, six tenths behind the fastest man of the test Cal Crutchlow, and over a tenth behind Stefan Bradl, his main rival during the 2011 Moto2 season.
Three days of testing at Jerez is over, and the real star of the show is obvious for all to see: The Weather. Of the 18 hours of track time that the MotoGP riders had at their disposal, only about 4 were in consistent conditions, and that was in the pouring rain on Saturday. An afternoon of dry track time - well, dryish, with groundwater seeping through the track from the hills at Jerez which have been lashed by unusually heavy rain all winter long - on Sunday and a bright start to Monday morning left the riders hopeful, but it was not to be.
It took 15 minutes for the first rain to arrive. The track opened at 10am. At 10:15am, the rain started to fall, leaving most of the teams twiddling their thumbs in the garages and hoping for some dry track time. Dani Pedrosa gave up on the day altogether; he had only really been testing odds and ends, new rear shock settings and one or two other bits and pieces anyway, and suffering with neck pain from a strain he suffered at Austin, he decided to call it quits and go home. He missed a few dry hours at the end of the day, but given the stiffness with which he was turning his head to answer the questions of journalists on Sunday evening, choosing to rest his neck was probably a wise move.
While Pedrosa was on his way home, Jorge Lorenzo was doing yet another of his punishing race simulations, pounding out 22 laps of the Jerez track at the kind of pace that secured 2nd place for him at last year's race over 27 laps, a very strong performance given the conditions on the track. Lorenzo finished in a (for him) lowly 4th spot, but his best time was set on the third lap of his race simulation. This is the approach that helped bring him the title in 2012, and the comparison with Pedrosa's physical woes is a valid one. Pedrosa strained a neck muscle whilst riding; Lorenzo has been training both on and off the track to ensure he does not suffer such injuries. Lorenzo is ready to race, and by that, I mean the full race distance.
Valentino Rossi being fastest in a dry MotoGP session brought joy to the hearts of his millions of fans, but also relief to the writers of motorcycle racing headlines. For the past two years, with the exception of a damp and freezing session at Silverstone, the media - especially in Italy - have spent many hours puzzling over how to shoehorn Rossi's name into a news item without it appearing overly clumsy. With little success: "Pedrosa grabs pole, Rossi to start from ninth" sounds, well, as awkward as it does dispiriting.
On Sunday, there was no need for tricky sentence construction. Valentino Rossi grabbed the headlines the way he would want to, on merit. Under a warm sun, and a dry track - well, relatively, but more of that later - Rossi just flat out beat his teammate, and the factory Hondas, and all the other 24 MotoGP machines that took to the track for the second day of the test at Jerez. Beating his teammate, even if it was by just fifteen thousandths of a second, was crucial. That hadn't happened in any of the previous tests, and the gap between himself and Jorge Lorenzo stayed pretty constant: at least three tenths of a second.