So we're back in Europe. Despite the eerie beauty of the night race at Qatar, despite the magnificent splendor of the Circuit of the America's facilities, Jerez still feels like the first proper race of the MotoGP season. The paddock is set up in its full regalia, and all of the hospitality trucks present; the fans will be out in full force - or at least much fuller force than in the previous two races, despite the entirely respectable attendance figures at Austin - and everyone knows the score: where the track entrance is, where the truck park is, where the media center is, what the schedule is. Things have now returned to normal, and we are about to embark on the meat and potatoes section of the championship.
And here we highlight precisely where the weakness of MotoGP lies: Jerez feels like home, and everyone in the paddock immediately feels much more comfortable here than at the previous two races. It is symptomatic of the Eurocentric (and Iberocentric) nature of MotoGP and world championship racing in general that the paddock is so very far inside its comfort zone here. If MotoGP is to expand to the world, this is one thing which urgently needs addressing.
Yet it is hard not to feel comfortable at Jerez. The city still has much of its old world charm, and sports a veneer of wealth from its former role at the center of the trade with the New World, at the height of Spain's conquest of South and Central America. There are also signs of decay; one of the largest motorcycle dealerships on the main drag into town from the circuit has a 'for rent' sign up, though it is still open for business. Downtown, the beggars on the street have changed: no longer is it just those who have clearly always struggled on the fringes of society; now, ordinary men and women ejected from their homes in the wake of mass unemployment and the crisis in Spain's banking system stand, heads down, throwing themselves upon the mercy of passers by. It is a hard sight to bear, in one of the most beautiful places the MotoGP circus visits all year.
Then there is the track: there is barely a rider in the paddock who has not logged hundreds, if not thousands, of laps around the circuit. It is not just the annual race, it is also the testing which takes place here, and for anyone having raced in the Spanish championship - which is almost everyone, regardless of their nationality - it is as familiar to them as their favorite sweatshirt. The circuit itself is a little tight, with the MotoGP bikes only briefly touching sixth at the end of the back straight before braking hard for the Dry Sack hairpin. Yet it also has its jewels: the section of flowing rights through turns 10, 11 and 12, gaining speed as they head towards the last short straight and then the final hairpin, at which passing is so common, is still spectacular to watch. Set in the crook of low hills, with the figure of Tio Pepe overseeing all (good old uncle Joe...), it is a beautiful setting. And with the late, wet rain having brought out the flowers, purple lupins lining the roads and lush green fields, Jerez is utterly sublime. We should be forgiven for falling in love with Andalucia.
The circuit should see another return to normality, at least as seen from the perspective of the Yamaha garage. Jerez is the start of a series of circuits where the Yamaha has dominated in the past few years, tight, flowing layouts favoring the highly nimble M1 over the brute horsepower of the Honda. Jorge Lorenzo returns to Europe sharing the championship lead with Marc Marquez (though technically, Marquez leads in the title race, as he won the last race at Austin), and looking to build a solid advantage over Dani Pedrosa - still his main rival for the 2013 title - before the series leaves heads to Indianapolis after the summer and starts hitting the tracks at which the Honda is clearly stronger.
Lorenzo has cause to be optimistic. The track holds fond memories for the factory Yamaha man: it was here where he made his Grand Prix debut back in 2002, on the day of his 15th birthday. He celebrates his birthday here once again this weekend, turning 26 on Saturday. He has won at Jerez twice, and been on the podium twice more, and is obviously competitive at the track. Though he did not end the IRTA test here in March as fastest, his gap to quickest man Cal Crutchlow was only minimal, less than three hundredths of a second. Between him and the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man was another Yamaha rider, Valentino Rossi having also impressed at the Andalusian circuit during the test. Both Rossi and Crutchlow will be tough competition for Lorenzo, and could either help or hinder his championship effort here. If Lorenzo beats them, then both Rossi and Crutchlow could end up ahead of the two Repsol Honda men, maximizing his points advantage over both Pedrosa and Marquez. But they could just as easily beat Lorenzo, robbing him of valuable points in his battle with the Hondas.
There is good reason for Lorenzo to fear both his teammate and Crutchlow. Jerez is a track at which Valentino Rossi excels, the Italian having won here six times in thirteen attempts in the premier class, and having ended on the podium in three more of those races. The track, with a couple of points in which Rossi can leverage his ability on the brakes, plays to the Italian's strengths. After a morale-boosting podium in his return to Yamaha, and keen to make amends for a problematic outing in Austin, Jerez is surely the first of the tracks he will be targeting for his first win in over two years.
Both Rossi and Lorenzo could face strong competition from Cal Crutchlow. The Tech 3 man has been even stronger so far this season than he was in 2012, when he first really got into the swing of racing in MotoGP. Fastest in the test at Jerez in mid-March, in the chase for a podium at Qatar, and matching the pace of Lorenzo at Austin, Crutchlow knows he is close to his first podium of the season, and can sense that his first ever win in MotoGP cannot be far off. Yet the challenges he faces are formidable: Jorge Lorenzo at the very top of his game, a voraciously ambitious Valentino Rossi, not to mention Dani Pedrosa, and the most exciting prospect to enter the class in many years, Marc Marquez. If there is a time and a place for Crutchlow to put it all on the line, Jerez is surely it.
Though the Hondas did well at both Qatar and Austin, they may find it tougher at Jerez. Dani Pedrosa was just fourth quickest at the test back in March, though that time should not be taken with a pinch of salt. Pedrosa turned up at Jerez with neck pain, and left after the second day, never having been able to ride to the absolute peak of his ability. Despite that, he ended the test just a tenth of a second slower than Crutchlow, with clearly more to come. And Jerez is a track which suits him: though he has only a solitary victory at the circuit, he has never been off the podium in the premier class at Jerez. He is a formidable foe at the Spanish track.
Marc Marquez, meanwhile, could face his toughest weekend of his - admittedly very short - MotoGP career. The Spaniard could not match the pace of the Yamahas during testing at Jerez, after a strong showing at the Sepang tests, and dominating at the test in Austin. His problem, he said at the time, was that Jerez was a track where he had no data on a MotoGP bike, while the rest of the field have ridden here so very often. Adapting his style was the problem, carrying too much lean angle as he had learned in Moto2, rather than picking the bike up early and using the punch of the RC213V out of the corner.
Yet there is reason to believe Marquez will do better here too. His win at Austin was in no small part due to having adapted to a MotoGP machine, and some tricks he had learned at Qatar two weeks' earlier, by following his teammate around. Watching Pedrosa ride old tires helped Marquez understand that he needs to pick the bike up earlier, and this lesson should stand him in good stead at the Spanish circuit. With LCR Honda's Stefan Bradl also likely to shine in Spain, it could be a very close race on Sunday.
The Ducatis are less likely to feature, but there is still plenty of interest there. The gap between Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso was very reasonable during the test, and the gap to the fifth and sixth fastest men was even better. Ducati has the advantage of Jerez being one of their nominated test circuits, and Michele Pirro having already put in a lot of laps at the circuit. Pirro will be there with the Ducati lab bike, giving a glimpse of the future (see separate story), but his previous testing here is a big advantage for the factory team. The track has traditionally been a tough one for Ducati, yet Dovizioso, Nicky Hayden, and Andrea Iannone have reason for cautious optimism. Ben Spies will not be at the track, having decided to skip the race due to a muscle strain.