The fates have been incredibly cruel to the MotoGP series since the 2008 season ended. First, a manufacturer withdraws, then a flurry of rule changes hastily enacted in a bid to cut costs in response to the financial crisis received widespread criticism, and finally, the first race of the season has to be postponed due to rain - in the desert, of all places. Of course, much of the blame for this misfortune can be firmly laid at the door of governing body of the series, the Grand Prix Commission: The switch to 800cc made the bikes radically more expensive; The rule changes were discussed and agreed within a matter of a few weeks, leaving the suspicion of not being fully thought through; And though it may not rain in the desert, Qatar has a wet (well, damp) season too, and running the race at night means that even a small amount of rain can cause the race to be postponed.
But the events at Motegi on Saturday are arguably beyond the power of Dorna to control. Rain had been forecast for Saturday, but that so much water would fall that rivers would start flowing across the track is an unusual event indeed. In the end, Race Direction waited for an hour to see if the weather would improve, and when it didn't, it canceled qualifying. A wise move, all things considered, as the occupants of the safety car sent out to examine the track declared the circuit too dangerous to even drive around, let alone try to ride a motorcycle at race pace on.
Then again, perhaps some of the blame can be laid at the feet of Dorna. Valentino Rossi certainly thinks so, as he labeled the decision to move the Japanese Grand Prix from September back to April a bad move. "For sure it is not a great idea to come to Motegi in April because the weather is always quite bad," Rossi said. Rossi's complaint, echoed by others, was that this left the MotoGP riders with just 45 minutes of dry practice and 45 minutes in the wet. To appease the riders, Dorna decided to extend the Sunday morning warm up from 20 to 40 minutes, but this still leaves the riders short of setup time. With the race expected to be dry, but very windy, everyone will be left guessing entering the race.
The cancellation of practice meant that the grid will be formed by taking the best times from the first two Free Practice sessions, and as FP2 run on Saturday morning was wet, this basically meant that the grid was settled on the first day of the event. Nicky Hayden perhaps lost out the most in losing qualifying: On Friday, the Marlboro Ducati rider had set only the 12th fastest time, while in the wet Hayden had jumped up to 6th, and was gaining speed all the time. "To be honest with you, I was quite looking forward to qualifying in the wet," he said. Sete Gibernau had made similar progress, from 14th up to 8th.
Marco Melandri and James Toseland were quite relieved, however. Both men had tumbled down the standings in the wet, Melandri dropping like a stone from 8th to 18th. Melandri will certainly be hoping for a dry race, as will Toseland, who is slowly recovering his confidence after two big preseason crashes.
Wet or dry, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi look just about unbeatable, with Jorge Lorenzo in with chance of hanging with the pair currently dominating the class. Rumors out of Spain suggest that Lorenzo is talking to Honda about 2010, but Lorenzo has publicly always proclaimed his intention to stay with Yamaha for the long term. Of course, Lorenzo may start to get impatient, for as long as Valentino Rossi is at Yamaha, there can be only one number one, and that's the 8 time world champion.
In the 250 class, Marco Simoncelli has been quickest in the dry, but question marks remain over whether the Italian's newly operated upon scaphoid is can cope with race pace for 40+ minutes. Those question marks are being placed by Simoncelli himself, and so must be taken very seriously indeed. This would leave Simoncelli's title rival Alvaro Bautista perfectly placed to extend his points advantage over Simoncelli, but first Bautista will have to beat Hiroshi Aoyama. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem for Bautista's factory Aprilia, but with Aoyama at home, and on a Honda, he will want to impress Honda's bosses at the track that they own.
In the 125cc class, Andrea Iannone is developing into Julian Simon's chief rival. The Aspar Aprilia rider had utterly dominated the preseason, but the pack has caught up fast since the season started in earnest. There's still a big gap separating the front row riders, with 0.687 between polesitter Simon and the man at the other end of the front row, Esteve Rabat. But behind Rabat, the gaps are much closer with 5th to 12th covered by less than a second.
The race itself should be dry, but high winds are forecast. The weather is likely to remain a factor at Motegi, leaving the outcome highly uncertain. Fortune has smiled on MotoGP for many years now. But in case you hadn't noticed, it's a sneer, not a smile, on Fortune's face at the moment.