2012 is a year of transition for MotoGP. The return of the 1000cc bikes is just the start of the changes that will transform the series over the coming years, in an attempt to contain the costs of the series which spiraled out of control during the 800cc era, but for now, we have the mouthwatering spectacle of the fastest motorcycles ever to grace a racetrack. With rev limits and electronic controls looming on the horizon, these machines may well go down in history as the pinnacle of racing motorcycles, alongside the products of the last Cambrian explosion of technology in the 1960s, the six-cylinder 250cc four strokes and 14-gear 125cc twin-cylinder two strokes which, like the current generation, became so expensive that they forced the factories out of racing.
The fans are breathing a sigh of relief. After the processional racing that so much of the 800cc era produced, MotoGP fans are looking forward to closer, more exciting racing, with the rip-snorting 1000s sliding and squirming all over the place, the same way that the old 990s used to. That is unrealistically optimistic, perhaps, but the racing should at least be a little better. Helped by the softer Bridgestone tires - introduced in response to many requests from the riders for tires that warm up much faster, preventing the massive highsides that have plagued the premier class for the last couple of years - the bigger bikes do make it possible to correct mistakes, and make up on corner exit time lost in overly optimistic passing attempts on the brakes. The days of smoking tires may be in the past, but losing momentum - the cardinal sin on the 800s, which placed a premium on maintaining corner speed - will no longer be punished mercilessly. Riders have less left to lose in trying to pass on the brakes again.
The main threat to the spectacle, however, is the generation of inch-perfect riders the 800cc class has produced. Raised in the era when a single mistake could cost the race, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, and even, after a reluctant conversion, Valentino Rossi are all capable of lapping at a robotically consistent pace, hitting the same braking marker, turn-in point and acceleration point for lap after lap, for entire race distances if need be. Heavier bikes, more torque and tires that may start to wear out at the end of races will force them to be more creative, the pendulum of technology swinging slowly back towards the audacious, and away from the more conservative approach. Fortunately, almost all of the current MotoGP field have both the ability and the inclination to take a chance, and so while we won't see quite the high jinx that the 990s afforded, we should see more passing, more battles, and a lot more chances for a rider with the courage to attack.
After capturing the 2011 World Championship in such dominating style, Casey Stoner is the man to beat in 2012. His effortless adaptation to the Honda and the merciless way he steamrollered the competition have established him as clearly the best rider in the world. Those who had doubts about his mental strength - fueled by his race crashes in 2008 and his absence through illness in 2009 - have been firmly confounded, the way in which the Australian was content to accept podiums when setup or conditions prevented him from challenging for the win. His spectacular and frankly incomprehensible style have convinced many of the doubters, and though Stoner has continued to face suggestions that at least part of his success is due to the Honda, the evidence is piling up in his favor.
Stoner's case has of course been greatly helped by the dismal failure of the man who replaced him at Ducati. As Valentino Rossi's star has waned during his continued struggles to get a grip on the Ducati Desmosedici, so Stoner's has waxed. The Australian, after all, won races on that bike, while Rossi's best result was a podium, and that required the assistance of Marco Simoncelli removing Dani Pedrosa from the Le Mans race and being awarded a ride-through penalty for his troubles.
Stoner and his crew chief Cristian Gabbarini - a man who has played a massive role in Stoner's success, and whose efforts have gone largely unnoticed, though not, it must be said, by Stoner himself - are a formidable pairing, and will be very tough to beat. The Honda RC213V is clearly a very strong machine, as Stoner's dominance during testing has proved. Yet robbed of its outright power of advantage with the increase in capacity, some of its weaknesses are also starting to appear. The Honda has suffered the most with tire-related chatter during the preseason, which will work against the bike at some tracks. However, the Australian's ability to completely ignore problems and ride as if they do not exist - see his years at Ducati for countless examples - means that this is unlikely to be slow Stoner down.
His teammate Dani Pedrosa will have work to do in 2013. The Spaniard's preseason ended about as inauspiciously as was possible: injury free for the first time in years, Pedrosa managed to get himself arrested in a sting against a gang involved in cheating during yachting exams. To add to his misery, Pedrosa knows that there is another young, fast, Repsol-backed Spaniard sitting in Moto2 waiting to take his seat. Once Marc Marquez arrives in the premier class next year, the writing will be on the wall for Pedrosa, unless he can up his game and win more than a couple of races a year. Pedrosa's saving grace may be his ability to develop a bike; the machine that Casey Stoner won the 2011 crown on was the fruit of many years' labor by Pedrosa, Honda getting through five frames the season before on their way to creating the superlative 2011 RC212V.
Another worry for Pedrosa could be the increased weight of the 1000cc bikes. More weight and more power means more physical effort is needed to get the bikes to do what you want, and Pedrosa could be handicapped by his smaller stature. Yet the Spaniard won two races on the 990s, in his debut year in MotoGP, and never showed any real signs of struggling. Though he may be short, Pedrosa is extraordinarily fit, and remarkably stocky for his size. He has his work cut out for him this season, but he may fare better than some predict.
The main threat to a Stoner championship repeat must surely come from Jorge Lorenzo. The 2010 World Champion put up a valiant defense of his title last year, and was the only rider consistently capable of keeping Stoner honest. The 2012 Yamaha is vastly improved over the 2011 bike, the machine's main weakness - acceleration and power - negated by the larger capacity. Lorenzo will no longer need to ride at the very edge of his ability all race long, something he was forced into in 2011, and will able to focus more of his attention on formulating plans to attack Stoner.
The Spaniard had also faced concerns that he would not be able to adapt to the larger machines, having come into the series in 2008, during the 800cc era. But since his first test on the 1000s, the Spaniard has been fast, ending the Sepang 1 and Jerez tests in 2nd place behind Stoner. Lorenzo learned a lot in his time as Valentino Rossi's teammate, eventually managing to beat the Italian, though assisted in some measure by Rossi's injuries. His racecraft and courage are beyond question, and he will prove a formidable opponent this season.
For Ben Spies, this is a make-or-break year. The American astounded the European motorcycling world by taking the World Superbike title in his rookie year, winning at tracks he had never seen before. After a strong MotoGP debut with the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad, his first year with the Yamaha factory team has not lived up to expectations. Though he became the first rider to win a dry race other than MotoGP's four established Aliens - Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi - he struggled in the early part of the season and failed to score the podiums he was expected to secure with ease.
Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis has been clear in his criticism of Spies ahead of the 2012 season: he has to step up and start ending regularly on the podium. Given the depth of the field, that will be tough, but the increased capacity and weight plays to the strengths of Spies, and with a better bike than last year, he should be able to start to fulfill some of the promise he has shown. If he does not, then he has Andrea Dovizioso waiting in the Tech 3 satellite team, and Marc Marquez also potentially threatening in the future - the accepted wisdom is that Marquez will head to Honda, but there have been hints and noises of interest in the Spaniard from the Yamaha camp. No doubt Spies will relish the challenge, but it will not be easy.
At Ducati, Valentino Rossi faces another tough year, though thankfully, nowhere near as tough as 2011 turned out to be. Last year at Ducati tarnished the reputation of the legendary Italian, as well as his equally illustrious crew chief Jeremy Burgess. Where Stoner and Gabbarini had taken the Ducati and found a way to win - despite, not thanks to the bike, as it turns out - Rossi and Burgess could only scratch their heads and ask for yet more changes from Ducati Corse head Filippo Preziosi, requests which the Italian duly obliged, though not perhaps as fast as Rossi may have wanted, and certainly not as fast as the fans demanded.
Throughout 2011, Rossi retained an incredible dignity, despite having to answer the same question over and over again - "Casey won on this bike, why can't you?" The answer being "Casey rode this bike in a very special way, I cannot do this." - knowing perhaps the amount of work being loaded upon the slim shoulders of Preziosi. A completely new bike with a radically altered weight distribution has given Rossi a lot of the front-end feel he was missing - the one problem Rossi is incapable of riding around, it turns out, unable to make up in braking and corner entry what he might lose on the exit - though problems still remain. The introduction of the aluminium perimeter frame at last gives Ducati the ability to change the frame to move the engine position without requiring new mounting points cast into the cylinders, as the old carbon fiber monocoque did, and so updates should come faster and be easier to achieve.
That still leaves a lot of work to do. Rossi himself believes that the best he can aim for is to try to keep ahead of the satellite bikes, and is aiming to fend off the Yamahas of Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso in particular. There are rumors from inside Ducati that Rossi may have been sandbagging for at least some of the tests, and that he is capable of cutting the gap to the front by at least three or four tenths. But even if that is so, that still leaves him a couple of tenths behind Lorenzo, and half a second behind Stoner. Winning in 2012 looks almost impossible for the Italian, something that must be a very bitter pill to swallow for a man with nine world championships under his belt. But towards the end of the year, Rossi should have closed the gap, and be running close to the front once again. When - some would say if - he gets that next win, the sense of relief, for Rossi, at Ducati, for his hordes of adoring fans around the world, will be palpable.
For Nicky Hayden, things are looking up. Hayden has been on the Ducati for a while, and the new 1000 is, as he describes it, the best Desmosedici he has been on. The switch back to a larger capacity helps the Kentuckian too: like Spies, Hayden grew up on big bore bikes, and his career suffered when the series switched from 990 to 800cc in 2007. Since returning to testing - and recovering from the shoulder injury he suffered during winter training - he has closely matched the times of his teammate, getting closer than he managed last year. To Hayden's advantage is that he is less troubled by the bike wanting to run wide in fast corners, though the lack of rear grip the current bike has is a problem for both Hayden and Rossi. A better year beckons for the American, and a bet on a podium for Hayden at Indianapolis could prove to be a sound investment.
For the satellite teams, a switch of capacity is always welcome. With the factories having to build completely new bikes, the difference the satellite and factory spec machines is at its lowest for the first few races after the switch. That has been visible in the times, especially in those set by the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha pairing of Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow, with Crutchlow having been particularly impressive. After a year of some trenchant criticism from team boss Herve Poncharal, Tech 3's British rider has fallen on his feet with the 1000, posting times that put him hot on the heels of Jorge Lorenzo at times during testing. Crutchlow looks far more comfortable on the bigger bike than he ever did on the 800, and has his sights set on a few factory scalps this season. He could have a fair collection by the end of the year.
A major factor in Crutchlow's renaissance is the arrival of Andrea Dovizioso at the Tech 3 squad. The Italian's stated goal is to take Spies' seat in 2013, and with Bradley Smith also holding a contract promising a MotoGP ride with Tech 3 for next season, the pressure is on in the team. Dovizioso has taken a little time to adapt to the Yamaha, the strengths of the bike being totally different to the Honda he has spent all of his career on. The Yamaha is outstanding in braking and turning, where the Honda is better on corner exit, and Dovizioso has been forced to change his style.
With Dovizioso's background as a factory Honda rider, he has provided invaluable input for Yamaha. But coming from Repsol Honda also places a lot of pressure on the Italian, and much is expected of him. His early speed in testing - and Dovizioso, like Hayden, is still recovering from injury, in his case a broken collarbone suffered during MX training - is a sign of his potential. Dovizioso's task for 2013 is to beat two men regularly: Ben Spies, to try to take his seat at the factory Yamaha squad; and Dani Pedrosa, his former Repsol Honda teammate, for sheer revenge.
The Honda satellite bikes have been slightly less impressive, perhaps a sign of just how good the Yamaha M1 really is. Alvaro Bautista, in particular, has been rather muted, post respectable if not exactly stunning times. Given what the Spaniard did on the under-par Suzuki, much more was expected from him, and with the unforgiving Fausto Gresini as his team manager, the pressure will be piled on. Bautista has his work cut out for him in 2012, but he should rise to the challenge.
After a year of misery, with Toni Elias incapable of generating any heat in the unforgiving Bridgestones, and regularly being 2-3 seconds off the pace, LCR Honda have been delighted with the progress of reigning Moto2 World Champion so far. Bradl has learned quickly, given excellent feedback and soon caught - and passed - the satellite Ducatis, and ended the Jerez test just a few hundredths behind Bautista. Bradl is showing the maturity and eagerness to learn that earned him that Moto2 title, and could cause plenty of surprises this year.
The satellite Ducati riders have it hardest this year. Though Hector Barbera has been regularly fast during practice - often by getting a tow, however - the Pramac rider has been inconsistent as well. Barbera's season can go either way in 2012, or more likely, in both directions. Barbera can be blisteringly fast, and can fall short, and both are equally probable this season.
After a strong rookie season, in which Karel Abraham impressed many who claimed he was only in MotoGP because of his wealthy father, his second preseason has not gone quite so well. His progress appears to have halted, the Cardion AB rider bringing up the rear of the factory prototypes this season. Abraham is the first target for the CRT riders this season, and is likely to be the first to fall to the Aprilia onslaught.
Leading that charge is the much-overlooked Randy de Puniet. The Frenchman found himself inexplicably without a ride at the end of 2011, and it took him some time to settle terms with the Aspar team. But since he has taken over development of the Aprilia ART bike, the project has blossomed, and the Frenchman has made the CRT project looked good. De Puniet will be after the factory prototypes this year, and at the slower tracks he is likely to upset a fair number of them. His stated aim is to be the best of the CRT bikes, but realistically, he should regularly figure in the top 10.
Both the times set by De Puniet and the CRT project (for an explanation of the rules, go back and read our CRT FAQ) have come under attack during the preseason, and while some of the bikes - the Avintia FTR Kawasaki, in the hands of Yonny Hernandez and Ivan Silva being the prime example - have been criticized for being dangerously slow, the Aprilias, in particular have been quick. They, in turn, have faced claims that they violate the spirit of the CRT rules, and are really only factory bikes in disguise, but in reality, the Aprilia ART is exactly what Dorna and the FIM have been hoping to create. Over three years ago, FIM President Vito Ippolito told MotoMatters.com that his idea was to see a return of the production racers, the TZ250s and 350s, and the RG500s which filled the grids during the 1980s and early '90s. The Aprilia ART looks like being exactly that bike: good enough in standard trim to be competitive, and with a good rider and a decent crew, could even upset the factory prototype applecart.
Perhaps the most interesting CRT bike is Giampiero Sacchi's IODA Racing project. Based around an RSV4 engine, Sacchi has built a frame of his own to house the powerplant. Having most of the former Aprilia World Superbike team in the garage has helped, of course, and as former head of Aprilia Racing, Sacchi knows the bike very well. His choice of Danilo Petrucci, FIM 1000cc Superstock champion, is also interesting, and the young Italian has posted some remarkable times so far during testing, despite being on a low-spec engine and not having had much time on the bike. If there is a dark horse this season, then Petrucci is surely it.
It has been a long and rather odd off-season, with intrigue galore about all sorts of subjects. What Ducati have done to their new bike, whether the Yamaha is the strongest bike on the field, and if there is anyone capable of stopping Stoner. But the most intriguing subject over the winter break has been the future direction of the sport itself. With Dorna looking to impose a rev limit from next season, and hog trading going on between the factories and Dorna at every test, this really is a year of transition. Though the formula - 1000cc, four cylinder four strokes with an 81mm bore - may stay the same for the long term, changes such as a rev limit and perhaps even limited electronics could well be on the cards in the next few seasons. The era of unlimited engineering - not truly unlimited, as capacity and fuel limits have been in place for some time now - is over, and for the sake of the series, that is probably a good thing. Unlimited engineering will only make a return once MotoGP figures out a way of making the kind of money from sponsorship that its popularity warrants. But we have been waiting a very long time for that to come.
From Thursday, we shall have other distractions, as the bikes finally take to the track in earnest under the floodlights at Qatar. Plenty of time to debate the merits of the rules when the weekend is over, until then, we will finally have what we have been wanting for so long. It's been a long winter, but it's over now.