There is a danger to thinking any championship is a foregone conclusion, especially this early in the season. Just as there is a danger to thinking that a race will pan out the way you thought it would after practice and qualifying. At Assen, everyone was afraid of three things: the weather, Jorge Lorenzo and Pol Espargaro. All three turned out differently than expected.
Best of all was the weather. After treacherous conditions on Friday, with rain falling, stopping, wetting the track just enough for Casey Stoner to bang himself up badly in the morning, though that did not stop him from blasting to pole, Saturday dawned bright and only got better: the big skies of flat-as-a-board Drenthe were mainly blue, with the occasional sighting of fluffy white clouds to provide a little cover and prevent egregious sunburn. But best of all, it stayed dry: no complications, just sunny, dry and calm weather.
Assen's surface is pretty good when it's dry, and it's not too bad when it's wet, but this is 2012, and there's a MotoGP race this weekend, so of course, the conditions are as bad as they can possibly be. For Assen, that means a few spots of rain here and there, just enough to create patches damp enough to catch out the unwary, or even the wary, as Casey Stoner found out this morning. Heading down the Veenslang Stoner noticed the first spots of rain on his visor. Through the Ruskenhoek, it turned into drizzle, and he had already backed off into De Bult when he was flung from the bike in what he described as one of the worst crashes of his career. He took a knock to the head, banged his left shoulder and left wrist, and suffered a big and very painful contusion to his right knee, that left him hobbling around like an old man in the afternoon.
The times were close after the first day of practice, closer than they have been for a very long time. Just 0.471 seconds separates the top 11 MotoGP prototypes (Karel Abraham is barely fit enough to ride, after breaking fingers in his left hand, and is way off the pace), with Ben Spies leading Cal Crutchlow by just 0.006, just a tenth separating Nicky Hayden in 3rd from Dani Pedrosa in 6th, and less than a tenth between Andrea Dovizioso in 7th and Stefan Bradl in 11th. It has all the makings of a great race, right?
Not according to Cal Crutchlow. "Lorenzo will run away with it," the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man opined. Everyone except for Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa had set their fastest time on the soft tire, Crutchlow explained. Lorenzo's best time, a 1'35.057, was set in the middle of a run with a used hard tire, his race rhythm in the 1'35.0 while everyone else was running 1'35.3. Lorenzo was looking very smooth on the bike, team manager Wilco Zeelenberg saying he was pretty pleased with the bike and the way the first day had gone.
Three races in 15 days, right in the middle and most important part of the season. MotoGP lines up at Assen with one third of the season gone. By the time the triple header is finished at Mugello, just over two weeks' later, we are half way through the season and the title is a lot closer to being settled. These three races are crucial.
Not that it changes anyone's approach. During the press conference, I asked the riders if they took a more cautious approach, knowing that the cost of injury is much, much greater now than it is when there is more time to recover between races. They looked at me as if I were stupid - a conclusion they have some justification for drawing - and told me that they treat these three races the same as the first race, the last race, and every other race in between. Flat out, and trying to win. It is impossible to win championships without winning races, as Casey Stoner likes to point out, so it is better to focus on that than on worrying about what might happen.
It seems ironic - ironic at best, downright insane at worst - that at the 7th Grand Prix of the first season after a major capacity change in MotoGP, the Grand Prix Commission will be deciding on another major change in MotoGP regulations. With just one third of the races run of one season after such a change, why are the GP Commission even contemplating more changes?
The reason is simple: money, or rather the lack of it. A raft of technical rule changes introduced at the behest of the manufacturers has left the series struggling to fill the grid with the prototypes being built by the few manufacturers still racing, the others forced out either by a lack of success or the high costs of racing, or more usually a combination of both. The technical regulations drawn up by the MSMA have prevented new manufacturers from entering: even BMW, probably the biggest spenders in the World Superbike series, are saying that they cannot afford to go racing in MotoGP under the current rules, with BMW's head of motorcycle racing Bernhard Gobmeier pointing the finger of blame at Honda and Yamaha for making the series unsustainably expensive.
With costs too high, Dorna, the FIM and IRTA are casting around for a set of rules to make the racing more financially sustainable. That was not achievable with the rules that MotoGP had prior to 2012, and this year's rule package is only a little better. The combination of high horsepower, high revs and limited fuel means that millions are being poured into the development of electronics to keep the bikes rideable and make the fuel last. MotoGP needs cheaper racing, but, as they say, you can't get there from here.
Now that three races have passed, giving the paddock time to digest the news of Casey Stoner's shock decision to retire and consider what effect it will have on the future line up of the MotoGP grid. The riders' representatives have been very busy at the past few races, putting out feelers to factories and teams, weighing up opportunities and gauging the market value of their riders. With summer approaching, Silly Season for 2013 is very much open.
Two more decisions have accelerated developments, and drawn the lines of the 2013 season a little more clearly. Firstly, Jorge Lorenzo's decision to stay with Yamaha for next season - "if Jorge wants to win championships," Lorenzo's team boss Wilco Zeelenberg had said at Barcelona, "his best option is to stay at Yamaha." The strength of the team and the state of the bike do seem to have been the key criteria for Lorenzo's decision, the Spaniard opting for performance over financial gain.
For the past few years, attending a MotoGP round has been a disheartening experience for most British fans. After sitting in traffic for several hours, they then faced a day getting soaked to the skin while watching their local heroes - if any were actually on the grid - circulating around at the rear of the pack. At the end of the day, they faced yet more hours sitting in a traffic chaos in a downpour to get home again. They loved it, of course, but it tested their courage.
2012 would be different. The miserable weather magically disappeared for race day - it was far from perfect, but it remained largely dry - Scott Redding got on the podium in Moto2, and Cal Crutchlow put on a heroic and brilliant performance in MotoGP. It might be fair to question the wisdom of Crutchlow's decision to lie about his foot not being broken and race anyway, but there is no question about his bravery or pain threshold, nor, after starting at the back of the grid and slicing through the field to finish 6th, matching the pace of race winner Jorge Lorenzo, about his ability. The British fans have a hero again. More than one, in fact.
The weather has been a cruel mistress at Silverstone this weekend, much as it has been every year MotoGP has paid a visit. The track is built around an airfield, and consequently sits on a plateau just enough above the surrounding area to catch any wind which may be about. On Saturday, that was a lot, the wind blowing hard and gusting harder all day, catching many a rider out, especially on the way into Brooklands. The wind also blew in occasional showers, though it blew them back out again just as fast, a small blessing on an incredibly difficult day.
Despite the conditions, three men braved the wind to take pole in each class, to varying levels of surprise. That Maverick Vinales should take pole in Moto3 is much as expected, Silverstone being the Spaniard's third pole position in a row. Though his advantage is relatively modest, there has been no one to mount a serious challenge to his supremacy all weekend, and if he gets a decent start he will be a very hard man to beat.
"It was an up-and-down day," Ben Spies said after practice on Friday, and truly, he spoke for a large part of the paddock. It started with the weather: the overnight rain continued for the better part of the morning, leaving the track soaking during FP1. The sun came out at lunchtime, quickly drying out the track, helped by the strong winds buffeting the circuit. The dry track helped, the wind certainly didn't. "That's what happens when you build a circuit on an airfield," Cal Crutchlow commented curtly, after complaining about being blown around by the gusting wind in the afternoon.
Two topics dominated Thursday's round of talk, rider debriefs and press conferences - well, three actually, but the Marquez/Espargaro clash at Barcelona was really just rehashing old ground - and they were contracts and tires, probably in that order of importance. With Casey Stoner retired and Jorge Lorenzo having renewed his contract with Yamaha for two more years, attention is turning to the other players in the field, and so every rider speaking to the press was given a grilling as to their plans for next year.
That interrogation revealed only a very little. In the press conference, Jorge Lorenzo admitted he had been made an offer by Honda, and had only decided to sign for Yamaha once Lin Jarvis upped his original offer in response to Honda's. Lorenzo would not be drawn on the size of the sums involved - a clumsy and badly phrased question in the press conference asked by me was easily evaded by the Spaniard - but logic dictates that it would be more than the reported 8 million a year his previous contract was worth. But money was not the main driver behind the signing, Lorenzo said. "I listened to my heart, and my heart said Yamaha." As Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said at Barcelona, and repeated again at Silverstone, Lorenzo wants to win championships, and Yamaha gave him the best shot at doing that.