It is rather fitting that Paris Hilton should be coming to town, given the scenario that unfolded during qualifying for the MotoGP class this afternoon at Barcelona. It was straight out of a Hollywood script: after taking down the local hero, the Villain of the Piece turns up at Montmelo, faces down the booing crowd, and then steams home to take pole, his first ever in MotoGP.
Of course, in the Hollywood script, Marco Simoncelli would be defeated on the final lap by the guy brought in to defend the honor of the local hero, and if we were to cast Jorge Lorenzo in the role of Dani Pedrosa's avenging angel, then there is a good chance that Lorenzo will at least run the Italian to the line. But this isn't Hollywood, and despite Simoncelli's pole - taken with a brilliant lap, storming through the final sector to just edge Casey Stoner - it is the Australian Respol Honda man who is still firmly in control at Barcelona.
Go back and look at the timesheets of all three free practices, and check the times set before the riders put the softer tire on to go for a qualifying lap, and Stoner has half a second or more on the guys behind him. Stoner said after QP that they had gotten the setup right for the softer tire, leaving them lacking edge grip and setting a similar pace to the times set on harder, race rubber. Given that Stoner's race pace on hard rubber is less than two tenths off Simoncelli's pole pace on soft rubber, that should be cause for concern. If Stoner can get past Simoncelli early, then we're on for a repeat of Le Mans.
Hopefully, the cameras will spend most of the race watching the battle for the other podium places, as those battles promise to be rather good. On race rubber, Simoncelli and Lorenzo are pretty evenly matched, and even Ben Spies is not far behind. Andrea Dovizioso has a similar pace, while Jeremy Burgess only has to find a couple of tenths for Valentino Rossi for the Italian to be on the pace. Even Cal Crutchlow, if his crew can solve his problems with edge grip, could be capable of hanging with the battle for the podium.
The most interesting revival of fortunes is that of Ben Spies, but the factory Yamaha rider doesn't regard it as a revival in any real sense of the word. "It hasn't been as bad as it looks," Spies told reporters, "I made a stupid mistake at Jerez, the team made a mistake at Estoril, then we went to one of my least favorite tracks."
Things were starting to turn around, Spies emphasized, especially now his team had moved him back on the bike a little - just a centimeter, or about three-eighths of an inch - and this had given him a little more traction and taken some pressure off the front tire, allowing him to push that little bit harder. He felt comfortable with the bike again, Spies said, and was feeling pretty confident going into the race. Stoner was in a separate bracket, Spies said, but he felt he was right there with Lorenzo and Simoncelli.
Over in Ducati, the juggling with engines has begun. Both Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden used the new engine - the one with the heavier crankshaft which makes for a smoother power delivery and is supposed to help with turning - but with Hayden already having lost an engine at Estoril, the American is on his 4th engine, while Rossi is on his 3rd. And we're only at round 5 of 18. The solution in the short term will be to switch back and forth from the old to the new when the occasion warrants; so Nicky Hayden will be using the old engine spec at Silverstone, where they think the more aggressive throttle response will be less of a problem, then taking the new engine at tracks which need more acceleration.
But even with the new engine, the problems with the Ducati remain. The new chassis has helped some, but the next iteration of the chassis - softer yet again, to retain more feel in the front end, the Ducati's notorious weakness, as demonstrated by Valentino Rossi's dumping of the bike in Turn 5 during FP3 - won't be available until maybe the Sachsenring or Laguna Seca. And now, with Rossi's shoulder as near as it gets to healed - the Italian said he is riding without painkillers for the first time, and his shoulder is holding up remarkably well, with just a little bit of reaction speed missing - it is clear that the half a second he is missing - in comparison to Lorenzo, Stoner is in a different league altogether - is down to the deficiencies of the bike.
The tone is starting to change. There are the first hints of frustration starting to creep through in Rossi's tone, signs that Ducati are not responding as quickly as he might like. Part of that is down to the fact that building a carbon fiber chassis takes a lot longer than the same item in aluminium, but that is starting to wear a little on Rossi. Though Rossi keeps emphasizing that Ducati is working very hard to accommodate him, he spends an equal amount of time emphasizing that Ducati needs fixing. The front end lacks feel, the rear pumps, and he needs to adapt his style, is how Rossi sums up the situation. The irony of Rossi saying almost exactly what Casey Stoner spent all last year telling the press is not lost upon us.
Off the track, much of the talk was of Motegi once again, with Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi keen to prevent the circus from traveling to Japan in October. At a safety commission meeting on Friday evening, the riders expressed their doubts to Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, and Ezpeleta told them that they were going. Afterwards, Rossi was spotted going into Lorenzo's motorhome to discuss the situation, in itself a sign of how strong the sentiment is given the absolute antipathy between the two men (the current favorite argument in the media center is who Rossi hates most, Jorge Lorenzo or Casey Stoner). In the front row press conference, Lorenzo acknowledged that he would need help from Rossi to get Motegi canceled, because of the power which Rossi holds in the paddock.
None of the riders particularly want to go - well, with a few exceptions, World Supersport champion and Technomag Moto2 rider Kenan Sofuoglu said of the situation "we race motorcycles. The risk from radiation is pretty small compared to the danger on the track" - but they all freely admit to acting from ignorance. Lorenzo said that he did not trust the advice of the experts, then quoted facts given by the self-same experts in a documentary on the fallout (pun intended) from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 25 years ago. This is clearly an irrational fear which is not amenable to facts, based on the same logic by which people buy lottery tickets expecting to win and keep on smoking expecting not to get cancer. Lorenzo's - entirely understandable - fears are another demonstration that humans are shockingly bad at making judgments based on science and statistics.
Tomorrow, we go racing, and Paris Hilton turns up to cheer on her 125cc team. Terol looks favorite to take victory in the junior class, Stoner is a shoe-in for MotoGP, and only the Moto2 class promises any uncertainty over the victor. But the prospect likely to bring the most entertainment is surely Andrea Iannone, starting from 22nd on the grid after crashing on his out lap in QP. Given Iannone's recent record, making up 22 places is not beyond the bounds of reason. Keeping it in one piece, however, is. It should be fun.