Qualifying at Misano ended up giving an accurate reflection of the key battles in all three classes (or four if you include WSBK Superpole at the Nurburgring, where Carlos Checa sits on pole, with rivals Max Biaggi and Marco Melandri alongside him on the front row). In MotoGP, there was little to choose between Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, the three men qualifying within 0.180 of each other, and well ahead of the rest of the field. In the Moto2 class, Stefan Bradl held off the assault of Marc Marquez to secure his seventh pole of the season. And in the 125cc class, Frenchman Johann Zarco lines up on the grid, with the championship leader Nico Terol on the outside of the front row, in 3rd. These men will share out the handful of world championships between them, with the losers being left only with thoughts of revenge for next year.
At Misano on Friday, there was an event that will change the face of MotoGP forever. War was declared - in the nicest possible terms - and the silhouette of the future was vaguely discernible for those who wanted to see it. There were also some bikes on track, so let's turn to those first.
Fastest man on Friday was Jorge Lorenzo, after a radical change to the setup of his Yamaha, and a return to the settings the reigning World Champion used back at Mugello. From 6th and nearly a second down on Friday morning, Lorenzo leapt to the top of the timesheets, breaking through the 1'39 barrier, and going four tenths faster than the existing race lap record. On Friday, with another day of practice yet to come.
The change had meant Lorenzo could get the bike turned and out of the corners more quickly, and had given the Spaniard more confidence in the front of the bike. It was something that had worked at Mugello, but as Mugello had had new and grippy asphalt, the team had discarded it as a basis for the future at tracks where grip levels were not so high. They had then gone chasing setup, making changes to try and find the few tenths that they were behind the Hondas, but all to no avail. Now back at the front, Lorenzo looked happier and more relaxed than he had been for a long time, and that in itself should give pause for thought.
Coming to Misano always feels like a vacation, but then that's hardly a surprise given that Misano lies on Italy's Adriatic coast, and the stretch of coast from Gabbice Mare just south of Misano to Trieste on the Slovenian border is Italy's vacation heartland, and is lined with restaurants, hotels, and seafront stores selling the most incredibly gaudy junk imaginable. It is truly a magical place.
And for so many riders, teams and crew, Misano is not so much a holiday as a homecoming. Andrea Dovizioso is from Forli, 30 minutes' drive away, Mattia Pasini is from Rimini, Alex de Angelis is from San Marino, and Marco Simoncelli is from Cattolica, though as our waiter pointed out to us yesterday, he actually lives in Coriano, a few miles back from the coast.
The laid-back atmosphere may also be a side-effect of both the scorching Italian weather - the mercury barely drops below 30ºC during the day, and only a little cooler during the evening - and of a latent jet lag, the teams, riders and assembled hangers on barely off the plane from the Indianapolis round of MotoGP last weekend.
Two-thirds of the way through the 2011 season and this is the point where decisive blows are struck in title fights. Indianapolis was no different: though the championships in all three classes are a long way from settled, the three leaders each have a race in hand after Indy. Nico Terol leads the 125cc championship by 26 points, Stefan Bradl has a lead of 28 points in Moto2, and Casey Stoner holds a comfortable 44-point advantage over Jorge Lorenzo in the MotoGP class.
The way the three championship leaders secured their advantage at Indianapolis could well prove to be pivotal. In the 125cc race, Nico Terol dusted the field from the lights, putting a second a lap on everyone else and just disappearing. It was reminiscent of his displays earlier this year, when he won four of the first five races with ease. After a mid-season slump, and especially after the mechanical that saw him DNF at Brno, Terol is back, and has seized the 125 championship by the scruff of the neck again. It is hard not to feel sorry for the sympathetic Frenchman Johann Zarco, the Air Asia Ajo rider having made a huge leap forward this season, but when a rider is in the form that Terol is in, they are incredibly hard to beat. Terol's championship is taking on an air of inevitability, and once that seed is planted in the minds of his rivals, the fight is nearly over.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an immensely successful motorsports venue, but its very success worked against it on the first day of practice. After complaints last year that the track was too bumpy and the kerbs were raised too much, the infield part of the circuit was completely resurfaced and many of the bumps were removed. The MotoGP riders were almost unanimously impressed by the effort put in by Indy, and the change was universally appreciated as a sign that IMS was keen on keeping MotoGP at the facility for the immediate future.
The praise soon evaporated after the Friday morning session of practice, however. Like all newly-laid tarmac, the track was very dirty, and the Spanish contingent especially were complaining bitterly about the lack of grip. "I never tried asphalt so slippery," Jorge Lorenzo said after FP1, and several riders commented that the track was like riding in the wet. "You can't lean the bike in the corners," Dani Pedrosa added, "And the tires are destroyed."
The root of the problem is the lack of use that the infield track gets, being employed solely by MotoGP and the (very) occasional track day run by former MotoGP legend Kevin Schwantz. As a result, the track is dirty and has very little rubber laid down on the surface, meaning the track was immensely slippery for the first session. The fact that there are only 17 MotoGP bikes circulating didn't help either, with so few bikes not helping to lay down very much rubber at all.
As MotoGP heads into the final stretch of the season, with just over a third of the races left to go, it's time to have another look at the engine situation in MotoGP. With each rider now well into their allocation of 6 engines to last the season, the trends are becoming clear. So who is in trouble, who has engines to spare and which manufacturer has done the best job of producing an engine that works. Below is a run down of each factory, subdivided by team and rider.
As expected, Honda's RC212V engine is virtually bulletproof, especially in its factory configuration. The four full-fat factory Hondas on the grid (Marco Simoncelli is also riding a factory Honda RC212V, along with the three Repsol men) have seen 3 motors withdrawn (for an explanation of the terms used, see the legend at the bottom of the page) between them, and all of those engines had around 30 sessions on them and at least 4 races. The satellite spec RC212Vs of Hiroshi Aoyama and Toni Elias have not stood up quite so well, though Elias has also had to share his engine allocation with Ben Bostrom during the US round at Laguna Seca.
We'd been waiting for it for a long time - longer than we had initially hoped for, after the planned 1000cc test at Mugello morphed into an 800cc test, the Brno test taking its place - but finally, we got to see the 2012 MotoGP bikes out on track, in public and undisguised. Honda and Yamaha pitted their latest creations against one another in full view of the public, and the results were not quite as expected beforehand.
That a Honda RC213V - that's twenty-one three, not two thirteen, for the superstitious among you - should be fastest at the test was expected, Casey Stoner posting a time of 1'56.168 in the final hour before the test finished. Stoner had already had two days of testing on the 2012 bike, and the times being bandied about the paddock - about as reliable as any gossip from inside a small and deeply political community, i.e. not at all - was that Stoner had been two seconds faster than the 800s at the track earlier in the year, though the conditions for the 1000cc test were much more favorable.
Race day turned up plenty of surprises at Brno, some good, some bad, and some, well, just surprising. The three races turned up a tense duel, a full-on fairing-banging barnstormer and, well, a MotoGP race with a surprise podium, and proved that the layout of the Brno circuit is one of the very best in the world.
The 125cc race saw Sandro Cortese win from Johann Zarco, but more importantly, it saw Zarco claw back a whole host of points from Nico Terol after the Bankia Aspar rider was forced out of the race with a mechanical problem. Zarco would once again be denied victory, coming home 2nd to Sandro Cortese, but Zarco's championship prospects improved drastically, cutting Terol's lead from 32 to just 12 points, and throwing the title race open again.
In the Moto2 class, Stefan Bradl is still firmly in control of the championship, but he too is starting to leak points to Marc Marquez. At Brno, Bradl limited the damage to just 4 points, and still leads by a very generous 43-point margin, but with Marquez on a roll, a single DNF by Bradl would blow the championship open again.
The weather gods have really got it in for MotoGP this year. The Brno round looked like being warm and dry just a week ago, but that turned out to be hopelessly optimistic. It started raining on Friday night, and only stopped in the middle of the FP3 session for Moto2. That was not before both Casey Stoner and John Hopkins had crashed, however, Stoner coming away unscathed, while Hopkins was far less lucky, breaking one finger and fracturing another, and ruling himself out of the Brno race.
It was an undignified and completely undeserved end for the American, who has been deeply impressive since he stopped drinking and concentrated on racing. Hopkins had competed in three different series on three consecutive weekends, racing as a World Superbike wildcard at Silverstone and scoring pole and a couple of top ten finishes, then getting a podium at the Brands Hatch BSB triple header last weekend, before coming to Brno and posting a very decent pace on the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP machine. What Hopkins has proved over the past 6 months is that he deserves a second chance at MotoGP, and the way things look at the moment, that's not entirely out of the question.
The summer break officially ended at 9:15am this morning, when the peace which reigned in the wooded Moravian hills was split asunder by the crackle of a pack of howling 125cc two strokes. Though the wooded Moravian hills are wonderful when silent, the addition of racing motorcycles offered a vast improvement, as many of the people who have already crowded the paddock and track agreed.
Fastest man of the day is Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda rider untouchable in the morning, smashing the race lap record and getting within a couple of tenths of the pole record straight off the bat. Pedrosa was a tenth slower in the afternoon, allowing his teammate Casey Stoner to close the gap, from just under a second to less than four tenths. But the break has done Pedrosa good. Having spent the period leading up to Laguna Seca either in hospital, at the physiotherapists or at the racetrack, having a mental break had made a big difference.