2012 Silverstone MotoGP Preview: Another Wet Race, A Few More Surprises?
On a sunny and pleasant Thursday, the day before the MotoGP riders are to take to the track at Silverstone for the first day of free practice, the questions ahead of this weekend should be obvious: Have the Hondas really found something at the Barcelona test to fix the chatter that has plagued them this season? How will Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa get on with the new "33" spec front tire, now that the old construction has been withdrawn from the allocation? Does Jorge Lorenzo's new two-year contract with Yamaha mean he eases up or he pushes harder to extend his impressive lead in the championship? And just how much more progress can the Ducatis make in the dry without any major updates? Are Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi any nearer to closing in on the Tech 3 Yamahas, their first port of call on the way to the podium fight?
But this is MotoGP 2012. And this is England. Despite the balmy conditions on Thursday, the Met Office forecasters are positively apologetic: it's going to be wet, and though the forecast has improved since early in the week, where they were promising positively torrential conditions, the weather looks set to be merely wet, rather than diluvian. Right now, it looks like race day could be the best of the lot - merely showery, rather than rainy - but the chances of getting much dry track time this weekend appear to be vanishingly slim.
Normally, wet conditions is enough to keep audience numbers down, but things are a little different this season. As Le Mans showed, a wet track is Valentino Rossi's best hope of a podium, or even - dare the fans dream of it? - a win. Why the Ducati works well in the wet is a mystery: every wet weekend, both Rossi and Nicky Hayden are asked why the Desmosedici GP12 is so strong in the rain, yet so troublesome in the dry, and every time they give the same reply: "We don't know." But the confidence with with the factory Ducati men can throw the bike around in the wet is plain to see, giving them their best chance of a strong result if the rain comes as promised on Sunday. And the prospect of Rossi on the podium fills grandstands, exposing the major weakness of MotoGP: it's excessive reliance on its Italian superstar. One day, Rossi will retire, and so far, Dorna have nothing to keep the fans attention - the casual fans at least, not the much smaller hardcore who will watch anyway.
Wet or dry, the two protagonists of any MotoGP race this season are Repsol Honda's Casey Stoner and Factory Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo. Last year, in the torrential downpour that was the 2011 British Grand Prix, Casey Stoner gave a masterclass in riding in the wet. Yet a month ago, it was Jorge Lorenzo's turn to demonstrate his smoothness in the rain, obliterating the field at Le Mans with spectacular ease. That race neatly illustrated the problems which Honda is having this season: in Parc Ferme, the rear wet tire of Jorge Lorenzo's Yamaha looked remarkably fresh, with a nice even wear pattern and still plenty of tread left. The rear of Stoner's Honda was destroyed, the tire having chewed through most of its edge pattern, leaving Stoner losing ground massively in the final laps.
Since its introduction at Brno, the Honda RC213V has struggled with tires: in the dry, the bike chatters, first at the rear, and now, with the new spec front Bridgestone, at the front as well. In the wet, the bike eats tires, a consequence perhaps of its more aggressive acceleration. How well and how quickly Cristian Gabarrini and Mike Leitner manage to find solutions to that dilemma will be a key factor in this weekend's race.
The Yamaha has no such problems, the M1's only real weakness a lack of top speed and acceleration. That has not hurt them much: Jorge Lorenzo leads the title chase by 20 points after the first five races, and three Yamahas sit in the top five of the championship table. Andrea Dovizioso has already appeared on the podium - the first satellite bike to do so since Colin Edwards at Silverstone last year - and going by Cal Crutchlow's form, he is sure to follow very soon. Silverstone would be an ideal place for Crutchlow to get his first podium, providing a boost for the Englishman in front of his home crowd, and getting even once again with his teammate, in what is an increasingly tense relationship between the two men.
The anomaly in the Yamaha garage is Ben Spies, the Texan having a very torrid time in his second season in the factory Yamaha team. A technical problem at Qatar followed by set up problems at Jerez got his season off to a shaky start, and he has been playing catch up ever since. The pressure is obvious: a series of mistakes have seen Spies finish poorly, despite setting a respectable pace. His aim is once again just to try to have a smooth weekend, without any mishaps, and rebuild his confidence. Spies was fast in the wet at Le Mans - at least, once he'd sorted out a problem with his visor, suffered at the start of the race - and so should be competitive at Silverstone. If he can keep it together.
What of the CRTs? Could a damp Silverstone provide them with the opportunity to get in among the factory prototypes? Though much progress is being made on the new bikes, the fact that they are still at such an early stage of their development makes it difficult, even in the wet. Cream of the CRT crop so far have been the Power Electronics Aspar riders Aleix Espargaro and Randy De Puniet, and a new swingarm and extra testing should help them get a little bit closer. But Silverstone is such a fast track that even in the rain, following the much faster prototypes is tricky. Perhaps PBM's James Ellison can repeat his feat from Le Mans, ending as the top CRT bike and getting close to a top ten finish. The new bikes still have a way to go yet.