There is plenty to talk about after qualifying on Saturday - both here in Silverstone and over in Misano in Italy - but there is only one topic of conversation throughout the paddock. The magic number being bandied about is 3.761, the gap from Valentino Rossi - in 13th (yes, you heard that right, 13th) place on the grid - to the polesitter for Sunday's race Casey Stoner. A quick straw poll of the media center suggested this was the largest gap between Rossi and pole in recent history, with most journalists saying it is probably his biggest deficit ever in Grand Prix, and maybe even of his racing career.
So what is a nine-time World Champion doing so very far off the pace? Rossi knows exactly what the problem is - the Italian is struggling on corner entry, can't carry the corner speed he wants to and can't get the bike to to turn - but finding a solution is a completely different matter. Jeremy Burgess and his pit crew tried a bunch of solutions throughout practice and not one of them appeared to work. Whatever they did, Rossi stayed resolutely stuck near the bottom of the timesheets, and many, many seconds off the pace.
Rossi himself is mystified. At Barcelona, his team had cut his deficit to the race winner Casey Stoner by half since Qatar, Stoner's advantage around 7 seconds. Here at Silverstone, Stoner is pulling that gap in just two laps, and over a twenty-lap race Rossi could be crossing the line a minute and a quarter after the winner. When asked, none of the other riders had an explanation for Rossi's problems, saying only that Rossi simply did not look comfortable on the Ducati.
One theory put forward by paddock veteran Dennis Noyes is that Rossi is still trying to turn the Ducati into a Yamaha and ride it like one. The last person to win on a Ducati - the aforementioned Casey Stoner - is tending to agree. "Valentino keeps saying he needs to make the Ducati better for him," Stoner said, "which I guess is more like a Yamaha." This was not the right direction, in Stoner's opinion, and he picked out Nicky Hayden as an example. "The biggest surprise for me this year has been Nicky," Stoner told reporters. "It seems like he was waiting for Valentino to come along and fix the bike and make it better for him to ride," Stoner explained, "but if Nicky just concentrated and rode like he did last year, he'd be having much better results than what he's had so far."
I asked Stoner whether he took any pleasure in seeing Rossi struggle on the bike, after Rossi had made a few pointed comments about the Australian's performance on the bike in 2010, suggesting that it was hard to tell the potential of the 2010 Ducati because Stoner simply wasn't riding it hard enough. But what had upset Stoner most had not been the comments from Rossi about his riding, but from Jeremy Burgess about his team's inability to fix the bike's problems. "For me the biggest one was Jerry Burgess saying that he'd fix the bike in 80 seconds. This is saying things against my team, calling them stupid, basically, that we're useless, we can't do anything, we can't set up a bike. They've had it for long enough now to be able to do something with it, but they still seem to be struggling with it," Stoner said.
But Stoner still has sympathy for Ducati, though. "The fact that Ducati's struggling with it doesn't make me happy. I know how much effort those guys put into that bike and what they do, and they're not getting a reward for this. So I really feel for them, but at the same time, it's better if people keep their opinions to themselves until they've tested things,"Stoner added, referring to Burgess' comments on setup. "They looked at the bike from the outside and thought they knew exactly what it needed, and have since been proven wrong."
Rossi's problems are starting to have an even bigger impact on the series than at first meets the eye. The media are a fickle lot at the best of times - though no less fickle than the fans who devour their every word - and the daily press debriefs in the Ducati hospitality are starting to thin noticeably. At the start of the year, it was standing room only, especially when Rossi was holding court in Italian, but today there was room enough for everyone. The Italian press appears to be slowly migrating into Marco Simoncelli's garage, his debriefs (held in the back of the San Carlo Gresini Honda garage) now being held in front of a packed crowd. The press appear to be following the favor of the fans, as SuperSic is receiving the accolades of the British crowd all around the Silverstone track.
Simoncelli has been outstanding so far this weekend, and was strong on both soft and hard tires in practice. The Italian clearly has the pace to at least follow Stoner, though he may be missing the final tenth or so to be capable of launching an attack. But as Ben Spies put it this evening "both me and Marco have nothing to lose, we're not chasing a championship or anything. So maybe we can take a few more risks to get a result."
Spies has identified one aspect that may be capable of injecting a little interest into what is otherwise threatening to turn into yet another parade. Jorge Lorenzo is not too far off of Stoner, but unless he can beat him into the first corner, he will have little chance of holding him back. But with Stoner and Lorenzo the only two realistic candidates for the title this season, both are fractionally more cautious than they might be otherwise, preferring to score points for 2nd or 3rd, instead of risking it all for the win and crashing. Neither Marco Simoncelli nor Ben Spies have much hope of taking the championship, and so have a little bit more freedom to take risks chasing a win, especially important given that the race looks like being wet. If they do, then the race could be a lot tighter than we've been expecting.
Where Rossi will end is anybody's guess, his best hope is to get well inside the top 10. But it is far too early to be writing the Italian off completely, as Rossi has shown in the past. Silverstone is probably a complete write off, as is a large part of the 2011 season, but the return of the 1000s could see Rossi back at the sharp end. The improvement is probably not going to be from the extra power of the bikes, but rather from the rear end of the GP12. That bike has none of the rear stability problems that plague the GP11, but simply transferring the GP12's rear end onto this year's bike is not an option - at least not for now. Rossi could well be back, and competitive, in 2012, but he - and even more so, his fans - have a lot of grinning and bearing it to do.
Outside of MotoGP, the new wave of riders is coming through in the support classes. Marc Marquez grabbed pole in Moto2, while Maverick Vinales took top spot in the 125cc class, the first poles for each rider in their respective classes. With Alex Marquez and Alex Rins also set to join the championship from next year, there is another gaggle of outstanding riders set to join the paddock, and once again, rather worryingly, all of them are Spanish.
In Misano, another Spaniard is set to shine, despite having been pipped to the pole by Kawasaki's Tom Sykes. Carlos Checa has been strong all weekend, and his only real rival for the World Superbike title managed to crack a bone in his ankle during FP2 before Superpole. Max Biaggi's title chase is far from over, but with two races on Sunday, and two more at Aragon a week later, Biaggi is making it very far from easy for himself to defend his title. Ducati may be struggling in MotoGP, but in World Superbikes, they once again own the class, despite having withdrawn their factory team.
There's too much racing on Sunday - MotoGP, World Superbikes, the 24 hour race at Le Mans, followed by the Formula One Grand Prix from Montreal - but the benefit is we should see at least a couple of good races. What MotoGP needs is a close and thrilling battle all race long for the lead. Given Casey Stoner's recent record, there is a very good chance that that will turn out to be just wishful thinking.