Somehow, the big news always seems to break on Thursdays. Probably because we don't have any real action to talk about, and so all the focus is on speculation, spying, or off-track events, but without motorcycles going round on track, we still have plenty to talk about.
On Thursday at Aragon, there were three subjects on everyone's minds: Motegi, Rossi's Mugello chassis and 2012 (though the latter two are to a large extent the same subject, given that Rossi and his crew gave up on 2011 almost before the season had started). The short version of those subjects is that everyone is going to Motegi, Rossi (the final official holdout) announcing that he did not have sufficient reason to stay away; Rossi came clean in the press conference and admitted to testing an aluminium chassis at Mugello, it later emerging that he would be riding it this weekend; and silly season is in full swing, with lots of fevered speculation about who will be going where for 2012.
To the most feverishly discussed subject first: that aluminium chassis. Despite Filippo Preziosi's protestations at Brno and Misano that materials do not really matter, the carbon fiber has been quietly dropped in favor of a material that Valentino Rossi and his crew chief Jeremy Burgess understand a lot better (see news story here). The reason for the change was simple: to move the bike forward faster, and to be able to understand the bike faster, especially understanding what the Desmosedici is capable of. Rossi and his crew have struggled all year with finding a setup that works, which with the Ducati is rather akin to navigating in the Dakar Rally: you flail around looking for a general direction, and only once you get within a very short distance does the GPS kick in and tell you where the waypoint is actually located. For the Desmosedici, you can move the weight forward and back, up and down, change a million things and the bike still feels lost. Only when you make the final, crucial tweak does it all suddenly smooth out, and the bike becomes rideable the way its creator intended. Where that tweak is, though, is not necessarily an obvious thing.
Miracles are not to be expected, however. The bike felt a lot better during testing at Mugello, but that was with the 1000cc engine. Much the same was said of the original GP12 that was tested at Jerez, however, and the risk is that the 800cc engine responds differently, and makes the bike behave sufficiently differently that it still doesn't work on the GP11.2, or GP11.1.1, or whatever we are to call the latest iteration. The more aggressive response of the higher revving 800cc engine may mean that the advantages of the new aluminium subframe are lost.
The hope is that the different material, and longer rear spars (the front subframe now fixes to the rear mounts on the rear of the cylinder head, rather than the front, giving more material to work with and flex) will give the rider a better feeling from the front, with better feedback and better turning. There is good reason to believe that this change will be different to the switch from the GP11 to the GP11.1: Rossi said at the time that the problem with front-end feeling was still there with the original GP12, but that the different way the 1000cc bike was ridden made it less significant. This time, the feeling has been improved, though just by how much remains to be seen.
Naturally, with yet another new chassis at Ducati, Casey Stoner was asked for his opinion. And naturally, he gave it, inimically forthright as ever: "They've gone through that many different changes this year it's not funny," Stoner said about the changes Ducati have made. "Something should have worked this year, the amount of different parts they've thrown at it, complete chassis, complete bike, you name it, they've done it." Would it work? "You can throw a load of parts at it, but sometimes it's just better to understand what each part does first, and get to grips with it." Stoner would have liked to have more parts to test last year, but he didn't in the end using quite an extreme change to find a solution to his own lack of front-end feel and competitiveness.
A new chassis for Valentino Rossi does not automatically mean a new chassis for Nicky Hayden, however. Hayden told me that he did not expect to ride the bike until the Valencia test, with Rossi getting most of the new parts. Given that the next three races are flyaways, making shipping spare parts a difficult and expensive business, this was not surprising, and the benefits of having Hayden ride the new version of the bike as well may not outweigh the cost - though a case could be made for putting both men on the FTR-built aluminium chassis, to gather as much data as possible ahead of the 2012 season. Still, Hayden had had a few more of the upgrades that Valentino Rossi had used at Brno, allowing him to fit some of the modifications to both bikes. That was much better than nothing, and should at least validate Rossi's input.
The attention of the new parts for the Ducati allowed Rossi's announcement that he would after all be going to Motegi to slip under the radar somewhat. Though Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner had led the early public resistance to going to Motegi, starting at Estoril and Barcelona, it was with the full backing and encouragement of Valentino Rossi, the Italian working behind the scenes to organize a boycott of the race. Bit by bit - with massive encouragement and huge pressure from Dorna, IRTA and the (Japanese) manufacturers - resistance has crumbled, first Stoner saying he would review his options, then Yamaha announcing they would be going to Motegi, and today, finally Rossi saying he, too, would attend.
That does not mean that they are happy to go, however. It was more a case of not having any reason to hold out any longer, was what we could gather from Rossi's explanations. All the reports said it was relatively safe, Rossi explained, and so he felt he had to go. Lorenzo agreed, saying that the experts he had consulted had said it was safe, the only worry being the food. Stoner was the only rider to say he had not made a definite decision yet, though all the signs are that the Australian will go. The science says it is safe - the IAEA chief said at the start of this week that the reactor at Fukushima was stable, and radioactivity levels in and around Motegi show only normal background radiation.
All of the teams are going to Motegi - apart from Mahindra, the Italian team members telling their Indian employer that they refused to go - though nobody is happy about it. The Italians are especially worried, though one respected journalist told me that the problem was not so much that they were going, but rather the inordinate amount of pressure being applied from elsewhere. Entries for Moto3, for example, have to be submitted on Thursday at Motegi. Anyone not present will not be able to submit their entry, and will therefore not be able to race in Moto3 in 2012. With waiting lists for the Moto2 and Moto3 classes, it is no real surprise that IRTA and Dorna can force the hands of the teams for next year, and ensure a strong attendance at the Japanese circuit.
The 2012 season is indeed getting very close indeed, and by the end of this weekend, some free seats should be filled in. The most popular vacancy in MotoGP is probably the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha seat - and it will be the Monster Tech 3 team, Herve Poncharal cheerfully telling me this afternoon that he had concluded another three-year deal with the energy drink brand before the weekend. The choice has come down to Andrea Dovizioso, Eugene Laverty and Alvaro Bautista, with Dovizioso Poncharal's preferred candidate - rightly so, given the strength of the Italian's results. That would pose a huge dilemma for Dovizioso, who has had a long and lucrative relationship with Red Bull, and would have to abandon the Austrian energy drink for the Americans.
The most intriguing possibility, however, is that Marc Marquez will move up to MotoGP in 2012. Honda is said to have a spare RC2123V waiting for the Spanish prodigy, and given the huge budget his current Catalunya Caixa / Repsol Moto2 team have, a switch to MotoGP would be perfectly feasible. Whether he wins the Moto2 title this year or not, staying in Moto2 for another year carries more downsides than upsides. The best he could do is what is expected of him, win the title, possibly for a second year in a row; the worst he could do is not win the title, and losing a title is a good deal easier than winning it - a serious injury is enough. Going to MotoGP when the formula changes levels the playing field somewhat, with everyone new to the 1000cc machines (though Casey Stoner once again avowed that they will be very similar indeed to the 800s, with only the greater braking distance offering extra opportunities for passing), while waiting another year means that everyone has an extra year to learn the 1000s while Marquez tries to repeat in Moto2.
His opponents in Moto2 would be delighted if he went to MotoGP, with one Moto2 team member commenting that their goal for 2012 would only be winning the title if Marc Marquez was not contesting it, such is the awe in which the Spaniard held in the support classes. But it could spell trouble for Dani Pedrosa: the Spaniard currently spearheads Spanish petroleum giant Repsol's assault on the MotoGP class, but once Marquez arrives, Repsol has a second arrow in their quiver. If Pedrosa fails to get close to winning a title again in 2012, and Marquez spends his rookie year on a non-factory team in MotoGP, then 2013 could be the perfect opportunity to replace one Spanish superstar with another. That would also allow HRC to get rid of the turbulent presence of Alberto Puig in their midst, and move in the much more malleable Emilio Alzamora, Marquez' mentor.
The rookie rule prevents Marquez from going directly to a factory team, but any thoughts that the outfit Marquez would be riding for was an entirely satellite fair would be very much mistaken. The rookie rule has been dubbed "the Ben Spies rule," introduced to keep Spies in a satellite team, but the rookie rule would lead to "the Valentino Rossi solution", recalling Rossi's first year in the 500s - the forerunner of the MotoGP class. Back in 2000, there was no room in the factory Repsol Honda team, both seats occupied by reigning world champion Alex Criville and Japanese ace Tady Okada. So Rossi was placed in a separate team, backed by Italian beermaker Nastro Azzurro, and staffed by all of Mick Doohan's former crew. Marquez, too, will have full factory support, and probably race for a separate Catalunya Caixa team.
That team will not be the factory Repsol Honda team, and will therefore comply with the letter of the law. It will, however, be a "Repsol Honda Lite", and drive a coach and horses through the spirit of the rules: the team will exist for one reason and one reason only: as a place to house Marquez until he is ready to take over the mantle of top Spanish representative for Repsol. That moment looks ever more likely to be 2013. Dani Pedrosa needs to stay healthy for a season.