Spaniard Hector Barbera topped the timesheets in the 250cc class once again, leading the second session of free practice from the halfway mark. Barbera had taken the top spot from early leader Roberto Locatelli, and it took a late surge by the championship favorites to displace him from the top 4. Alvaro Bautista ended the session in 2nd, a tenth behind Barbera, while Hiroshi Aoyama set his fastest lap on his final attempt to jump up to 3rd, ahead of Bautista's Aspar team mate Mike di Meglio. Reigning champion Marco Simoncelli could only manage the 7th fastest time, though he was just 3/10ths of a second off the leader Barbera.
Jorge Lorenzo once again topped the timesheets at Brno during the second session of free practice, but unlike yesterday afternoon, when it was all but a runaway for the Spaniard, the competition was a lot tighter on Saturday morning. Lorenzo took an early lead, cracking straight into the 1'56s, before setting the bar at 1'56.458. Only team mate Valentino Rossi could follow at first, and the closest he could get was to within a third of a second.
But as the session entered its second half, Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa picked up the pace and started to close the gap. With 24 minutes to go, Pedrosa had cut his deficit to just 0.004 of a second, and it took Lorenzo until the final minutes of the session to respond, cutting a further 10th of a second from his time, lapping in an astonishing 1'56.331. To put that into perspective, the current pole record is 1'56.191. It is held by Valentino Rossi, who set it in 2006, on a 990cc Yamaha M1, using super-sticky qualifying tires, which were banned this year.
Rossi ended the session in 3rd place, behind Lorenzo and Pedrosa, having closed the gap a little, but still nearly half a second behind his team mate. Colin Edwards was 4th fastest, ahead of a resurgent Loris Capirossi. Mika Kallio once again won the battle of the Marlboro Ducatis, leaping ahead of his team mate Nicky Hayden with 14 minutes of the session left.
There are a lot of badly kept secrets in the paddock, and one of the very worst kept was the fact that Marco Melandri would be making a return to the Gresini Honda team next season. Since the rumors started to emerge - at about the same time as Marco Simoncelli announced his signing for the Gresini team at Assen - Melandri has tried to play them down, quipping that although journalists were writing that he'd been signed by Gresini, nobody had told him.
But to paraphrase the bard, the rider did protest too much. For today, Fausto Gresini officially announced that Melandri will be joining the Gresini team for 2009. The deal has been on the cards since it became clear that Kawasaki's backing for Hayate would be a one-year affair, and Melandri has seized the opportunity with fantastic aplomb, getting far more out of the barely developed ZX-RR than anyone thought it had in it. His ability and strength of will has been rewarded with the Gresini ride, with team boss Fausto Gresini acknowledging the long history the two parties share: "Melandri is a huge part of the Gresini story and we have had great results together," Gresini said in a press release.
The tricky problem of the single factory-spec RC212V which Gresini have at their disposal has been settled in Melandri's favor. Speaking yesterday to the press, HRC president Tetsuo Suzuki made it clear that Simoncelli would get a satellite-spec machine, but that Honda's aim is for the satellite machines to be just one or two races behind the factory bikes. That has quite obviously not been the case over the past two and a half seasons, but with Honda now starting to catch Yamaha and Ducati in the development race, a return to Honda's former policy looks increasingly feasible.
Derbi's Pol Espargaro was fastest in the morning session of practice for the 125cc class, taking the top spot as the session ended from the Aspar duo of Julian Simon and Bradley Smith. Title rival Nicolas Terol was 4th quickest, ahead of Stefan Bralde and Andrea Iannone.
Not such a strong day for the other British riders, Scott Redding only managing a 17th place, while Danny Webb took a while to get back up to speed after losing yesterday to mechanical woes, and ended the session in 25th place. American Cameron Beaubier ended the session in 20th, but a crash during the session saw him injure his shoulder badly enough to be forced to withdraw. Though examination at the Clinica Mobile showed no fractures, shoulder injuries at Beaubier's age (16 years old) can cause problems in later life if they are not allowed to heal properly.
Mattia Pasini has had a season of ups and downs in 2009. The Italian won the Mugello 250cc Grand Prix, then a couple of weeks later, he nearly missed out on riding after a dispute over unpaid lease fees saw Aprilia refuse to provide Team Toth with the ECUs for Pasini's Aprilia RSA.
As Team Toth continues to teeter on the brink of financial collapse, Pasini has just received news of another positive turn in his career. The Rimini-based rider is to test the Pramac Ducati MotoGP bike left vacant by Mika Kallio at the post-race test at Brno on Monday.
The decision to have Pasini test the bike may at first seem a little strange, as Michel Fabrizio is already in Brno and riding that bike this weekend. Logic would dictate that Fabrizio would be the right person to test the machine on Monday, having spent Friday through Sunday riding it, and already up to speed.
But there is a problem with Fabrizio: The Roman is currently still in contention for the World Superbike title - though he has a 53 point deficit to the championship leader, team mate Noriyuki Haga - and the Xerox Ducati boss Davide Tardozzi has already made it extremely clear Fabrizio should return to the World Superbike paddock as soon as possible. With Casey Stoner out for at least three races, the last of which - at Misano - clashes with the next World Superbike round at the Nurburgring, and Kallio having moved out of the Pramac team to take Stoner's place, Pramac need to fill Kallio's place at Brno, Indianapolis and Misano.
Fabrizio is in for this weekend at Brno, but so far, this looks like being the only race that Fabrizio will get aboard the Desmosedici. With Indy just a week before the Nurburgring, then Misano clashing with the German World Superbike Round, the risk of injury is too great for the Roman, and someone else will have to be drafted in to take Kallio's place in the US and Italy.
Yesterday, Dorna released a list of engines presented to MotoGP's Technical Director Mike Webb to be officially sealed. The seals are placed to comply with the engine limit which comes into effect at Brno, which stipulates that each rider is only allowed to use 5 engines until the end of the season. The teams only needed to submit 1, or at most 2 engines to be sealed before practice started, but instead most submitted 3 or even more. That demands some kind of explanation, and so we decided to take a closer look at the numbers.
Here's the full list:
|3||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda Team||3|
|4||Andrea Dovizioso||Repsol Honda Team||3|
|5||Colin Edwards||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||3|
|7||Chris Vermeulen||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||2|
|14||Randy de Puniet||LCR Honda MotoGP||3|
|15||Alex de Angelis||San Carlo Honda Gresini||3|
|24||Toni Elias||San Carlo Honda Gresini||2|
|27||Casey Stoner||Ducati Marlboro Team||4|
|33||Marco Melandri||Hayate Racing Team||3|
|36||Mika Kallio||Pramac Racing||3|
|41||Gabor Talmacsi||Scot Racing Team MotoGP||2|
|46||Valentino Rossi||Fiat Yamaha Team||3|
|52||James Toseland||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||3|
|65||Loris Capirossi||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||2|
|69||Nicky Hayden||Ducati Marlboro Team||4|
|88||Niccolo Canepa||Pramac Racing||3|
|99||Jorge Lorenzo||Fiat Yamaha Team||3|
* There are also 2 spare Suzuki engines not yet assigned to a rider
The first thing to note is that Casey Stoner's absence generates a small complication. Casey Stoner has had 4 engines sealed, and Mika Kallio has had 3 engines sealed. But Kallio is riding the factory Marlboro Ducati bike this weekend, so whose engines is he using?
Hector Barbera started the weekend apparently determined to prove to all and sundry that he has earned his promotion to the MotoGP class with Aspar, and set about doing so by being quickest throughout the first session of practice for the 250cc class by a significant margin. The Spaniard was only bested briefly, in the dying seconds of the session, by Hiroshi Aoyama, but Barbera was not far behind, and back on top of the timesheets again.
Behind Aoyama, Alex Debon set the 3rd fastest time, with the other man due to announce his ascenscion to MotoGP, Alvaro Bautista, 4th quickest. Marco Simoncelli was beaten by his Gilera team mate Roberto Locatelli for once, and set the 6th fastest time.
Remarkable news from Brno. Just hours after Tetsuo Suzuki announced that HRC had reached a basic agreement with Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso, Pedrosa's manager, Alberto Puig, is denying that anything has been signed. The Spanish former racer, who has mentored Pedrosa for years, told the Spanish TVE television that Pedrosa in reality, nothing had changed, and that Pedrosa had not yet signed a contract.
According to reports by GPOne.com, Puig told TVE's Marc Martin that Pedrosa and Honda had reached agreement on the basics of the contract, but were still discussing a few minor details. This may explain why neither rider was present at the HRC boss' press conference this morning, as is usual when contract signings are officially announced. There can be little doubt that Pedrosa and Dovizioso will eventually sign an official contract with the Repsol Honda squad, but it seems that agreement and contractually binding documents are two entirely different things.
Jorge Lorenzo didn't so much draw first blood in the first session of free practice as drain the body of MotoGP dry. Lorenzo destroyed the existing race lap record, setting a long string of laps in the 1'56s, including a 1'56.595, just 4/10ths off the pole record set by Valentino Rossi in 2006, on supersoft qualifying tires and a 990cc Yamaha M1.
Lorenzo's Fiat Yamaha team mate Valentino Rossi had led early on, but was forced to cede the top spot to an indomitable Lorenzo by the 20 minute mark. The reigning world champion was nearly half a second off for most of the session, only closing and getting into the 1'56s in the latter stages of practice. Dani Pedrosa was the 3rd fastest of the afternoon, just getting within 1 second of Lorenzo by the very end of the session.
Bradley Smith was fastest in the first session of free practice for the 125cc class. The British rider took top spot with just a few minutes to go, then improved his time to put it out of reach on his final lap. KTM's Marc Marquez took 2nd spot, forcing Smith's Aspar team mate Julian Simon down into 3rd. Nicolas Terol set the 4th fastest time.
Any illusions that Jorge Lorenzo may have cherished that he could still use his talks with Honda as leverage in his negotiations with Yamaha have now finally gone out of the window. At Brno, HRC boss Tetsuo Suzuki gave a press conference to announce that Honda had signed both Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso to new contracts with the factory team.
The two-year deals for both Dovizioso and Pedrosa mean that there is no room for Lorenzo at Honda, a fact confirmed by Tetsuo Suzuki. The HRC president confirmed that Honda had had talks with Jorge Lorenzo, but that they hadn't been able to conclude a deal with the Spanish star. Any suggestion that Honda could lay on a third full factory bike for Lorenzo were rejected as "impossible" by the HRC boss. No reference was made to the Repsol sponsorship deal, which is expected to be concluded at the end of this weekend, although he did confirm that there would not be any budget cuts at HRC next year.
In addition to the deals with Pedrosa and Dovzioso, Tetsuo Suzuki covered a number of other subjects. One of the most interesting was that HRC are studying the option of fielding a 7th bike next season (presumably as a result of pressure from Dorna), one up from their current quota of 6. This fuels speculation that Honda will find a way to run Hiroshi Aoyama in MotoGP next year. Having the current 250cc championship leader on a MotoGP bike would see a Japanese rider back in the championship, something believed to be key to the Japanese factories.
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.
Now that the MotoGP paddock is assembling once again at Brno for the Czech Grand Prix, some movement is starting to return to the rider market. We reported yesterday that both Alvaro Bautista and Hector Barbera are likely to announce the deals they have penned, with Suzuki and Aspar Ducati respectively, but today, news of much bigger fish has started to emerge.
The website of the Spanish magazine Solo Moto is reporting that Repsol and Honda will be finalizing renewal of their sponsorship contract this weekend. HRC president Tetsuo Suzuki is said to be on his way to Brno to put his signature to the deal, which Solo Moto's Manuel Pecino believes will be a two-year extension of their current contract. The Spanish petroleum giant has been working with the factory Honda squad since 1995, and are so closely associated that they have become almost synonymous.
The deal would put an end to much speculation. Earlier in the year, Repsol was rumored to be looking to take its sponsorship elsewhere, after Honda failed to deliver an instantly quick bike for the third year in a row. Repsol really wants a Spanish world champion, but since the switch to 800cc, Honda have struggled to deliver. The last few races have shown a marked improvement, however, and Repsol and Honda have been getting closer to a contract extension for the past couple of months, to be concluded at Brno.
Now that the paddock at Brno is starting to fill up with teams and riders, as they prepare for the Czech Grand Prix this weekend, silly season is starting to get back into full swing. Already, news is starting to break of Alvaro Bautista's impending announcement of a deal with Suzuki for the next two years, as team mate to Loris Capirossi for 2010, and that move has precipitated a bit more reshuffling.
For with Bautista now taken, the Aspar team, who will be making their debut with the fifth Ducati fielded this year by Sete Gibernau, have had to turn to their backup plan for a rider. According to Spanish website Motocuatro.com, that backup plan is Hector Barbera. Barbera and his management met Jorge Martinez, boss of the Aspar squad, in the paddock at Brno, and according to Motocuatro, at that meeting Barbera concluded a one-year deal to ride the Aspar team's Ducati in 2010. The deal is due to be announced officially on either Thursday or Friday, as Jorge Martinez had promised he would do to the Spanish press.
Barbera was Aspar's preferred fallback option, for the Aspar MotoGP project is to be funded by the Generalitat Valenciana, the Valencian tourist board. With both Jorge Martinez and Hector Barbera being natives of the region, the project is now a 100% Valencian undertaking, serving the interests of the sponsors down to the ground. Alvaro Bautista, Aspar's initial option, is from Talavera de la Reina, a small town southwest of Madrid, in the Castile-La Mancha region of Spain.
Although most of the MotoGP world is awaiting the decision of Jorge Lorenzo, currently the largest log jamming up the 2010 rider reshuffle, a smaller block could soon find itself being shifted. The Spanish website Motocuatro is reporting that Alvaro Bautista has signed a two-year deal with Suzuki, and that he will be making an official announcment on Thursday.
According to Motocuatro, the deal will be announced by "a senior figure inside Suzuki" and will also see the announcement of Loris Capirossi's contract extension for 2010. This would see Bautista line up alongside the Italian veteran at Suzuki for next year, with Capirex retiring at the end of the 2010 season.
The impending announcement leaves Jorge Martinez and the Aspar team in something of a quandary, but the team must also carry some of the blame. Bautista signed a pre-contract with Suzuki last summer, when Martinez looked close to a deal with Suzuki to run a team for the 2009 season, a deal which eventually fell through after Suzuki decided against supplying more bikes for the series. This left Bautista already committed to Suzuki for next season, and subject to a penalty if he want to get out of the deal.
The penalty clause is not Bautista's main consideration, however. The Spaniard is known to be keen to join an official factory team, and Aspar's promise of promotion to the Ducati factory team in 2011 was simply not enough to sway Bautista's decision in Aspar's favor. With Suzuki exempt from the rule barring rookies from going straight to a factory team, the Rizla squad was Bautista's only option of a direct factory ride.