A clown wears many faces when the curtain is drawn. The typical clown wears a large, static smile - a grin expressing merriment of epic proportions. There is also the melancholy frown of the sad clown, the tragic juxtaposition of the opposing symbols of merriment and melancholy. Yet the clown can wear other faces. The smile of the circus clown can be stretched grotesquely into the realm of mania, popularized by the Joker character who prowled the fictional streets of Gotham City, inflicting random acts of havoc and mayhem.
Such a manic clown holds court in the Honda garage. On the one hand, the Red Wing team has two of the riders classed as "aliens" in the GP series, both paired with a bike whose dominance in 2011 is virtually unchallenged. On the other, they have Casey Stoner. Following his equally dominant performance as a rider last season, Casey followed up by leading every test in the off season down to the final day. Yet it is not his seeming command of the field that likens him to Batman's nemesis, but rather his ability to allow the established order to prevail until he deems the time right to obliterate it. As a case in point, he seemingly allowed Lorenzo to lead all through the final day of the last test. Then, at the end of the day, he went out and set the fastest lap to sweep the weekend. When asked about the importance of planting that stake in the ground leading up to the opening round he flippantly replied that he did it simply to be cheeky. Pedrosa may be fast, but there is no question who the sidekick is in the garage.
Across the tarmac, the Yamaha riders bear the happy smiles of the carefree. While last season saw the Tuning Fork crew struggling to match the pace of Stoner and Pedrosa the off-season testing hints that this season may be very different. On more than one occasion lead rider and world champion Jorge Lorenzo was the man to beat throughout practice with Ben Spies coming in close behind. Both competing factories have tipped the hat to the other in the off season, Honda claiming that the Yamaha's renowned handling makes them the bike to beat and Yamaha nodding to the Honda's overall performance advantage. Yet the timing shows that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Stoner may have the single fastest lap, but Lorenzo has been able to consistently match the pace throughout virtually every day of practice - remaining at most a heartbeat or two behind. That kind of difference can be overcome with bravery on the track. Even more promising however is the fact that, for the first in a long time, all Yamahas - factory and satellite - have been posting very competitive times. New recruit Dovizioso has been providing valuable insight, both direct and indirect, into the strengths of the Yamaha throughout testing for the Tech 3 team. Championship sophomore Crutchlow, meanwhile, has been showing a speed and consistency that were somewhat lacking last year - due in no small part to a lack of track knowledge, unfamiliarity with equipment and lower spec of machinery. With all of the bikes as close to comparable performance as they are likely to get, Team Blue has a lot to smile about for their position going into race one.
There are also plenty of smiles to go around in the Ducati garage, although it was seemingly a very close call. Valentino Rossi has looked uncharacteristically stressed throughout winter testing, with brief periods of levity followed by bouts of frustration. The team was initially happy with the performance of Ducati's new aluminum perimeter frame, however Sepang saw the entire team take a huge step backwards. Their efforts were not helped by persistent bad weather, which seemed to plague the entire winter test. Yet if the number don't lie, then the team is back on track to improving their fortune for 2012. The Jerez test saw the team identify a crucial setup issue that caused them to start the test 1.8 seconds back from the lead, and slash the distance in half by test's end. Across the garage, Nicky Hayden is also all smiles as he rejoined the factory squad for testing. The American rider had missed most of the testing rounds due to injury sustained during off-season practice, and marked not just a return to riding, but a chance to cram as much as possible before the opening round. While the Ducati squad as a whole remain somewhat off-pace, Nicky managed to end day 2 of the Jerez test as the fastest rider on track - a feat that never happened at any point for a Ducati rider in the previous season.
This is the point where Ducati's smiles peter to an end, and the raucus laughter of their arch rivals begins. 2012 marks the start of a new era in GP with the introduction of the CRT teams. While much ado has been made about their likely performance, Jerez saw the CRT teams on track with all of the purely prototype machines for the first time and the outlook looks good. To be fair, many of the CRT entries are far off pace. However, this must be taken into context. Very few of the CRT riders have full GP credentials, and even on satellite prototypes GP rookies can be notoriously slow as they learn the ropes (see: Mika Kallio, Hiroshi Aoyama, etc). In addition to this, their machinery is still extremely early in the development cycle. In this we can harken back to the early days of Moto2, when the 600 based machines were woefully slow compared to the 250cc bikes they were replacing. With a few rounds under their belts now, the bikes are much more stable and much faster than before. Randy DePuniet is currently the spearhead of the CRT charge, his Aprilia ART machine always in the mix - and sometimes leading - the much more expensive Ducati satellite bikes. This effort is even more remarkable when one considers Aprilia's assertion that the CRT bikes are in a low state of engine tune as the factory fine tunes the chassis and determines reliability metrics. There is more power to be had should the boys in Noale deem it safe to unleash without incurring an engine penalty. Yet not all CRTs are enjoying champagne dreams and caviar wishes. The Gresini team was the last CRT to begin testing and even then saw their test halted early as they encountered clearance issues that made further progress a safety concern. Even more worrying is that Colin Edwards, without a doubt the most experienced and awarded rider aboard a CRT, continues to struggle with development of the BMW based machine, effective resolutions for the problems created by mating the Bavarian mill to an aftermarket chassis remaining elusive. That he consistently ranks highly among the CRTs is little consolation when others, also mating their oem (Aprilia) engines to an outside frame, are still in superstock trim.
And so the stage is set. When the lights come on at Qatar the smiles will disappear and the entertainment will truly begin.