There is something unreal about the first race of the year at Qatar. The combination of the dazzling lights illuminating the desert, the strange, vampire-like day-night rhythm imposed by the night race, and the absence of crowds at the track makes the whole affair feel like it must have been a dream.
How different, then, is the event at Jerez? Hot Spanish sunshine, a paddock full of trucks, teams and hospitality, and 120,000 screaming, passionate fans. It is a heady mix, and feels like the real start to the season. MotoGP truly gets kickstarted at Jerez.
Which is rather ironic, as in this part of Spain, April spells the end of the riding season, rather than the start. The mild winters make it possible to go riding during the day, but once the summer heat arrives - daytime temperatures in Seville, just north of Jerez, are usually well over 40 degrees throughout the summer months - venturing out on a motorcycle in anything resembling protective gear becomes a sweaty, draining business.
So Jerez marks a double festival: The end of the local riding season and the return to home soil of MotoGP, and the Spaniards celebrate it in style, with wine, wheelies and song. The atmosphere is never anything less than frantic, wild, exuberant; if there is a party the night before the world ends, then this is what it will be like.
The riders love it, of course, but that does not mean that everything goes their way at the Andalusian circuit. Most notably, the Ducatis have had a terrible time here ever since the start of the 800s, with Casey Stoner's 3rd place finish in 2009 the only podium the marque has scored. What has remained have mostly been crashes and mid-pack finishes, even when the Ducati has shone elsewhere.
So things do not bode well for the Ducatis. Valentino Rossi continues to struggle with his shoulder, a double handicap with the Ducati. The Italian keeps reiterating that the Desmosedici GP11 needs to be ridden "like a 500" - in other words, wrestled around the track very much against the bike's will - a feat which is difficult to achieve with a weak and painful shoulder.
Big changes are coming for the Ducati, but they are not coming just yet. At Estoril, at the one day test after the Portuguese Grand Prix, Ducati will be bringing a new chassis and a revised engine configuration for Rossi and his teammate Nicky Hayden to test. But at Jerez, they will have to make do with just the usual electronics tweaks, aimed at making the bike easier to turn and controlling the power delivery. Their main job at Jerez is to survive the weekend, and collect more usable data to take back to Filippo Preziosi in Bologna.
While the factory team will be treating the weekend as a test, that will definitely not be the case for Hector Barbera aboard the Mapfre Aspar machine. Barbera gets his first chance to shine in front of his home crowds this season, and given the Spaniard's reputation for hotheadedness, he should be good for some fireworks. Barbera, along with Randy de Puniet of the Pramac team, has been the best of the Ducati riders - regularly finishing ahead of both Rossi and Hayden, in both testing and at Qatar - and will be wanting to put on a show.
One man who will be glad he is not on a Ducati at Jerez is Casey Stoner. Jerez was once the bane of the Australian, Stoner struggling just to finish in the top 5 at the circuit. Now aboard a Repsol Honda RC212V, Stoner will be relishing the prospect, and looking forward to extending his championship lead, preferably by taking a second win in a row. The RC212V seems to have solved Stoner's front-end woes, the Australian tasting the gravel only once this preseason, and in this form, and on this bike, the smart money is on Stoner taking victory here.
Should he do so, it would be doubly sweet. Jerez is where Stoner's deal with HRC was verbally sealed last year, the Australian having grown tired with the slow pace of development at Ducati. A win here would make a very obvious point.
The Spanish crowd would of course much prefer a Spanish winner, but their hopes of Dani Pedrosa standing on the top step at Jerez must be tempered with a firm dose of realism. At Qatar, the numbness and weakness which Pedrosa suffered in his left arm in the last few races of the season reemerged, a painful souvenir of his practice crash at Motegi. That injury - a stretched plexus, the bundle of nerves controlling the left arm - will heal, but it will take a long time. Winning will be nigh-on impossible for Pedrosa; just lasting the course will be a measure of the Little Big Man's mettle.
Elsewhere among the Honda riders, the expectations are mixed. In the San Carlo Gresini team, great things are expected of both Marco Simoncelli and Hiroshi Aoyama. Simoncelli's star - already bright - has been rising during the preseason, topped off with a strong 5th place finish at Qatar. With full factory backing, and the superlative 2011 RC212V beneath him, he should do very well.
Simoncelli's teammate, Hiroshi Aoyama, could be the real dark horse of the weekend at Jerez. Aoyama has already beaten his teammate here two years ago when they were both riding 250s, Aoyama on the underpowered, underfunded and underdeveloped Honda, Simoncelli on the Gilera - a full-fat factory Aprilia RSA in disguise. Beating Simoncelli this time round may be difficult, but Aoyama could well feature much further forward than many expect.
Meanwhile, the real hope for home glory for the Spanish crowds must come from Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo rode an outstanding race last year to catch and then beat Dani Pedrosa - though the factory Yamaha rider was aided by a glitch in the Repsol Honda's fuel calculation system. It did not diminish Lorenzo's joy, however, the Mallorcan taking a spontaneous leap in the lake, by far the best and most original of his sometimes belabored victory celebrations.
Both Lorenzo and his teammate Ben Spies have a few minor gripes about the Yamaha YZR-M1, mostly about a lack of power at both the top and the bottom of the rev range. But fundamentally, the machine is still the best balance of handling and power on the grid, a scalpel with which Lorenzo has learned to wield with great aplomb. The Jerez circuit allows for a fair balance between handling and power, offering Lorenzo the chance of a fair fight with Casey Stoner. It promises to be a very interesting spectacle indeed.
Ben Spies comes to Jerez to make amends, after his strange withdrawal from the 2010 race which Spies thought was some kind of tire problem. The problem probably came down to an unfamiliarity with the Bridgestone tires whose peculiarities take a while to master, leaving Spies with a lack of feeling from the front end of his - then - satellite Yamaha. Now on factory bike, and more importantly, with a year's experience of the tracks, tires and bikes under his belt, Spies will be looking to make a mark. Jerez would be a very good place for the Texan to bag his first podium of the year.
The Jerez race will see one less Spaniard on the grid, Alvaro Bautista having broken his femur in a big crash at Qatar. His place will be taken by John Hopkins, the American making his return to the MotoGP paddock after an absence of two years, which came about as a result of Kawasaki's withdrawal from the series at the end of 2008. Things have moved on quite a bit since Hopper rode a MotoGP bike, and even further since he was last aboard a Suzuki GSV-R. His aim will be to score points for the team and to bring it home in one piece, without risking his 2011 season racing in the British Superbike Championship. Given Hopkins' reputation for pushing a little too hard chasing an extra position, crossing the line in one piece is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.
Wherever the riders finish, and in whatever order, the crowd can be counted on to be provide the best atmosphere in motorcycle racing. We're going to Jerez, and that means that the season has started for real.