Finally it stopped raining. The light drizzle that has plagued the Misano circuit since Friday morning petered out around lunchtime, making way for the sun to dry the track out. Though the riders were glad to see the back of the rain, it left them with an awful lot of work to do. The set up work from the three lost sessions all had to be squeezed into the single hour of qualifying, leaving space for the mad fifteen minute scramble for grid positions. "It was a pretty tight session," Dani Pedrosa said after qualifying. "We had to test tires, set up, and get a feeling for the bike in just 60 minutes."
It had not been that much of a problem for Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man had looked strong throughout the session, leading for much of it and striking back whenever anyone else had the temerity to better his time. Jorge Lorenzo had come close, but had taken a little longer to get up to speed than Pedrosa, struggling to find his rhythm again after sitting out the first day and then putting in a very few very tentative laps on Saturday morning. In the end, he could not quite match the times of the Repsol Honda man, though Lorenzo's race pace matched that of his championship rival.
The root cause of the problems at Misano was the track surface, which drains water surprisingly well. That would seem to be more of a benefit than a disadvantage, but it means that it takes a long time for enough standing water to develop to allow wet tires to come into their own. The situation is very similar at Jerez: light rain sees most of the water drain quickly, leaving only a thin layer on the track. This is not enough to cool wet tires in the rain, but it is sufficient to leach the heat out of slick tires, making the track too slick for riders to brake with the confidence needed to force heat into the tires. Full wets heat up and lose performance, slicks lose the heat from the tire warmers and never regain it; both situations are far from ideal, but without the ability to cut slicks on the few occasions per year they are needed, there is nothing that can be done about it.
Sixty minutes was all Dani Pedrosa needed, however, and was enough for Jorge Lorenzo as well. The race pace of both is a step above the rest of the field, despite Cal Crutchlow scoring an outstanding second front-row start in a row. Rumors that he was being helped with extra parts from Yamaha to try to take points away from Pedrosa were denied by the Englishman. "I wish!" he quipped, going on to say that he was not expecting any upgrades until the end of the year. Crutchlow's aim is to get away with Lorenzo and Pedrosa, but that might be difficult given the pace the two title contenders are setting.
Getting through the first chicane is key; the reversal of the direction the track was run in when MotoGP returned in 2007 after a 14 year absence means that what used to be the final chicane is now the first corner complex. All too often, riders have been run off into the dirt or taken out completely. And all too often, those riders have included Nicky Hayden, for whom Misano remains a bogey track. Even this year, luck is running against Hayden at Misano, the American uncertain whether he will be able to race on Sunday, the broken metacarpal in his crucial right hand lacking strength to control the bike completely, especially on corner exit. He will make a decision on whether he will race or not after warm up, the factory Ducati man told reporters. On past form, deciding not to race will spare him from being taken out by a reckless move from behind at the first corner.
The race win is almost certain to go to either Dani Pedrosa or Jorge Lorenzo, but just who will have the upper hand at Misano? On current form and bike performance, you would have to give the advantage to Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda having an edge in acceleration out of Misano's many slow corners. But the advantage is not just in the machinery: something has changed in Pedrosa himself. As the riders stood chatting to each other, waiting for the press conference to start, veteran journalist Dennis Noyes leaned over to me and said "Dani's even standing like a champion." It's true: the Spaniard is standing more upright, looking more cheerful, and exuding the kind of confidence that only winners do. Jorge Lorenzo is not short of confidence himself, but just how formidable a rival Pedrosa is at the moment should not be underestimated. Confidence is not everything, but it may just give him the slimmest of edges over Lorenzo over the distance of a race.
If Lorenzo and Pedrosa are in a class of their own - a sentiment Ben Spies certainly agrees with, the Texan telling reporters "It seems like right now they're above everybody else" - the battle for 3rd could be very interesting indeed. Crutchlow's front row start puts him at an advantage, but in terms of race pace, there is a big group all in with a shot at the final podium spot. Crutchlow is obviously at the head of that group, but Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista are in there as well. Ben Spies is confident he can contend with them, despite his modest qualifying session. That had been caused by a crash on one of the many bumps which appear to have sprouted just off line at Misano, meaning that Spies lost the chance to use the bike he felt most comfortable with. With a few tweaks to the suspension and electronics, Spies said, he could be up their battling for the podium.
There is even a realistic chance that Valentino Rossi could see his first dry weather podium with the Ducati. The new chassis and swingarm he had tested at Misano were working well, and though the core problems remained, this combination was a clear step forward. "We can modify the position of the front a lot," Rossi told reporters, "so the feeling and the stability is better." The stability of the rear had also been helped, the rear tire not pumping quite so badly on corner exit. Rossi was also confident he could match the pace of the group fighting for 3rd, though his concern was still over whether the changes had helped with tire life. This had been a problem with the Ducati throughout, Rossi managing to post a decent pace in the early laps before the rear tire started to spin too much. Once that happened, performance degraded too much, and Rossi would quickly drop off the pace. Rossi had put a lot of laps on at the test he had here just over two weeks ago, but they were not consecutive laps, which heats and loads the tire differently. The improvement in corner entry and a fraction less pumping should help with tire life towards the end of the race.
As is his custom at races in his home country, Rossi also unveiled a special helmet, designed by Aldo Drudi after an idea concocted by Rossi's inner circle, together with the legendary Italian designer. This helmet shows Rossi hanging on the ropes, one eye blackened, with the words "Come vado?" or "how am I doing?" in a speech bubble. The helmet is one half of a well-known Italian joke, an Italian journalist explained to me. The joke is that a boxer who is taking a beating returns to his corner, sits down and asks his trainer "How am I doing against this guy?" The trainer, not wanting to discourage the boxer, replies "If you kill this guy, then the judges might just call it a draw." Rossi's humor is sometimes incomprehensibly Italian, as humor can so often be (and I say that as someone who has had to explain his own peculiarly British sense of irony to his Dutch friends and neighbors). But this helmet shows that Rossi is still able to laugh at himself. That's quite an achievement after two very tough years. Fortunately for Rossi, he has only six more races before he can get off the bike he refers to as "the Ducati" and return to the bike he calls "the M1". From Valencia, that will once again be "My M1."