The night race at Qatar produces a strange rhythm for the riders and teams, but it hits the media heaviest. The press are often here till 4am or later, filing stories ready for the next day's papers or to hit the web. Sunday night is the worst, as early morning flights leave you rushing to get things done before heading out to the airport.
So with my 8am flight just a couple of hours away, no time for a full round up of the day's events. Instead, the big things I noticed after this evening.
First and foremost, we got ourselves more of a race than we bargained for. We all expected the Repsols to battle over victory, we all expected Casey Stoner to come out on top of that scrap. What we did not expect is for Jorge Lorenzo to keep Stoner and Pedrosa in sight throughout the race, eventually beating Pedrosa and having a hint of a chance of catching Stoner. Lorenzo celebrated his 2nd place like a victory, and given the right royal kicking the Hondas had been handing out earlier to all and sundry, running with the Repsols is a real achievement. Once we get to tracks with less emphasis on speed and getting drive out of corners, Lorenzo looks capable of mixing it up with Stoner and Pedrosa.
The first race of the season hasn't even happened yet, but the Honda story is already starting to get old. The headlines are writing themselves, the only thing that an editor has to do at the moment is cast a cursory glance over the wording to check whether it was Casey Stoner or Dani Pedrosa who spotted the fastest time.
Despite the disparity with the rest of the field, qualifying actually turned into a pretty exciting spectacle. It was a race of two classes - the two lead Repsols matching each other's times, while the rest of the field battled valiantly for the rest of the places on the two front rows, but it still gave the viewers something to get engrossed in.
Stoner's 1'54.137 is a spectacular improvement over last year, cutting the best part of a second off his pole time from 2010. And it was the first time we got to see Stoner really pushing, starting to sling the Repsol Honda around like he used to muscle the Marlboro Ducati around in 2010. He admitted in the press conference that he had been a lot closer to the limit than he had been so far during practice, saying he had even managed to get close to tucking the front at one point. The bad news - at least for the competition - was that he had not been that comfortable on the softer tires, and felt he had better pace on the harder race tires.
Honda's seamless shift gearbox has been the talk of the MotoGP world since it first debuted at Sepang, with journalists on a quest to chase down exactly what it is and how it works. The only response you receive from HRC or Honda riders about the gearbox is that it is "better" and that it is "smoother". The best guess about its operation so far has been that it is either based on or very similar to the Xtrac Instantaneous Gearshift System, which allows two gears to be engaged simultaneously, while driving only one.
Since the introduction of the system, speculation has been rampant as to exactly how much advantage Honda's gearbox confers. Wild guesses were doing the rounds, with the highest guess being that it would give an advantage of 0.9 seconds a lap, an absolute eternity. According to one of the journalists over at GPOne.com, Filippo Preziosi said he believed that Honda's gearbox was probably worth around 0.2 seconds a lap.
A long time ago, when I worked at a software company, we had a timekeeping system that consumed hours of our productive time as we tried to keep track of the projects we had worked on every week. One member of our team was smarter than the rest of us, however. He figured he knew roughly what projects he would be working on for the next couple of months, and would fill in his timesheets about 6 weeks in advance. He saved himself a whole heap of time doing that, while we struggled.
Compare and contrast the lot of a MotoGP headline writer. The way things are looking so far, we could fill in the headlines for all of the practice sessions and races for the next three or four MotoGP rounds well in advance, and get about 90% of them absolutely spot on. Put the following words in any order: Stoner, Repsol Honda, Pedrosa, Dominate, Clean Sweep. Throw in a couple of conjunctions, and you are set to go for quite some time.
So we're finally racing again, after what seemed like an eternity. Even though we were here just a couple of days ago for the final test of the year, walking through the paddock on Thursday was like being in another world. If a racetrack during a test on is a cold, desolate place, come race weekend, there's a completely different vibe.
There was of course much focus and talk about the ongoing disaster in Japan, everyone enquiring of Japanese friends and colleagues how things were in their hometown. As a mark of respect and to show their (and our) concern for Japan, Dorna announced there would be a minute's silence before the MotoGP race, and just about all of the MotoGP teams are carrying some form of Kanji text wishing everyone in Japan well on their bikes or leathers somewhere.
Despite the obvious concern about Japan, the overwhelming feeling in the paddock was a buzz of excitement, everyone glad to have the long wait over and to be racing again. All those hours of hard, tiring but necessary work busting out laps to prepare for the season are finally over, and now those laps actually mean something.
What a difference a day makes. On Sunday, the desert was calm, temperate, really quite pleasant overall, at least until the temperatures started to drop and the dew came. Monday was a different proposition altogether; Twitter was ablaze with reports of a sandstorm blowing over the Losail circuit.
As we drove to the circuit ourselves, it turned out that "sandstorm" was a bit of an exaggeration. But not by too much: winds were very strong, with plenty of gusts, and the air was laden with dust. We didn't expect to see too much action tonight, but when the horn sounded for the start of the five-hour session, bikes started to trickle out onto the track, despite the wind.
The wind would be a key player, and expose the weakness of a champion. In his daily media debrief, Jorge Lorenzo fulminated against his bike, complaining that they couldn't get a setup for the bike, they'd gone backwards, and that if they had had to race tonight, he would have been running 1'57.2s and watching the Hondas disappear doing 1'56.0s. "Even my grandmother would have been faster than me on a bike with a good setup," Lorenzo quipped.
Whenever MotoGP testing is underway, there is a ravenous hunger for times among fans and followers of the sport. Every update is greedily consumed, every time heatedly debated, as we search to make sense of the posted times.
Two factors stand in the way of making an accurate analysis of the times, however. The first is that only the fastest lap time set by a rider is posted to the results page, and the second - related - issue is that the full timesheets - containing the times for every lap set for each rider - are not made available to the public. The times are printed out and distributed in the media center, but they are not published on the official MotoGP.com website, unlike the results for each session during a race weekend.
Being at Qatar, we get to see the actual timesheets, and it is immediately clear that the final posted times do not tell the full tale. The order the riders finished in is distorted by a couple of riders who set a very fast lap. Here's how the top 7 riders finished, including everyone who set a time under the 1'57 mark:
For the third year running, MotoGP is down to just 17 bikes on the grid. And for the second time in three years, a manufacturer is showing an alarming lack of commitment to the series, Suzuki fielding just one rider for the 2011 season. Sponsors are pulling out and teams are constantly complaining about a lack of money. Something has to be done.
Throughout 2009, MotoGP's rule-making body, the Grand Prix Commission, debated ways of changing the class to make the series cheaper, thereby increasing the number of bikes on the grid. The solution, announced in December 2009, was the return to 1000cc machines under specific restrictions aimed at capping costs: a maximum of four cylinders, and an 81mm maximum bore.
But that in itself was not enough. Throughout the entire process, it was also broadly hinted that the requirement that engines must be prototypes would be dropped for privateer teams, with these so-called Claiming Rule Teams being allowed to run heavily modified production engines in a prototype chassis. To ensure the teams would not be forced to spend on electronics what they saved on engines, the CRT machines would also be allowed an extra 3 liters of fuel above the allowance for the factory machines (for our detailed explanation of exactly what the CRT rules entail, see The 2012 MotoGP Revolution Part 1.)
We have been here before, of course. Back in 2003, the WCM team, under the management of Peter Clifford, entered two 990cc Harris WCM MotoGP machines, their engines based on the dimensions of Yamaha's R1, housed in a prototype frame produced by Harris. The WCM bikes turned up at the first race of the year, but were disqualified by scrutineering as not being a fully prototype machine.
The same pressure that eventually killed off the WCM project also threatens the CRT teams, and the arguments that kept the WCM off the grid for the first half of the 2003 season are being brought up again for the CRT bikes.
It's been a long winter. And the lack of action on the MotoGP front has made the anticipation of the fans even worse by the many questions left hanging after the last test the MotoGP bikes participated in, after the season finale at Valencia.
Back in November, thousands watched Valentino Rossi make his debut on the Ducati (and Casey Stoner make his debut on the Honda, though it was clear where the attention of the fans was focused), and the results were a huge surprise. That Jorge Lorenzo was fast at the test surprised nobody, nor the fact that Casey Stoner was fast out of the traps, though quite how fast the Australian was after just a few laps on the Repsol Honda for the first time did raise a few eyebrows.
The big surprise from the Valencia test was Valentino Rossi's times on the Ducati. The Italian ended the test with the 15th time, with only Moto2 returnee Toni Elias and MotoGP rookie Karel Abraham behind him. There was no doubt that Rossi's injured shoulder - hurt in a training accident early in the year - played a significant role; the Valencia test came at the end of a long season, and after a full weekend of racing, at a track Rossi dislikes intensely. But Rossi (speaking through Filippo Preziosi, as he was contractually unable to speak directly to the press) also complained of a lack of feel from the front end, and a general lack of confidence in the bike.
2012 is the year that everything will change. A bafflingly large number of people think this is because of the approach of Planet X, bringing destruction upon the world as foretold by the end of the Mayan calendar (which rather inconveniently now appears to end in 2220), but for motorcycle racing fans, something even more momentous than the end of civilization is on the cards. For 2012 is the year that sees the return of 1000cc motorcycles to MotoGP.
Those who were hoping to see the return of the glorious RC211V and its soul-churning V5 bellow will be sorely disappointed, however. MotoGP may be allowing the return of the liter bikes, but a couple of significant rule changes mean that the face of the grid will be altered irrevocably. There'll be no more barking V5 Hondas, nor howling Aprilia RS3 Cubes, nor will the overly optimistic and sadly failed WCM Blata V6 project be revived. The rules have been written such that the bikes will have four cylinders, use a four-stroke combustion cycle, and are likely to come in well under 1000cc capacity.
The lack of diversity in MotoGP from 2012 onwards is down to the new rule package due to come into effect. So let us first take a look at the rules laid down for MotoGP, before going on to study the reasoning behind those rules, and the effects they will have on the grid.