Jorge Lorenzo has begun to take charge of the 2012 championship with a commanding run to victory in France, but that's not the news. Ducati finished ahead of most of the factory bikes for the first time since Stoner's departure, but that's not the news either. There's been probably the first attack on humans in the coming zombie apocalypse and that's merely a murmur on the wire. All thanks to the really big news of the season: Casey Stoner will officially retire at the end of the 2012 season.
The news retained its shock value despite a cloud of rumor that has swirled around the reigning champion. These were emphatically denied, and at one point Casey inquired of a journalist how anyone could believe anything in the media when baseless rumor was so pervasive in the content. Then scant days later he put the issue to rest by stating publicly that he would not return for another season. In the high stakes game of media relations and publicity, those simply delivered words overshadowed any possible accomplishment by a championship rival for the weekend and ensured that all eyes remain fixed on the Repsol garage - at least through silly season. "WTF?!?" has been a burning question on everyone's minds; Stoner is typically a very candid and straightforward personality, with such a reversal being quite out of character. It is something that one could expect of Rossi, certainly, but not quite of his Australian nemesis. Well, if we skip past the sex and video and dive straight into the lies it would seem that there is a very real possibility that a calculated risk by Honda personnel went horribly, horribly wrong. The talk behind the mobile homes is that Stoner had closed session conversations with HRC brass about retiring at some point in the future and HRC allowed some of those details to slip in an effort to use the media - a medium which they have been working non-stop (including that also ill fated Rossi v Stoner records image) since Casey joined the squad - to pressure Casey into making a decision. Foot meet mouth... again. Just as the aforementioned image resulted in net-wide backlash that forced them to almost immediately retract the image, the firestorm that they unleashed served as a reminder to Casey of the uglier side of the circus' underbelly that he has maligned and avoided throughout his career. The result - one pending retirement of HRC's current only hope of a championship title. HRC effectively killed their golden goose. However all may not be lost. Quite possibly the only saving grace, and a fact largely unmentioned across the internet, is that Casey's retirement releases his championship winning team. This is the team that cut its teeth taming the recalcitrant Ducati into a championship winning bike at best, and race winner at worst; then went to Honda and upstaged every other factory team and rider. This is not to in any way belittle Casey's tremendous talent and contribution to his dominance in the sport; however credit has to be paid to the men behind the curtain. For what can happen when a talented rider works with a crew that is taking a wrong direction in setup, one need only look two paddock doors down to Ben Spies' garage. For now, however, the crew will be focused on giving Casey the best chance this weekend of proving to the world why he is one of the best to throw a leg over a prototype machine, regardless of the acclaims he will retire with.
While Casey contemplates his retirement and the time that he will spend with his family, Jorge Lorenzo considers the prospect of retaining his hard earned lead in the championship standings. Catalunya is the Mallorcan's home race, and a track that he has historically performed very well on. That is, until Casey rode for Honda. Now the task of winning his home race has become a much more difficult prospect. Still, the season has started with the alien pair even on wins and the Spanish Gran Prix will prove to be the tie-breaker that sets the stage for the rest of the season. Rain has plagued virtually every race of 2012 in some fashion, which has hindered some and helped others. Which side any rider is on is usually open to debate, but Lorenzo's decimation of the field at Le Mans is not. Rain or not, the Yamaha rider took charge early on and never looked back. The win, he admits, has buoyed his confidence and he will need every shred of it going forward as the series encroaches upon some of Stoner's stronger tracks. The truly positive indicator, however, is that Lorenzo has started the 2012 season in similar fashion to his championship winning 2010. In the off-season, much ado was made about the Yamaha and Honda being very equivalent machines despite the fact that Honda led virtually every test. The strength of Lorenzo's performance this year certainly suggests that the tuning fork company have come prepared, and that both rider and manufacturer have adapted to the threats posed by the Stoner-mounted RC213V.
Further back on the starting grid, Ducati continues to work quietly on building a machine capable of once again running at the front of the pack with a non-Australian rider aboard. The team had indicated that there had been progress made once they (read: "Rossi and Burgess") had stepped away from a "Japanese" style setup of high and short and moved to a more Italian setup (based on teammate Nicky Hayden's settings) of long and low. By round 3 Rossi was once again the top Ducati rider, with Nicky making a strong early showing then plummeting through the ranks. Le Mans, however, showed a very different performing motorcycle. It is not so much the fact that Rossi raced to 2nd place as it is the manner in which he did it. While Nicky struggled to a sixth place finish (with some spectactular saves along the way) Rossi's bike looked to be on rails as he battled with Hondas and Yamahas alike; and battle he did. He passed on the outside, on the inside, under breaking - one would almost think that the everyone was engaged in a shakedown of the Ducati with as many scenarios as it got put through. Most promising for Preziosi though, was that the latest incarnation of the GP12 remained unflappable while others - most notably the satellite Yamaha M1s that have been in podium contention for every race and have proven capable of challenging the factory Hondas - faltered. In fact, both Tech 3 Yamahas crashed while duelling with Rossi. This week Ducati has quietly been running a battery of tests against the GP12 at Mugello ahead of the Spanish GP. Alex Briggs seemed happy with some of the work done, which could be a good thing for the team or not. Testing is not a race after all, and history has shown that some of their "positive" developments have not performed as well as hoped when tried in anger. Still, an all aluminum swing arm to replace the current carbon fiber item and a smoother engine to address complaints on corner exit were confirmed as being offered. Many eyes will be focused on the red team to see which items made the cut and how well them help at this weekend's race.
That is, the eyes left over from watching Casey to see whether his impending retirement to days of frolic with wife and daughter will hinder or inspire his performance.