MotoGP, like all things in life, has its seasons. As an outdoor activity taking place in the northern hemisphere, those seasons closely mirror the seasons of Europe: When the series starts racing in April, there's the thrill and excitement of things new and full of boundless possibility. In July, as summer hits its peak, the MotoGP field has taken shape, and the title chase is in full flow. In October, the championship starts winding down, and titles are mostly settled. And finally, in December, all activity ceases, as MotoGP embarks on its annual winter hibernation.
So by rights, as the riders return to the paddock at Brno after their short summer break and the championship well into its stride, the season should be rushing headlong along the course already laid out before MotoGP took its summer vacation after Donington. But some shock news and new rules coming into effect have thrown the series into confusion, leaving riders, teams and followers floundering for explanations and with a good deal more to think about than they were expecting.
The most astounding news was Casey Stoner's astonishing announcement that he will be missing at least the next three races, in a bid to discover the cause of the mystery ailment that has plagued him since Barcelona in mid-June. Although riders will often miss a couple of races to recover from a physical injury, to allow a broken leg or fractured wrist to heal, pulling out because of an undiagnosed complaint whose main symptoms are nausea and fatigue has set paddock tongues wagging. Though both Ducati and Stoner are certain the problem is down to some form of viral infection and the fact that since catching it shortly before Catalunya, Stoner has had no time to recuperate, the paddock gossips are putting it down to mental problems. Stoner and Ducati vehemently deny this, and although the Australian is undoubtedly dejected about being forced to pull out, he is back in his native country working on a training program and consulting doctors. Not the behavior of a broken man.
Whatever the causes of Stoner's problems, on the face of it, his withdrawal should make the title race somewhat simpler. With one of the three main candidates eliminated, the championship will surely go to either Valentino Rossi or Jorge Lorenzo. Nothing new in that of course, but in his quest to beat his team mate, Lorenzo had been counting on a little help. The 25 point deficit the Spaniard has to Rossi is a real mountain to climb, especially with just 7 races left in the season. And so Lorenzo had been hoping that Stoner could get between Rossi and himself and take extra points away from the reigning champ, allowing the young pretender to get closer to snatching Rossi's crown. With Dani Pedrosa back to full health and rapidly regaining fitness, Lorenzo had two potential allies capable of stealing points from his championship rival.
Of course, that's a sword that cuts both ways. With Valentino Rossi in the rampant form he is in and a resurgent Dani Pedrosa, Lorenzo could just as easily find himself losing 9 points to Rossi instead of just 5. At the Sachsenring, and again at Donington, Lorenzo saw the title slip away from him while Rossi extended his advantage. Lorenzo needs to break that trend right now.
The omens are good for both men, with Lorenzo as well as Rossi having a strong record here at the Brno circuit. Rossi has won here four times and finished on the podium a further three times in the premier class. Jorge Lorenzo was 10th here last year, hampered by Michelin's decision to bring tires that were way too soft for Brno's abrasive surface, but he is a two-time winner here in the 250 class. Now he's on the same tires as his team mate he will be much closer to the pointy end.
Like Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa has also won regularly here at Brno, both in the 125 and 250 classes. And like Lorenzo, he will want revenge for last season, when his Michelin tires left him incapable of competing. The revised parts which Pedrosa has been receiving for his Honda RC212V are starting to prove their usefulness, the revised engine with a softer power delivery and altered chassis putting the Honda back at the sharp end.
The Seventh Seal
Which brings us to the biggest change of the weekend, one which will largely go unseen by the general public, but which will potentially have a major effect on the championship. Brno is the first race to see engine limits introduced, with each rider now only having 5 engines to last the remaining 7 races. If a rider blows up an engine, or crashes it and damages it badly enough so that the seals need to be broken (for example, to replace engine cases if they get holed in a crash), then that's one less engine to last to the end of the season. Use a 6th engine, and you forfeit 10 points, and another 10 points for every further engine used.
The first effects of the engine limits should be visible in qualifying. In the final 15 minute dash for pole with no fuel limits to worry about, the teams usually turn up the wick a little, squeezing that bit of extra performance to improve their chances of a front row start. But with limited engines to play with that gamble now carries much more risk: A blown motor in qualifying will leave you one engine down and still 7 races to go. Brno will be the biggest problem, as everyone is on their first set of engines, but maybe at Indianapolis and certainly at Misano, engines which have already been raced may well see one final tour of duty running at full power during qualifying before being discarded and returned to the factory. Of course, if you are running a tired engine at full power, the chances of it blowing up in an shower of parts and engine oil are greatly increased. It will be interesting to see if qualifying gets red flagged more often, as teams try to squeeze one last blistering lap out of a used motor.
The beneficiaries of this will most likely be the satellite teams. The satellite bikes are already doing 2000 kilometers - or a little more than two race weekends - on a single engine, their motors already detuned by the factory technicians who accompany the satellite machines as part of the lease package. For the independent teams, little is likely to change, as the factories have already enforced the engine life experiment on them as part of their internal cost-cutting measures.
Less Power Please?
The factory teams, on the other hand, may find themselves a little more hamstrung by the measure. In the first year of the 800cc era, the RC212Vs were needing to be rebuilt after between 300 and 500 kilometers, which at the time was just about every day or so. Since then the Honda power plant has become significantly more reliable, but each iteration has seen some of the added reliability taken away again by increased power. As for Yamaha, they have already tested a longer life engine after the Barcelona round, though it is unclear just how much power has been sacrificed for the extra reliability. But the last two years have been spent in reducing internal friction and making the engine run cooler, two developments which are generally beneficial to engine life.
Ducati have been working closely with their partners Shell, and a laboratory truck was present at the Sachsenring to analyze the oil as it came out of the Desmosedici GP9s. Both the factory and their oil supplier have been working intensively on the problem of improved lubrication, and this should make engines durable enough to last the distance. As a token of their faith in their engines, the factory Ducati riders have both already had 4 of their 5 permitted engines sealed. They clearly do not expect to have to make any modifications to make the engines last the distance.
With one of the Fantastic Four out due to illness and the performance gap to the factory bikes possibly reduced, however marginally, the rest of the field smell blood. This could be their chance to get on the podium, and a single mistake by Lorenzo, Rossi, or Pedrosa will pave the way to glory. With a host of riders still uncertain about their futures - especially with the announcement that Alvaro Bautista and Hector Barbera will be entering the MotoGP class in 2010 - it's time for the riders in the danger zone to step their riding up a notch and starting taking a few extra risks in the hope of securing a contract.
Andrea Dovizioso probably has the least to fear and is the most likely beneficiary of any slip by the trio of untouchables still in the series. The quiet Italian took his first victory at Donington last time out, and he will be feeling confident of at least getting on the box again at Brno. Dovizioso expects to leave the Czech Republic with a new contract from Repsol Honda, as HRC boss Tetsuo Suzuki is in Brno to sign deals with Repsol, Dovi and team mate Dani Pedrosa.
Though Colin Edwards will be carrying the same confidence into Brno as Dovizioso, taking it from his podium at Donington alongside the Italian, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider does have some cause for concern. The Texan has never finished inside the top 6 at the Czech circuit, and more worryingly, Brno is one of four tracks where he's never managed this feat. The other three are Indianapolis, Misano and Sepang, all of which come in the second half of the season. With no contract signed for next season - though Edwards is widely tipped to stay put at Tech 3 - the Texan will need to score a few big results to ensure that Yamaha Japan are willing to stump up Edwards' considerable salary.
In The Hot Seat
At least Edwards is fairly confident of retaining his seat at Tech 3. Team mate James Toseland is far less sure of his fate. The Englishman had his best result of the year last time out at his home Grand Prix, coming home in 6th, just beaten on the last lap by Valentino Rossi. But Toseland needs to start breaking into the top 5, and more importantly, start beating his team mate if he is to be offered another year in MotoGP, let alone at Tech 3.
For competition is fierce for the fourth Yamaha seat. The M1 is generally acknowledged as the best bike on the grid, and the best chance a non-factory rider has of getting on the box. The favorite candidate for the second Tech 3 seat at the moment is Randy de Puniet, his status reaffirmed by the podium he scored at Donington. The Frenchman has been transformed by the Bridgestones from frequenter of the gravel trap to surprise package on an underperforming bike. De Puniet has won here once in 2003 on a 250, and despite riding with a broken ankle - suffered in a motocross accident whilst out training with his coach, former MX world champion Yves Demaria - De Puniet will be out to prove something at Brno.
The other man in the frame for the Tech 3 ride is Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen. With Alvaro Bautista due to announce he has signed with the Suzuki squad some time this weekend, effectively taking the place of the likable Australian, Vermeulen has his work cut out. Fortunately, Brno is one of Vermeulen's better tracks, the Australian having scored a 5th and a 6th at the last two visits, and with a new engine and a new chassis for the weekend, he'll be hoping to impress potential MotoGP employers, before turning his attention to the World Superbike paddock.
Over at Ducati, another fratricidal conflict looms. Mika Kallio has gained a temporary promotion to the factory Marlboro Ducati team, taking Casey Stoner's place alongside Nicky Hayden. The Finnish rookie has had a number of impressive results, and has regularly finished ahead of the American, who is ostensibly on the better machine. But Hayden has started to find his feet with the fickle GP9 recently, including a 5th place at Laguna Seca. Ducati would like to keep both Hayden and Kallio, though the two men might be asked to switch seats, Kallio moving up to the factory squad, while Hayden is shuffled down to the Pramac squad. Hayden will be hell bent on beating Kallio on the same bike, and ensuring that Ducati exercise the option to retain him in the factory team for 2010. He embarks on that campaign at Brno.
With Kallio kicked upstairs to the Marlboro squad, Xerox Ducati Superbike rider Michel Fabrizio has stepped into the Pramac team to fill Kallio's boots. Fabrizio is naturally delighted with the chance of a MotoGP ride, but the Italian has an unhappy history in MotoGP. He spent a year riding for the WCM team, in the period when it was clear that the bike lacked the funding to make it truly competitive. Then in 2006 he broke a collarbone in practice at Donington, subbing for Toni Elias. His last appearance in MotoGP was marginally more successful, scoring 10th place while substituting for Elias once again at the Sachsenring in 2007. Fabrizio was at Brno just three weeks ago, racing in the World Superbike round held there at the same time as the Donington MotoGP race, crashing out of the first race then taking a 3rd in the second. If Fabrizio harbors any ambitions of making it back into MotoGP, then just staying on and bringing the bike home will be his main objective.
Loris Capirossi will not be racing for his ride, as the Italian veteran is close to renewing his deal with Suzuki for one last year. Capirex' main focus will be testing the new engine and chassis which Suzuki are bringing, and hoping it will finally bring him the improvement he needs to get close to the podium again. The Italian scored his 99th podium here last year, and has been waiting for his hundredth ever since. That magic figure is unlikely to come up on Sunday, but he might at least be capable of laying the groundwork for that elusive 100th trip to the box.
Like Capirossi, Marco Melandri will also have some changes to test. Kawasaki has finally provided a revised chassis for the Hayate team, though this does not mean that the factory has changed its mind about pulling out of the series. Hayate's team boss, Andrea Dosoli, is adamant that Kawasaki's withdrawal is not official, but few in the paddock share his optimism.
That hasn't stopped the Hayate team from being a generally cheerful bunch, as they continue to surprise themselves with a series of outstanding results. Another finish between 5th and 10th should be easily possible for Melandri, which is more or less where the Italian always finishes at Brno.
At Scot Honda, Gabor Talmacsi will continue his learning process, gradually getting to grips with a MotoGP bike and closing the gap on the riders ahead of him. Talmacsi is one of the lucky few who is unlikely to have to scratch around for a ride next year, as the Hungarian can probably bring in enough sponsorship money off the back of his immense popularity at home. Talmacsi will be aiming high at Brno, as tens of thousands of Hungarians make the short trip up to the Bohemian circuit. Until - and if - we finally get to the Balatonring circuit next year, this is the closest thing Talmacsi has to a home race.
Double Or Quits
Finally, we reach the desperate trio, the three most likely riders to be out of the series at the end of the season. Toni Elias is the rider with the best chances of staying, having proved his ability as a former Grand Prix winner. The Spaniard has struggled since the start of the year, but over the past couple of races Elias has picked up the pace, getting the best out of the new chassis he has finally be given to use. A few more solid results will secure his position over his direct competition, the former Superbike riders Vermeulen and Toseland, and his current team mate Alex de Angelis.
And like his Gresini Honda team mate, De Angelis has seen his results improving over the past couple of races. The man from San Marino finished 5th in Germany, 4th in Britain, and is obviously on a roll. Whether he can maintain that momentum after the layoff of the summer break remains to be seen.
While Elias and De Angelis can still cherish some hope of returning to MotoGP in 2010, that cannot be said for Niccolo Canepa. The Italian has struggled since entering the class, despite his pedigree as a former Superstock 1000 champion. Canepa is almost certain to find his way to the World Superbike paddock next season, and only a miracle can prevent that. He has seven more shots at that miracle.
New Age Dawns
After a comparatively short summer layoff, with just three weeks gone since the last race in Britain, the MotoGP paddock returns to action in a state of uncertainty and some disarray. We are entering the heart of contract season, but with so many unknowns entering the equation, a sense of unease pervades the paddock. Casey Stoner's mystery illness has reminded the riders of their incredible vulnerability, especially in the face of something as unknown and hard to diagnose as a viral infection. Broken bones, missing fingers, bumps and bruises, these are the things the paddock understands and knows how to deal with. Chronic fatigue, nausea and stomach cramps are unfamiliar, and therefore far more feared.
And added to that we have the new engine restrictions, limiting the number of motors the riders can use. Valentino Rossi has pointed out one downside of the move, dissuading riders from performing celebratory burnouts and wheelies after the race. The post race celebrations are likely to be far less exuberant, detracting from the spectacle, and the way the changes affect qualifying could have a similar effect, the battle for pole being less intense and settled earlier.
On the other hand, if it narrows the gap between the factories and the satellite teams, that is only to be welcomed. Just how rule changes play out are always hard to predict, whether they will help the show or hinder it, but one thing is for sure: With engines limited, and one of the series top names missing, MotoGP enters a new era this weekend at Brno.