After two weeks away from racing, the MotoGP assembles again in Barcelona, and tragically, we're once talking about what's going on off-track rather than the prospect of some racing after a two-week hiatus. Marco Simoncelli has been called to Race Direction for further questioning about his crash with Dani Pedrosa at Le Mans. He will likely also be receiving some extra personal protection at the Barcelona circuit, after threats had been made against him via the Gresini website. The good news is that the threats came over the internet, meaning they are most likely the work of an idiot stuck in is bedroom who is all keyboard and no trousers (after all, if every threat of violence posted on the internet was actually followed through, the population of the world would be 7 rather than 7 billion). It still completely spoils the atmosphere though.
The reason there is so much talk of the off-track chin-wagging and not so much of the on-track action is twofold. Firstly, there hasn't been much on-track action: it's June, and we're only on the 5th race of the year, and a quarter of the way through the season. Secondly, with all of the major riders tied up contractually for 2012, there is no room for speculating about who might be shifting where for next season, for everyone who is anyone - with the exception of Andrea Dovizioso and Marco Simoncelli - will be staying exactly where they are.
Fortunately, the next eight weeks sees six races, and by the end of it, we should have a clearer idea of who is in the running for the title. There will be so much going on on-track that the riders, media and fans simply will not have the energy left to talk about the off-track distractions, and after July, the run into 2012 and the new MotoGP era begins.
There are few places to begin a long run of races than in Barcelona. The track has many things going for it: a strong layout with a lot of passing opportunities; a pleasant setting nestling in the crook of a some low hills; but most of all, just a few miles away from one of the great cities of the world. The Montmelo circuit has been the scene of some epic battles and spectacular events: Rossi vs Lorenzo in 2009, Rossi vs Stoner in 2008, the massive first-corner pile-up in 2006 which effectively ended Loris Capirossi's title challenge, Alex Criville vs Tady Okada in 1999, Wayne Rainey vs Mick Doohan in 1992, to name but a few.
But with four Gps in Spain and its contract running out at the end of this year, it is the obvious candidate to be dropped from the calendar, as the other Spanish rounds all have multi-year deals with Dorna. Given that Dorna's offices are based just south of Barcelona, and many of the teams and riders come from the surrounding area, there is still hope that it might be retained, fortunately.
Picking a favorite to win at Barcelona is hard: All of the riders seem to love the track, and all of them perform well here. Given that Montmelo has a 200mph front straight, the Honda lane has been reopened this year, and Casey Stoner is coming off a dominant weekend topped with a terrifyingly convincing victory at Le Mans, it would be a brave man who would bet against the Australian at Barcelona. The Honda is still a rocketship, its only weakness a tendency to hop on corner entry, and Stoner is fitter, happier and more motivated than ever. The only chink in Stoner's armor at Barcelona is the fact that he has had the flu for the past couple of weeks, and may not be at 100% fitness. With conditions due to vary between wet and dry at Barcelona, that may help in reducing the amount of effort required to ride a MotoGP race, but it may also hinder Stoner, if he spends too much time drenched from racing in the wet.
Under normal circumstances, the main threat to Stoner would come from his Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, but the Spaniard has been forced to miss this year's race as a result of that incident with Simoncelli. The collarbone that Pedrosa broke at Le Mans is healing more slowly than expected, and after months of misery with his left collarbone, Pedrosa has decided to give his injury time to heal, and return only when he is much closer to full fitness, a rare sensible decision from a motorcycle racer. With Silverstone just a week away, the chances are that Pedrosa will be out for that race as well, his most probable return date at Assen.
The man most determined to win at Barcelona probably faces the biggest challenge. Jorge Lorenzo has faced a heap of pressure since the start of the 2011 MotoGP season, the #1 plate proving a heavy load once again. But the problems which Lorenzo has faced have been due not so much to any failing on the part of the Spaniard, nor even really of Yamaha, but more due to the huge leap forward that the Hondas have made. With Stoner, Pedrosa, Simoncelli and Andrea Dovizioso all on superior machinery, just scoring podiums has become a pretty big ask for the reigning champion. Yet he has a win and two 2nd places under his belt, Le Mans being the first race that he fell short of expectations.
Yamaha is struggling especially in acceleration off the corners, a point where the Honda has become a rocketship. Yamaha is working on a solution with a new engine, but it is not certain whether it will be ready in time for this weekend's race. This would be the perfect time to take the new engine, as Lorenzo lost a motor when his last one blew itself up during the morning warm up at Le Mans. Whether Yamaha judges it ready to race or not will be the decisive factor.
If it were just acceleration, then Lorenzo might not be facing such an uphill battle. But the bike is also suffering in braking as well. The problem surfaced at Estoril, and was not much better at Le Mans, and the factory Yamaha squad have yet to find a solution. Rumors persist that Lorenzo has switched back to the 2010 Yamaha chassis, on which he was so successful, though Lorenzo claims all he is using are the settings from last season.
Lorenzo's difficulties have brought joy to the heart of his mortal enemy and former teammate Valentino Rossi. Rossi was clearly overjoyed to take his first podium on the Ducati at Le Mans, though it seemed that beating Lorenzo for the first time had pleased him more than getting on the podium, a consequence as it was of the crash between Pedrosa and Simoncelli and Simoncelli's subsequent ride-through penalty.
The good news for Rossi is that his shoulder is now more or less back to full strength. With strength and endurance back in his shoulder, he can focus on working on the Ducati. The bad news for Rossi is that despite the revised chassis and new electronics package tested at Estoril, the bike remains as stubbornly fickle as ever. During the Estoril test, Rossi and his crew felt that the new chassis allowed them to get the bike to respond as expected to setup changes. At Le Mans, the new chassis was behaving as the old one had, with little comprehensible feedback. The next step for Rossi and his crew is a revised engine - also tested at Estoril - but with just 6 engines to last all 18 races, taking a new engine at Catalunya could be risking just a little too much.
However, with Pedrosa out, and rain likely on Sunday, Rossi has a good shot at another podium at Barcelona. He is still - tentatively - targeting Mugello for his first win on the Ducati, but even that, he admits, is optimistic.
Marco Simoncelli faces a weekend of intense media scrutiny, which will backed up with open hostility from the crowd. He kicks off his weekend with a visit to Race Direction at 4pm on Thursday, before facing a likely torrent of boos and wolf whistles when taking to the track on Friday for practice. The Gresini press release quoted Simoncelli as being contrite about the injuries caused to Pedrosa, and promising to be a little more cautious in future. Given that that is precisely what separates Simoncelli from genuine success - backing off just that tenth of a percent may actually mean he goes faster, or at least gets to finish a race - it will be interesting to see how he responds. Dealing with pressure - especially this kind of negative pressure from such intense scrutiny - is the real test of a rider, and Barcelona will be a trial by fire for Simoncelli.
Another rider under pressure is Ben Spies. The Texan has had a tough time in his first few races as a factory rider in MotoGP, especially after the scare he had at Estoril when a clamp remained on his bike, worrying Spies that he could potentially have a problem with his brakes. Spies is struggling with the same issues that Lorenzo is - being dramatically underpowered when compared to the Hondas - and seems to have lost a little of his composure. At a track that he also loves and feels comfortable at, Barcelona could be the breakthrough point.
At Barcelona, we finally get into the guts of the season. Six races in eight weeks, in criss-crossing Spain, Italy, the UK, Germany, Holland and crossing the Atlantic to Laguna Seca barely leaves the riders, teams and press time to breathe. This is the part of the season when the championship starts in earnest, and the rider who can score regular points and, more importantly, stay healthy, is the rider who has the best hope of lifting the MotoGP trophy in Valencia at the end of the year. The smallest mistake - crashing and breaking a collarbone, or a scaphoid, or an ankle - will be punished mercilessly, with no time to recover and rest for the next race. By the time we next get a chance to relax, at the end of July, we will be 10 races into the season, and the championship will be in full swing. It's going to be an exciting, exhausting and fascinating period.