Casey Stoner (#1) edged out rival Jorge Lorenzo (#99) for the win in Jerez (MotoGP.com)

Having missed the 2012 MotoGP curtain-raiser in Qatar, I was really looking forward to yesterday’s second event of the season in Jerez, the first of the two annual Spanish rounds of this currently Spanish-dominated competition.

And although I’ll concede there have definitely been improvements to the MotoGP structure with the addition of the new CRT-rules teams, essentially adding a second tier to the grid while new teams with different bikes adjust to the challenges of the world’s premier two-wheeled motorsport, the race was still light on… well, racing.

The fact that one of motorbike racing’s iconic names, Ducati, look set for a second consecutive season of struggle is one of the biggest problems facing the series’ competitiveness in 2012. After a dismal campaign for superstars Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden (combined eight world championships) last year, there had been plenty of warning signs that the trend was not about to reverse during pre-season testing, and the team’s fears were borne out with a sub-par showing in Doha. This weekend, Hayden managed to qualify third but slipped down the order during the race; Rossi qualified 12th and made minimal progress.

With Suzuki having sadly withdrawn from MotoGP last season and both Kawasaki and Aprillia focusing only on the CRT teams, Ducati’s lack of pace leaves only Honda and Yamaha, plus Tech3 on ‘customer’ Yamahas, at the front of the field. Both the opening podiums have been locked out by the Repsol Honda riders Casey Stoner (winner in Jerez) and Dani Pedrosa, and Yamaha star Jorge Lorenzo, who was triumphant in Qatar a fortnight ago.

Having three people competing for race wins is fine, as long as there are occasionally people rivalling them and getting in amongst the podiums. Aside from Tech3’s Cal Crutchlow, who has finished fourth in each of the first two races, and his teammate Andrea Dovizioso, there are no obvious candidates for podiums. Even those two will likely only surpass one of the top three if Stoner, Lorenzo or Pedrosa make a mistake or fail to finish. And then there’s Ben Spies, the other man on a factory Yamaha, who has yet to crack the top ten and is looking more off the pace than anyone else on the grid.

The continuing struggles of Valentino Rossi (#46) and Ducati epitomise the lack of depth in the MotoGP field at present (MotoGP.com)

Yes, MotoGP’s grid looks far better in 2012 than it did six months ago, when the final two races started with just 14 bikes – don’t forget that there are points available down to 15th in this series – and on occasion there were fewer than ten running by the end. A sport always looks healthier with a larger group of competitors, so to see 21 bikes on the grid in Jerez is refreshing, even if half of them aren’t competing with the other half yet.

Yes, the start of yesterday’s race was pulsating. While Stoner, Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Hayden were battling for the lead, with the combative Dovizioso and the oft-suicidal Crutchlow snapping at their heels, the race was a spectacle, impossible to peel your eyes away from. The problem was that this action lasted until about lap ten, and the next period of interest – the fight for the win in the last few laps between Stoner and Lorenzo – didn’t pick up until about five laps from the end, or about lap 22.

This sport needs its biggest names more than many others. It needs Rossi – and Ducati – to return to the sharp end of the field. It needs characters, arguably still suffering from the tragic death of maverick Italian Marco Simoncelli last season. And while it is by no means in crisis right now, another season of Stoner and Pedrosa battling Lorenzo may start to get… repetitive, at least.

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