MotoGP returns to action from the summer break at Brno, probably for the last time. Not, as we thought, because the Brno MotoGP round faced being removed from the calendar – with constant arguments between the circuit, the city of Brno, the South Moravian Region, and the Czech ministry of sport over funding, there were regular delays in payment of the sanctioning fee – but because in 2020, the MotoGP season will almost certainly resume at the Kymiring in Finland at the end of July.
The good news is that it looks like MotoGP will be staying at Brno, at least for next year. That was the implication when Dorna announced the Northern Talent Cup at the Sachsenring, which included a race at the Brno MotoGP round in the calendar for the series.
The truth is that Brno belongs on the MotoGP calendar. In the pantheon of MotoGP racing circuits, Brno sits very close to the top, and like Assen and Silverstone, half a rung below Mugello and Phillip Island. It is a fast and wide track which tests every aspect of bike and rider, despite top speeds being relatively limited. Like Assen, top speeds don't get much above 310 km/h. But like Assen, the track flows, challenging riders to brake later, enter corners faster, and take their bikes closer to the limit to find an advantage.
It all starts with the first corner, the first point at which riders can attempt a pass. Hard on the brakes, carrying one-and-a-half times their own body weight as they haul their bikes up from the fastest point on the circuit, before entering the long, wide right hander. Outbraking your rivals is no guarantee of success: like Mugello's first corner, run too hot into Turn 1 and they can pass you back at the apex or on the exit.
From the exit of Turn 1, the track flicks left through Turn 2, before another hard braking zone at Turn 3. Again like Mugello, passing at Turn 3 is dangerous, as passing someone on the entry to the left hander opens you up for attack at the left hander. And that pattern repeats itself for the rest of the lap.
From the top of the track, the riders descend through the stadium section through a series of left and right-hand corners, most of which are entirely viable passing places, until finally, they reach the bottom of the circuit. From Turn 10, the tight right hander, the circuit starts to climb back to the start and finish line.
It is hard to overstate just how tough that climb is. Stand in Turn 10 and look up, and the track winds like a mountain road up the hillside. After the first left-right combination of Turns 11 and 12, the climb gets harder as the bikes accelerate up the hill to nearly 290 km/h. Brno may not boast a 350 km/h front straight, but that climb up what has been dubbed Horsepower Hill stresses the engine as much as anything at Mugello.
All roads lead to Rome
What is the best bike for Brno? You need a machine that can do everything. It needs to brake hard and late, and be stable all the way to the entry. It needs to turn quickly, and hold a line. It needs to have strong acceleration, to get out of the slow corners quickly, and have as much power as possible to handle Horsepower Hill.
That presents a dilemma. There is no bike that does everything: the ones that do, do everything well, but nothing exceptionally. Factories and teams face a choice: do they try to build an all-round bike, and hope to make up ground where other bikes lose out? Or do they build a bike that will do one or two things very well, and manage the points where the bikes are weakest?
This dilemma may be a headache for the teams, but it makes for great racing for the fans. As at all the great race tracks, more bikes can be competitive, and the riders can make more of a difference. Since 2006, the race has been won by a Honda six times, by a Yamaha four times, and by a Ducati three times. In that time, there have been eight winners, and the last time someone won two years in a row was Valentino Rossi, in 2008 and 2009.
The margin of victory is often small. Between 2012 and 2014, the race was decided by four tenths of a second or less. Last year, three tenths covered the entire podium, Andrea Dovizioso just holding off Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez to take the win.
There is good reason to hope that this year will be very similar. There are more bikes on the grid capable of being competitive, and no one with a clear advantage. Ducati and Honda should be as quick as they were last year, while the Yamaha is stronger than 2018. This year, the Suzuki is more competitive, and capable of competing at a track like Brno. Horsepower Hill, however, will pose a real challenge to both the Suzuki and the Yamaha. The hope is that they can gain enough through the flowing sections to hold off the might of Ducati and Honda up the hill.
Leads can come and go
Marc Márquez comes into Brno with a healthy 58-point lead. Though there are still ten races left in the season, Márquez is odds-on favorite to lift the MotoGP crown again. It is of course a dangerous thing to hand out trophies before the season is over – just look at what has happened in the WorldSBK championship, where Alvaro Bautista has gone from holding a seemingly invincible 61-point advantage to trailing Jonathan Rea by 81 points. Then again, Jonathan Rea is following the Marc Márquez school of title campaign: win when you can, podium when you can't win. So far, Márquez has finished either first or second, except for his crash in Austin.
Brno is not one of Márquez' strongest tracks, however. He has only ("only" – a measure of just how strong his record is in MotoGP) won here twice, once in his first year in MotoGP, and the second time in 2017, when he gambled on swapping to slicks on the second lap, and built up a huge margin as he managed the grip of the tires in tricky conditions, the conditions in which he excels.
With dry weather expected for Sunday, Márquez may choose to settle for a podium if he does not have a clear advantage. His main objective will be to either finish ahead of Andrea Dovizioso, or to limit the points he loses to the factory Ducati rider. That doesn't mean he won't be able to win, however: the extra horsepower the Repsol Honda has this year may help him hold his own against the Ducatis.
What can Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci do to prevent a Márquez victory? The added horsepower of the Honda is a concern, especially up the hill. Last year, Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo (then on the Ducati) only had to ensure they were close enough to Márquez at the bottom of the hill to ensure they could out-drag him to the top. This year, they have to be sure they are ahead through Turn 10, to make sure they start the climb up the hill in front, and give Márquez no chance to attack through the two chicanes.
The good news for the Ducatis is that the corners at Brno are less of a hindrance than at other tracks. "I think it is in the tight and slower corners where we struggled the most in terms of turning," Jack Miller explained, speaking of his Pramac Ducati GP19. "Like when you are on the angle a long time like at Turn 3 at Sachsenring. Here you need to turn but you have some decent rolling speed at certain points."
At Brno, that is less of an issue, even the slow corners playing to the Ducati's strengths. "You sort of roll into them though. You are almost slowing a little bit more to prepare for the second one and use the engine," Miller said. "It should be alright. I hope so."
Turning the ship
Andrea Dovizioso will hope it is alright. The Italian needs to start taking points back from Márquez if he is to get his championship campaign back on track. Dovizioso won here last year, so he knows how to beat Márquez to the line. He will be hoping Brno is more like Qatar, and he can keep the Repsol Honda rider behind him.
Danilo Petrucci has less of a strong record at Brno. His best result in MotoGP is sixth here last year, but that will not be good enough to challenge Márquez. The factory Ducati rider will hope that the step he has made this year is enough to get him close to the podium, but he faces an uphill challenge. Quite literally: the Italian is one of the heaviest riders on the grid, and that will cost him on his way up Horsepower Hill.
The Ducatis will have some help from the racing department for this weekend. Ducati have a new fairing due to make its debut this weekend, though only on the factory bikes. Jack Miller won't get the fairing on his GP19 until the test on Monday, and hopes he can race it in Austria.
Miller will also have some of the chassis updates which Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci tried at Assen and the Sachsenring. Though Miller's record at Brno is not strong, it is a track he likes, and he could play a role in the race. "The bike is working well and I really like this place here, even if the results maybe don’t show," the Australian said. "It is one of the last old school tracks with a big layout, long lap, a lot of fun. I hope we can do a decent job, the bike worked really well here last year so it should be alright this year."
Andrea Dovizioso's best hope of assistance may come from Yamaha. Since turning his season at Barcelona (despite being taken out of the race by Jorge Lorenzo), Viñales has been consistently competitive, winning in Assen, then finishing on the podium at the Sachsenring. For Viñales, the end of the summer break could not come soon enough, and he is raring to go at Brno.
Can the Yamaha handle Viñales' ambitions? The bike is clearly stronger than it was last year. Viñales is not short of optimism, at least: "We arrive here in a very different way, the bike is working differently to last year, it is a very different bike," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said on Thursday. "I feel I can take a lot of benefit, I am curious to see. I feel great, at the maximum and I hope this second half of the season we can prove and show our potential."
Brno is a vital race for Viñales' teammate Valentino Rossi as well. Viñales' upward trajectory is the mirror image of Rossi's downward slide, from his podium and near victory at Austin. The track is an ideal place for him to reverse that trend, as it is one of his strongest tracks on the calendar. It is the site of his very first Grand Prix win – aboard an Aprilia 125 back in 1996, now 23 years ago. But he also has five wins and eleven podiums at the Czech circuit, a track which suits both his style and the Yamaha.
The tide of history
Even last year, when the Yamaha was struggling to be competitive, Rossi managed to cross the line in fourth, just three seconds behind the leading trio. With a better bike, he has a chance to be closer to the podium battle, and if he can be there, he is capable of springing a surprise.
"It is difficult to say in advance because the situation changes very much, also from one year to the other, but usually the Yamaha is fast in Brno," was Valentino Rossi's assessment. But he and his team will have to find some solutions: "I don’t know if it a problem of the approach, all I know is the problem of the last few races we don’t have enough speed. We tried different things but I wasn’t competitive. We need to try the right way to ride the bike and be stronger."
Then there is Fabio Quartararo. The Petronas Yamaha SRT rider crashed out at the Sachsenring, after scoring two podiums in a row, one at Barcelona, the second at Assen. Brno is more like those two tracks than the Sachsenring, and Quartararo is nearly back to full fitness after arm pump surgery and dislocating his shoulder during practice in Germany.
When asked what his expectations where, Quartararo tried to sound reserved. The goal was unchanged from before the summer break, he said. "Same as the last races, try to be the first rookie, this is the main goal, and of course, top eight will be a great result." But the Frenchman also tipped his hand a little. "If we are able to fight for the podium or victory, we will go for it, but eighth position would be a good result for us." Officially, the goal is to finish in the top eight. But if you were to peer into Quartararo's soul, you would see that he believes that a podium, or even victory, is a genuine possibility.
New boy on the block?
What can Suzuki do at Brno? If it weren't for the hill, the track would be made for the GSX-RR. Fast changes of direction, a couple of long corners, and plenty of places which reward the agility of the Suzuki. Expect to see Alex Rins pulling his usual trick of riding round the outside of other riders in corners where no one else will attempt a pass.
Rins is bullish on his return to action, believing that the Suzuki is competitive at Brno, and looking forward to continue his title challenge. But was dismissive of concerns about crashing out of the last two races. Was it something he had thought about over the summer? "No." Did he worry it might happen again? "No." He only looked forward, he said, and not back.
Joan Mir was similarly optimistic, and with good reason. The Spaniard made a step in the last few races, being faster and more competitive than he had been in the first part of the year. He has learned fast, and the Suzuki suits his style. Brno is a good place for him to make the next step on his path toward the top.
All in the mind
Progress is not only made on the bike, of course. The biggest performance gains are to be found in what mechanics jokingly refer to as "the nut between the handlebars". The gray matter protected by FIM homologated helmets is the ultimate arbiter of performance, and Johann Zarco gave an honest and open assessment of the things he had been doing over the summer break to improve himself on the KTM.
Surprisingly, Zarco's lessons about himself had been learned in the mountains, on day-long hikes, the Frenchman told us. The benefits of long mountain hikes had even taken him by surprise, he said. "As a sportsman, you can think that you are only going for a little walk. But after 40 kms in the mountains, it's not a little walk, and it becomes really tough. Even if you just have to walk, put one foot in front of the other, step by step, but it's hard."
It was a place where he could not hide, and had to deal with the metaphorical ups and downs of fatigue, alongside the physical ups and downs of mountain paths. "You have to feel in some moments you are so down, and then it comes back. So the down moment, you think you will never come back, but then yes, it's coming back. And when you do it I don't know how many times during 15 hours, it gives you some wisdom. And you feel that even in that performance time, a down moment doesn't mean that you will not bring another up time."
That was a lesson which was directly applicable to his personal struggles with the KTM RC16, Zarco explained. "The focus for the second half of the year is to control better all of the emotions I went through in the first half of the season," the Red Bull KTM factory rider said. "I've been sad too many times, because I was not achieving what I wanted. And the summer break helped me to accept better this situation, and then just accepting that can help me to do a better work, and accept also to have changes that will maybe not bring me immediately some progress, but at the moment, if I don't change anything, I won't have the progress."
Zarco also had some faith in the results of testing carried out by Dani Pedrosa over the summer. That had been extremely productive, with Zarco and teammate Pol Espargaro expecting to use new parts during the weekend, then again at the test on Monday. "I think the work Dani did during this summer will be a great base, because he is the kind of rider who is so clean in his riding, and he knows perfectly well what he does on the bike," Zarco said. "So for me it's pretty important to have this base setup, and from that push myself to not lose myself as I did in the last few months."
Pedrosa was working on the engine and the chassis, and Pol Espargaro was hoping for more power and a more controllable power delivery, the Spaniard said. "He was working with the engine and the chassis," Espargaro said of Pedrosa. "Maybe he took some good decisions with the engine. I would like that because I’d like to be faster on the straight, in acceleration and to have more control in the corners. For sure everyone would love that. But we will see."
It will be worth keeping one eye on Miguel Oliveira as well. At the Sachsenring, the Tech3 rider was the fastest of the KTM riders, despite a poor result which was down to an early crash. Oliveira is determined to continue the progress made since Assen. "I think already since Assen, I have done a step on my riding," the Portuguese rider said. "I definitely know what I need to ride the KTM faster, or closer to what Pol is doing. Which is not easy for me. But I understand also the way of also commenting on the bike to the mechanics. So the setup has changed slightly since we got the carbon swingarm, and it seems like it is working well."
In terms of riding, there were a couple of big steps he had made, Oliveira explained. "Basically, it's about stopping the bike, and the throttle management in the corners. With the TC and the power delivery, there is a way that you need to go with the KTM, very smoothly, and it seems that in Sachsenring at least the step was bigger, and I felt like a big difference in the result in what I was doing."
Being smooth had the paradoxical result of being able to ride more aggressively, he said. "The consequence is an aggressive riding style, but the way you need to do the first approach, it's smooth."
The experience of the first half of the season also meant that he had learned how to communicate better with the team, and focus on one thing at a time in his feedback. "Focusing now on specific points of the bike which before, I didn't pay attention to, like giving a better comments for the setup of the TC, the RTD – the power delivery – and this makes a big difference, because in this class, you are very limited in what you have underneath, what the bike is doing by itself with the electronics." There was time to be gained using the electronics, and working on this methodically was key to success.
The parity paradox
After Tito Rabat announced a new deal for 2020 and 2021, that left only Jack Miller and Taka Nakagami with contracts to be signed. Negotiations for Miller were still exactly where he left off before the summer break, with a few details to be ironed out, mostly relating to money and resources. There is no doubt a deal will come, but it may take a little while.
At LCR Honda, it is Takaaki Nakagami himself who is the sticking point. He has an offer from HRC of a bike for 2020, but Honda only want to offer the Japanese rider an older spec machine. Nakagami is holding out for a 2020 bike, believing that he can be a lot more competitive if he had the right machine. "For sure I will fight until the last moment because most of the riders and teams have a factory bike," Nakagami said. "I don’t say that the previous bike is a bad bike but most of the bikes are growing up and improving a lot and now you can see only one-second is 15-16 riders. So it means one or two tenths is a big gap, you are able to move five or six position. So this is very sensitive."
This is becoming a universal problem for both riders and factories, and ironically, as a result of the factories stepping up their support in MotoGP. With more and more factories supplying factory-spec bikes, riders on older spec machines drop further behind. And as fewer riders have lower-spec bikes, their incentives to obtain newer bikes become much greater.
When there were only a few truly competitive bikes on the grid, having a lesser-spec machine was not so much of an issue. Sure, the podium was out of reach, but on a good day, a spot in the top five or six was entirely possible. Now, with the machines so equal, the margins between the riders have become tighter and tighter, and details have become ever more important. In the old days, a tenth here or there did not make a huge difference. In the current MotoGP era, a tenth can be the difference between making it directly to Q2 or starting from eighteenth, between scoring a top ten finish, or ending up out of the points. And that can be the difference between moving up to a better team, or struggling to hang on to your ride against an influx of newcomers.
A good man remembered, for ever
Though there was the usual excitement of MotoGP reconvening for the second half of the season, the start of the weekend was overshadowed by the sad death of Luca Semprini, the 35-year-old Ducati press officer who moved from WorldSBK to MotoGP this year, to work with Danilo Petrucci. 35 is way too young for anyone to die, but making it worse was the fact that Luca was one of the kindest, most thoughtful people in the paddock.
I first spoke to Luca a very long time ago, before he had even started working in motorcycle racing, while he was still finishing his thesis in the United States. We kept in touch, and eventually he got a job with Italian website GPOne.com, where he became their World Superbike reporter. He was respected by the riders, because he asked thoughtful, interesting questions that tried to get to the bottom of racing a WorldSBK machine.
A couple of years ago, he changed sides, becoming the press officer for Ducati's WorldSBK team. As a press officer, he was as good as he was as a journalist, understanding what journalists needed, and trying to help them wherever they can, while still protecting his riders. This year, he had swapped places with Julian Thomas, and was taking care of Danilo Petrucci.
Luca was a caring and thoughtful man, with a powerful intellect. The best conversations I had with him were not about racing, but about the world in general, and the human condition. He was utterly passionate about racing, but he also saw the bigger picture, able to put the world of racing into perspective.
I will miss him. But I will remember him fondly, and often. He will live on in my memory, and the memory of many others in the paddock. He was a good human.
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