2011 Valencia MotoGP Saturday Round Up: On The Happy Demise Of The 800s, And The 2012 Silly Season
It seems somehow fitting that the last ever qualifying session for the 800cc MotoGP bikes should be dominated so utterly by the man who has dominated the 800cc era. Despite the fact that Casey Stoner won only the first and the last 800cc titles, he still has the most pole positions and wins in the period between 2007 and 2011. Stoner ended the penultimate day of the 2011 season in style, matching Mick Doohan's record of 12 pole position in a single season and beating everyone else on the grid by over a second.
It wasn't just that Stoner was in a different time zone to the rest of the field, it was also the panache with which he did it. Turn 13 - the long, long left hander that runs over the hill and down towards the final tight corner leading back onto the straight - is a pretty spectacular sight at the best of times. Perhaps the iconic image of the 990 era was of Nicky Hayden sliding the back his V5 RC211V round there back in 2006. If anything, Casey Stoner was even more outrageous, getting the back of the successor RC212V - an RC211V with one cylinder removed - stepped out so far it looked like he was back racing dirt track, not a MotoGP bike. "Casey is very confident with the bike and also in the right position in the seat," was Valentino Rossi's understated assessment of Stoner's slide. "We slide also, but he slide more."
At the front, the race looks like being a typical display of 800cc MotoGP machinery, with Casey Stoner looking set to depart from the beginning, and Dani Pedrosa trailing a way off in Stoner's wake. The gaps will probably be sizable by the end of lap 5, the race already decided by the time they hit the second corner. A processional 800cc race to provide a fitting end to the class - imposed on MotoGP by the manufacturers - that has nearly killed the premier class of racing.
Behind the leaders, though, it could get pretty interesting. Valentino Rossi has matched his best qualifying of the year, while Randy de Puniet has far exceeded his, and Nicky Hayden is disappointed to be down on the third row of the grid after starting the last two races from the second row. The Ducatis just seem to love poor grip conditions, and it would be a foolish man who would bet against a determined Valentino Rossi, in his last race of the worst year in his career, wearing a helmet bearing a tribute to his dead friend. Rossi is clearly on a mission, though the mission is more modest than it might have been on previous years on a bike that suited him better.
A podium would be a fitting way to remember Marco Simoncelli, and though Rossi has Ben Spies on the Yamaha ahead of him, as well as Randy de Puniet riding like a man possessed (or at least, riding for his future), a podium is a realistic possibility for the first time in many races. Stoner and Pedrosa are out of reach, Rossi told the press, but after that everything is open. It could be a pretty interesting race tomorrow, as long as you ignore the first couple of riders.
It is not often that a title is settled on a Saturday, but the 2011 Moto2 crown passed to Stefan Bradl before the qualifying session had ended. Marc Marquez did not take his bike onto the track during qualifying, sitting in his garage in his street clothes, the double vision in his right eye preventing the Spaniard from riding. Not having turned a wheel all weekend, Marquez failed to qualify for the race, and Brad's 23 point lead was enough to take the title. In a gesture which displayed great class, Bradl stepped into Marquez' garage once the rain started to fall during Moto2 QP, and shook the hand of his rival and the rest of his team, before being presented as the 2011 Moto2 World Champion at the end of the day.
That leaves only the 125cc title to be settled, and this one could be closer than the 20-point lead which Nico Terol has over Johann Zarco may appear. Zarco starts from the front row while Terol is back in 9th, the Bankia Aspar struggling in the wet after a year of dominance. Zarco has looked fast and confident all weekend, while Terol looks like somebody has sneaked into the garage wearing his leathers to get a few laps in on the bike. Johann Zarco has to win on Sunday, while all Terol has to do is finish 11th, but even that looks like a bit of an ask at this stage in the proceedings. The title should go to Terol - the Spaniard has done everything to deserve it this year, including win a handful of races - but he will need to keep his nerve in the expected rain to ensure that nothing goes wrong.
With just one day of the 2011 season left to go, the final slots in the 2012 grid are starting to be filled. The Gresini MotoGP bike left vacant by Marco Simoncelli is now almost certain to be filled by Andrea Iannone, though whether that will be a factory bike or not remains to be seen. The factory RC213V destined for Simoncelli could now pass to the LCR Honda team, who seem likely to welcome Randy de Puniet back to their ranks.
For a long time, it looked like Alvaro Bautista could move to LCR, but a decision on Suzuki's future is likely before the end of Sunday night, and all the signals are positive. Suzuki will be back in 2012, though most likely with their 800cc machine - at least until the 1000cc bike which has been testing in Japan has undergone more development - potentially with a sort of two-man team. Bautista will remain as the team's main rider, while he will be joined for five of the eighteen races next year by John Hopkins. Whether Hopkins will also compete in Crescent Suzuki's World Superbike squad in 2012, or focus solely on MotoGP is unknown, but we are at least a little closer to knowing the truth.
In Moto2, the situation is a lot more fluid, with very few riders confirmed. Stefan Bradl, Marc Marquez, Scott Redding and Bradley Smith are all certain to return, with Alex de Angelis switching squads to NGM Forward, but beyond that, a lot of guesswork remains. At the Moto2 test on Monday, riders will be trotting between various garages trying out different bikes, in the general audition that the Valencia post-race test has become.
First, there is a day of racing, and time to say a fond good riddance to the abomination that is the 800cc formula. From an engineering perspective, the machines are absolute jewels, as the 2010 M1 engine on display in Yamaha's hospitality demonstrates. But the racing they created was bloodless, dispassionate, frigid, an excitement-free formula which rewarded perfection rather than risk. No wonder Carmelo Ezpeleta is on the warpath, with his sights aimed firmly at the factories.