The first day of practice was summed up succinctly by Colin Edwards, in the TV interview that all of the riders do with MotoGP.com at the end of each day. The bike felt good, Edwards said, the front feels planted, he felt good on the bike. "It's just them frickin' Hondas!"
A quick glance at the timesheets and you can see his point: places one to four are taken by factory Honda RC212Vs, the three Repsols leading the San Carlo Gresini bike of Marco Simoncelli. The layout of the track helps a lot: a lot of slow corners leading onto long straights, and a fast back straight thrown in for good measure. The Honda's strong points are outstanding acceleration and good top speed, exactly what is needed to go around Motegi at a decent clip.
That should hardly come as a surprise. Motegi is owned by Honda, and as Casey Stoner pointed out, this track is one of the tracks the RC212V is developed around. Although Honda's test riders - including wildcard riders Kousuke Akiyoshi and the hoary veteran Shinichi Itoh, riding a stunning RC30 tribute HRC livery in red, white and blue - divide their time between Suzuka and Motegi aboard the MotoGP bike, Motegi remains a key track for the factory, where much of their development is done.
It was billed by the respected Italian website GPOne.com as "The Grand Prix Of Fear" and finally it's here. Unless something extremely untoward happens - highly unlikely, but the zone is one of the most geologically active regions in the world - by Friday evening, everyone will have gotten over themselves and we'll be talking about bikes on track again.
There are still plenty of signs of advanced paranoia in the paddock, however. The Italian media contingent is reduced to just a few brave souls, while the Spanish media is a little better represented, but still much thinner on the ground. The English-speaking media is actually a little more numerous than originally planned: out of sheer frustration with the panic-mongering being spread about by some of the more paranoid sections of the paddock, veteran MotoGP journalist Michael Scott has added Motegi to his itinerary, a race he would otherwise have covered from home.
Days like Sunday at Imola always remind me of what Nicky Hayden says after particularly poor qualifying sessions: "That's why we line up on Sunday; you never know what's gonna happen." Two championships were up for grabs at Imola on Sunday; one looked a dead cert to be wrapped up by Sunday night, while the most likely scenario for the other is that the race would still be open after the second World Superbike race.
It didn't quite work out that way. Sure, Carlos Checa and Chaz Davies are still the hot favorites for the World Superbike and World Supersport titles, but the dreaded "events" got in the way of seeing a double coronation in Italy. Every Sunday brings a surprise, and this Sunday was no exception.
It's going to be a big weekend at Imola. The World Superbike series should be crowning at least one champion on Sunday, and it is entirely possible that both the World Superbike and World Supersport titles are wrapped up at Imola.
The World Supersport class looks a shoe-in for Chaz Davies. The Welshman leads the series by 59 points, and just needs to finish on the podium to take the title. Even if he doesn't get on the box, his main rivals have not succeeded in putting much pressure on him throughout the year; David Salom and Fabien Foret have struggled to beat him even on his (very rare) off-days, and Broc Parkes trails by 67 points, a very big ask indeed.
Parkes demonstrated he hasn't given up completely, finishing 2nd behind Davies' teammate Luca Scassa during qualifying on Friday, but Davies looked like a man who was in control of the situation. The ParkinGO Yamaha rider ended QP1 with the 3rd fastest time, just over a third of a second behind Scassa, and confident there was more in the tank. Davies' calmness has been an asset all season, and so far, it looks like it is going to pay off.
MotoGP history was made at Aragon, and as has been the case so often throughout his career, the man making the history was Valentino Rossi. He is unlikely to be quite so proud of this piece of history, though: On Sunday, Rossi became the first rider to fall foul of MotoGP's engine durability rules, using his seventh engine during warm up, one beyond his original allocation of six and consequently being forced to start from pit lane. Rather ironically, Rossi was not the first rider to use a seventh engine; that dubious honor falls to Alvaro Bautista, who ended up using eight engines during 2010, after Suzuki negotiated adding three extra to their original allowance, when it became clear that they were unlikely to make the end of the season on their allocation.
Three races, three championships drawing closer to their conclusions, but not all of them brought the excitement we might have hoped for. The first race of the day was a good start; Terol ran away at the front of the 125cc race, but behind him there was a tense battle for 2nd and a monster fight for 5th. The Moto2 class delivered the most spectacular race of the day, with every rider in the top 20 finishing with tire marks on his leathers somewhere, until Marc Marquez seized control of the situation and finally got a gap. And the MotoGP race provided the typical 800cc anticlimax that we have come to expect since 2007, with Casey Stoner settling the race in his favor before the first lap was over.
First to the 125s. Nico Terol was up to his old tricks once again at Aragon, getting away early and setting a pace that no one else could follow, though his teammate Hector Faubel certainly did his best. Worthy of note was that Johann Zarco appeared to have learned the lesson of Misano, keeping his cool and resisting his urge to look back for threats from behind which cost him the victory at the previous round. Instead, he kept his cool while Faubel lost his, pushing too hard to get past Zarco into the first of the final pair of corners and sliding out of a certain podium.
There are a number of subjects that it feels like we've been talking about forever this season. The two biggest are obvious: Valentino Rossi's battle with the Ducati Desmosedici, and Motegi, so it becomes tedious to have to talk about them again. But the reason we keep talking about them is simple. They are big. These are the stories that really matter. So we have to keep talking about them.
The subject of Motegi will not be relevant for long. In two weeks' time, the MotoGP circus will alight at the Japanese circuit, most of whom carrying large packages containing food, and for the more paranoid, even water. All of the MotoGP riders will be there, Valentino Rossi announcing at Thursday's press conference that he would be going to Motegi, and HRC issuing a press release announcing they would have eight (count 'em, eight) riders at Motegi, with Japanese veterans Shinichi Ito and Kousuke Akiyoshi entered as wildcards.
Friday was a weird one. Normally, I'd be talking about who was fast (Pedrosa), who was not (Rossi), and the implications of the new chassis being used in MotoGP and Moto2, but instead, Friday at Motorland Aragon was all about transformers, UPSes, backup systems and the complex electronics that control them.
Power started going at around lunchtime, the lights and power in the media center cycling on and off continuously for a couple of minutes, before cutting out entirely. It immediately became clear that it was not just the media center, however, as teams came streaming out of garages both into pit lane and out of the rear for a communal gathering to try to figure out what had happened. Power came back after lunch for a short period, allowing the 125cc class to run their FP2 session, before going out again directly after that. There then followed a period of about an hour in which journalists wandered round looking quizzically at each other, while harried members of the Motorland Aragon staff rushed around trying to figure out what was going on.
Somehow, the big news always seems to break on Thursdays. Probably because we don't have any real action to talk about, and so all the focus is on speculation, spying, or off-track events, but without motorcycles going round on track, we still have plenty to talk about.
On Thursday at Aragon, there were three subjects on everyone's minds: Motegi, Rossi's Mugello chassis and 2012 (though the latter two are to a large extent the same subject, given that Rossi and his crew gave up on 2011 almost before the season had started). The short version of those subjects is that everyone is going to Motegi, Rossi (the final official holdout) announcing that he did not have sufficient reason to stay away; Rossi came clean in the press conference and admitted to testing an aluminium chassis at Mugello, it later emerging that he would be riding it this weekend; and silly season is in full swing, with lots of fevered speculation about who will be going where for 2012.
It was a good weekend for MotoGP at Misano. We had two-and-a-half great races, two championships were opened up again and one took a step closer to the inevitable conclusion it has been moving towards almost since the start of the season. The weather was good - with just a sprinkling of raindrops to keep everyone honest - the crowds were up - on last year at least - and if the home crowd didn't exactly get what they came to see (a Rossi victory), at least they went home with hope in their hearts after a pretty strong race by the Italian, all things considered.
That they were less than happy with Jorge Lorenzo's victory - the third Spanish victory of the day, and the second time the Spaniards had cleaned up at an Italian Grand Prix, a particular thorn in the side of Italian MotoGP fans - as was witnessed by the booing during the podium ceremony, which Lorenzo responded to by cupping his hand to his ear as if he couldn't hear. Lorenzo said afterwards he found it disappointing that fans responded like that, acting more like soccer fans than racing fans, saying that he was sure that Valentino Rossi would disapprove of such behavior. Rossi agreed - up to a point - but after making all the expected noises, he added "This is Italy!" and said that his advice to Lorenzo was not to take any notice of it.