After the opening of hostilities in the black of the desert night in Qatar, the 2012 MotoGP season gets underway for real - or at least, what feels like for real - this weekend in Jerez. The paddock finally full, not of Nissen huts, but of sleek and shiny hospitality units and race trucks; the stands full of fans, and spread all around the track, not huddled together at one end of Qatar's single grandstand; the bikes displaying their natural glory in daylight, not the fluorescent glare of Qatar's admittedly spectacular floodlit goldfish bowl.
The track is familiar to all. We were here just a month ago, for the final IRTA test ahead of the season, and everyone has had a chance to find a decent setup for the track. Fastest man during the test was also the fastest man at Qatar, though arm pump prevented Casey Stoner from capitalizing on that speed, his title rival Jorge Lorenzo taking advantage to secure a well-deserved victory.
Stoner vs Lorenzo looks set to the story of the season, and Jerez is shaping up to be a classic confrontation. Casey Stoner has been working on his arm pump - secretive as ever, he has been using what appears to be a mixture of diet and preparation to prevent a recurrence, with gloves now well and truly worn in - and given his earlier speed at the track, should theoretically be the strong favorite for the win. The only real problem the Honda has so far this year is chatter, and the lower grip levels at Jerez failed to provoke such chatter during the test. But Jerez is also Stoner's bogey track, one of only two circuits he has never won at: last year, Stoner started the race from pole, after dominating much of practice, yet he still failed to finish the race, victim of yet another Ducati front-end washout, though this time, the Ducati was in the hands of Valentino Rossi rather than Stoner himself.
It would be a brave gambler to lay money against Jorge Lorenzo taking victory: the factory Yamaha man has won here the last two years in a row. Lorenzo is happier and more comfortable than he was last year, the Yamaha being a much stronger package than it was in 2011. The added torque from the 1000cc Yamaha M1 engine has cured the major weakness the bike had in its 800cc guise, and Lorenzo now feels he is at least adequately armed. Lorenzo loves Jerez, and with Estoril coming up next week, another track he is outstanding at, will start the weekend in buoyant mood. Some of this weekend's interest will come in the battle of mental strength, in seeing how heavily the Jerez monkey weighs on Stoner's back, and how much pressure an ebullient Lorenzo can add.
Stoner's Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa will also be in the mix, the diminutive Spaniard putting in an uncharacteristically but heart-warmingly feisty showing at Qatar, looking positively combative in tangling with Lorenzo and Stoner. Pedrosa has a bone to pick with Lorenzo at Jerez, having lost the 2010 race to his fellow countryman after his Honda developed a software glitch that saw him lose power on the final laps. If that does not happen again - and you can say many things about Honda, but not that they are willing to countenance making the same error twice - then expect Pedrosa to take it to his two main rivals.
Pedrosa is not the only rider with a debt outstanding at Jerez. Ben Spies has a lot to make up for - through no fault of his own - after a dismal showing at Qatar, riding a bike plagued by massive and monstrous chatters. Spies' first ride on the Yamaha at Jerez was also pretty dismal, pulling in with a mystery front tire issue. 2011 was better, at least until he pushed too hard and crashed with three laps to go. Spies' job is on the line in 2012, and his audition starts in earnest on Sunday.
The enigma of 2012 is surely Valentino Rossi - though to award him that title just 1 race is to be getting ahead of ourselves a little. After Rossi's premeditated and laser-guided attack on Ducati on Italian TV after the race at Qatar, there are signs that the Italian is trying to turn a corner mentally. The most pregnant sign of an impending change is an interview staged by Italian TV, where Rossi interviewed his father Graziano about the son, Valentino. Graziano's words spoke of courage, grit and determination, and the need for Rossi to dig in and make the relationship with Ducati work. Though likely unscripted, Valentino must have known the answers Graziano would give before he even asked the question. And perhaps even offered a few prompts.
But Graziano is right: it is time for Rossi to dig in his heels and start to show his class. The Italian has resembled a little too closely the caricature that so many Rossi fans have of his arch rival Casey Stoner, of a man who only ever complains of what is wrong, and never points the finger at himself. Stoner's caricature was unjust: the Australian is more than happy to hold his hand up over his own mistakes, much as he did over the arm pump he suffered at Qatar. Rossi would do well to emulate Stoner in this respect, as well as trying to copy the Australian's performance on the bike.
Jerez will also see some intriguing battles further back. The Spanish track will also play host to round 2 of what is shaping up to be the battle of the year, between Monster Tech 3 teammates Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow. The pair are beautifully matched: close in speed, with Crutchlow returning to his old bruiser form on the bigger liter capacity Yamaha M1. Dovizioso, on the other hand, retains is beautifully clinical style, but is still adapting the things he learned in a lifetime on a Honda to suit the rather different needs of a Yamaha.
The Honda satellite match up is equally promising: Stefan Bradl has been hugely impressive on the LCR Honda, the young German using his intelligence to match his raw talent and speed. He learns fast, but more importantly, he learns thoroughly, and seems to take another step forward every time he gets on the bike. He is already pushing Gresini's Alvaro Bautista, especially after so much had been expected of the Spaniard. But like Dovizioso, Bautista must relearn the skills he gained on the Suzuki, and figure out the fastest way to ride the Honda.
The CRT bikes offer another mouthwatering match up. After a strong preseason, everyone expected Randy de Puniet to wipe the floor on the Aspar Aprilia ART machine, but at Qatar, it was Colin Edwards who put his NGM Mobile Suter BMW on top the CRT pile, outperforming the Frenchman with relative comfort. Edwards has earned his wages several times over for both Forward Racing and for Suter, cramming a year's development into just a few months. Since the Texan joined the team, he has had three new chassis and a mass of electronics upgrades, but he has cut the deficit from nearly 6 seconds down to just a couple. De Puniet was fast from the outset; Edwards has been growing faster every time he gets on the bike; and at Jerez, they have their first chance of troubling the satellite machines. Karel Abraham on the Cardion AB Ducati is the first man with a target on his back, and he will have to ride hard to stay ahead of De Puniet and Edwards.
Elsewhere among the CRTs, much focus will be on the progress being made in the still infant class. Honorable mention so far goes to three surprising rookies: Michele Pirro has performed exceptionally well on an FTR Honda that has little more than a couple of hundred kilometers under its belt. Yonny Hernandez has comprehensively outperformed his teammate Ivan Silva, putting the FTR Kawasaki way above where it belongs. But most impressive of all has been Danilo Petrucci, the Italian giving away a massive power advantage to the other bikes, both CRT and prototype, which expressed itself in a 40 km/h top speed deficit at the end of Qatar's monster straight. At a tighter track like Jerez, Petrucci is in with a shout, and should embarrass a few riders on much more developed machines.
Most intriguing of all is the prospect that, like last year, the rain might intervene on race day to shake the field up a little. The best forecast so far appears to promise dry weather throughout practice, with a serious amount of rain just in time for Sunday's race. In the wet, many of the bets you might ordinarily make on MotoGP are no longer valid, and random chance will start to play a role. Logic dictates that we will see two Hondas and a Yamaha on the podium on Sunday, but rain places little stock in logic. Any number of things could happen if rains on Sunday, the only certainty is that we will be more than surprised at the results.