From one endangered race to another. The MotoGP paddock leaves Indianapolis, possibly for the last time, and heads to Brno, a race which has been on the endangered list for the past ten years. Not all of the paddock got out on time: overbooked flights and thunderstorms caused massive delays, and left riders, teams and media stuck hanging around in airports for many hours. Hardly the ideal way to adapt to a shift of time zones by six hours, but they have little choice. There will more than a few bewildered faces in the paddock at Brno, trying to figure out where they are and what day it is.
A quick glance around should be enough to remind them. Brno is a glorious circuit, set atop a hill in the middle of a forest. To reach the track, you drive up the narrow, winding, tree-lined roads that once formed the basis of the old street circuit. The closed circuit which replaced those roads still retains most of that character: fast, flowing, rolling up hill and down dale through the trees. Where the track really differs from the public roads is in how wide it is.
The space that creates is seized upon eagerly by the riders, using it to take a number of lines through each of its corners, giving plenty of opportunities for passing. The fact that the corners are all combinations helps: riders flick right-left, left-right, right-left again and again. Make a pass into one corner, and your rival has a chance to strike back immediately at the next. It is a track which is made for great racing, and great motorcycle racing at that. Riders, fans and media alike all hope fervently that the financial and political problems which have dogged the Czech Grand Prix can be resolved, and we can keep this spectacular circuit.
So is Brno a Honda or a Yamaha circuit? On paper, you would say it should belong to Yamaha. Lots of fast corners and fast chicanes, playing into the agility of the Yamaha. Brno, like Mugello, Assen, Argentina and Phillip Island is all about carrying a lot of speed through the corners and flicking the bike quickly from left to right. That is where the Yamaha M1 excels.
The results sheet says otherwise, however: Hondas have won at the circuit for the past four years, Dani Pedrosa taking victory twice, and Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez taking one win apiece. There are a lot of places which play to the RC213V's strength, not least the incredibly steep climb up Horsepower Hill, the section between Turn 11 and Turn 14. But there are also plenty of places where a rider can use the Honda's strength on the brakes to stop the bike later than the Yamaha, get the bike turned and power out of the second part of the corner.
In reality, the great glory of the Brno circuit is the fact that there is more than one way to go fast round here. That means that Brno is neither a Yamaha nor a Honda track. It is a race track, and has produced some great racing. The last three MotoGP races here have been decided by less than half a second, and Brno has a history of producing great battles. Sometimes between teammates: Valentino Rossi versus Jorge Lorenzo in 2009, Marc Márquez versus Dani Pedrosa in 2013. Sometimes between riders from rival factories: Dani Pedrosa versus Jorge Lorenzo in 2012 and 2014, Valentino Rossi versus Casey Stoner in 2008.
Two names keep cropping up at Brno. One is Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider has won the race twice, and been on the podium in six of his nine appearances. The other is Valentino Rossi. Rossi took his first ever Grand Prix win at the track, all the way back in 1996, and has five premier class victories at the circuit, and nine podium finishes out of fifteen starts. Brno was where Pedrosa took his first and only victory last year, and could be the place he gets his 2015 season back into gear. Rossi took a second of a string of podiums in a row at Brno in 2014, culminating in victory at Misano. It has been a long time since Rossi has won here, but it has also been a long time since Valentino Rossi has been this good.
Will we get a Yamaha vs Honda battle? No doubt that Pedrosa will want to win here, as it has been a year since his last victory, and this is one of his strongest circuits. But the 2015 RC213V is not the 2014 RC213V, and its excessively aggressive engine may end up hampering Pedrosa's chance of the win. There are too many spots where Honda can wheelie and lose drive, or spin and lose drive, too many fast corners with fast entry where the unpredictable engine braking becomes hard to control. Pedrosa's ambition is beyond question. But he may not have the tools for the job in the Czech Republic.
Could we see a blue on blue battle? The prospects for a proper teammate dogfight to the line are excellent. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi are strong at Brno. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi are in great shape physically and competitively. Both riders are engaged in a fierce fight for supremacy in the championship with each other. The Yamaha M1 is exceptionally competitive, its strengths better than ever, its weaknesses mitigated. It will be hard for a Honda rider to stay with the Movistar Yamahas. But equally, it will be hard for one Movistar Yamaha rider to beat the other.
Who has the edge? Impossible to say. Both riders are strong, both riders are ambitious, both riders know this is a crucial race. Valentino Rossi already gave up four points at Indianapolis, his lead now back to single figures. He has to finish ahead of Lorenzo to turn the momentum around. Lorenzo has to finish ahead of Rossi if he is to keep closing the gap and tightening the thumbscrews. Every point he takes back from the Italian increases the pressure on Rossi. One of the two will blink first. Right now, it is hard to see which one it will be.
If Lorenzo has an edge, it is in practice and qualifying. So far, Lorenzo's team and crew chief have done a better job at being fast right out of the gate, and Lorenzo has done a much better job of ensuring he starts from the front row. Rossi's weakness was on display at Indianapolis, where he had a terrible start to the weekend, and was playing catch up from there. He and his team got there in the end, under the guidance of Silvano Galbusera, but he struggled on Friday, had a mediocre qualifying on Saturday, and was forced to start from eighth. If Rossi is to beat Lorenzo, he needs to be competitive from FP1, and start from the second row or better.
What of Marc Márquez? The Spaniard has undergone something of a revival since Barcelona. The combination of the 2014 frame with 2015 swingarm, sundry suspension changes and adjustments and a handful of electronics updates have put Márquez back in the game, as he showed in the last three races. The Repsol Honda rider pushed Rossi all the way to the line – and off line, off track, and across the line first – at Assen, dominated at the Sachsenring, and won at Indianapolis by a slim but comfortable margin. He needs to run the table if his to have any hope of a championship, but the Honda is simply not good enough to do that. The problem on corner entry – the rear sliding uncontrollably, making it difficult to enter the corner the way he wants to – remains. That problem will be a factor at Brno, the track having too many corners like Mugello, and not enough like the Sachsenring. The circuit is also not a track Márquez particularly likes, and one he has struggled at in the past. Winning in the Czech Republic will be very difficult indeed for Márquez. There is no doubt he will try, but he faces a stark choice in balancing risk with reward. Does he go all out for the win and risk crashing? Or does he settle for what is available, and give up the ground he worked so hard to make up at Indianapolis?
The real wildcard at Brno could be the weather. It is hot here, sweltering and humid, with intermittent thunderstorms and heavy rains. The current forecast is for rain to fall sometime on both Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Whether that means rain during qualifying or the race is uncertain right now, and likely to remain so until the bikes line up on the grid. It is summer, and so the weather can turn quickly.
Ducati come to Brno hoping to close the gap to the two leading factories. After a glorious start, the Ducatis have gone backwards, or rather, they have stood still while the Yamaha and Honda men have gotten better. Is that down to the bikes or the riders? A little bit of both, but at Indianapolis, Andrea Dovizioso implied that it was more to do with the riders and their preparation than with any particular bike upgrades. Both Repsol Honda and Movistar Yamaha are extracting all of the available performance out of their bikes, from rider motivation, from nailing down set up, and perhaps most of all, from the awareness that there is a title at stake. At Ducati, the Desmosedici GP15 has improved, but it is still very much a work in progress, with much left to do.
Help could be at hand, if rumors in the Italian press are to be believed. A new engine with improved power delivery is to make its debut at Brno, along with a package of chassis updates initially scheduled for Silverstone, the Italian media claim. The aim is to make the bike easier to ride and easier to manage, and hence more competitive. Dovizioso, especially, needs some help. His season has gone off the rails since around Mugello, not entirely through his own fault. A few major and minor mechanical issues, an unhealthy helping of bad luck, including being run very wide at the second corner in Indianapolis, and having to fight his way forward. All of this has taken the wind out of his sails, and he needs to turn it around at Brno. Andrea Iannone, meanwhile, continues on his uncharacteristically calm and reserved progress, putting in solid results week after week to hold on to an impressive fourth spot in the championship.
At Suzuki, Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales continue to wait patiently for the arrival of a seamless gearbox. The Suzuki GSX-RR continues to improve, but despite starting from an excellent base, they really do still have a lot of work to do. The layout of Brno may help their case this weekend, as the bike's incredible agility should allow it to run rings around the opposition in the corners. Getting out of corners is a different kettle of fish, however, the Suzuki losing out in acceleration to the Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis. They face an even greater obstacle in Horsepower Hill: it's not that they don't have the horsepower, but that they lack a completely effective way of deploying it.
Brno should see a few more loose ends in MotoGP's silly season tied up. Bradley Smith, who has had an outstanding season so far, should be able to finally put his name to a deal soon. A contract is said to exist, there are just a few final points to clear up. While Stefan Bradl is sitting in at Aprilia, replacing Marco Melandri, that seat is up for grabs for 2016. The persistent rumor is that Sam Lowes has been drafted in at the Italian factory for next season, but confirmation of that deal is still to come. There is also an open seat at Pramac which beckons. A lot of names are being linked with that seat, including Cal Crutchlow, Stefan Bradl and even Moto3 championship leader Danny Kent. Crutchlow looks set to stay with LCR for 2016, but that deal is pending news of the team's sponsorship situation with CWM. Lucio Cecchinello wants to keep Crutchlow, but he first has to know what budget he has. Bradl could very well take the Pramac seat, as he is clearly looking around at other options for 2016. And Danny Kent also has a number of offers from top Moto2 teams, and has to decide whether to go straight to MotoGP or return to Moto2 for a season or two.
Whatever Kent's choice, he is not going to be in for an easy weekend at Brno. The hill and the high-speed sections of the Czech circuit make it very difficult for riders to escape, the Moto3 race usually devolving into an all out brawl among a massive group. That is not a prospect Kent will relish, after the disaster at Indianapolis, but there is likely not a lot he can do about it. It is a prospect which the fans should love, especially if it lives up to last year's free-for-all to the line with half the field in contention for the win.
All this and more should play out at Brno, the jewel in the forest. Both the track and the event are among the best of the season, and the track produces some exceptional racing. Politics has stood in the way of Brno remaining on the calendar. Hopefully, politics can keep it on there. The track deserves the race, and the fans deserve the track.
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