There's a palpable sense of excitement in the MotoGP paddock now that it has once again reconvened in Brno. The riders love the track - Stoner put it in his top 3, along with Mugello and Phillip Island - and the region, and most have been off their bikes for long enough that they are starting to get antsy again. Nicky Hayden put it best: "I like racing motorcycles, so it's not like I was looking forward to the break," the American said, though he was looking a lot more relaxed than the last time I saw him at the Sachsenring.
There are two more factors adding to the excitement. One is the fact that it looks like being a warm and dry weekend, with rain only falling after 5pm, once the riders have cleared the track. After a season plagued with cold and damp conditions, a dry weekend is just what the riders have been crying out for. The good weather also comes as the tire regulations have been changed, Bridgestone acquiescing to the riders' requests for more tires and more choice. They will now have three different front tires to choose from instead of two, and they will also have a choice in the allocation of rear tires.
The riders will now have 9 front tires instead of 8, with a choice of three different compounds (hard, medium and soft), which they can select in various combinations. The soft compound will not be available everywhere, with only two compounds available at Sepang, Phillip Island and Valencia. They will now also be able to vary the number of each rear compound they can take, with a 6-4 split now possible instead of just a straight 5-5 split as it was previously.
And with all of the rain that has fallen this year, Bridgestone have also allowed extra sets of wet tires. The Japanese tire giant has the option of allowing each rider an extra backup set of tires, as well as allowing an extra set if all three free practice sessions along with qualifying are officially declared wet.
Hayden was more enthusiastic about the extra option for the rear tire than the addition of a third compound for the front. "The rear is actually the bigger deal for us," he said, the rear having been the cause of so many highsides this year. The reason for Hayden's lack of enthusiasm for the extra front compound is that it is not the compound that is troubling the Ducati. They had been asking for a softer construction tire, as the stiff RJ specification doesn't appear to suit the Desmosedici. "In the past, this construction was the one they didn't really like," Hayden said. He was once again asked about the chances of an aluminium chassis making an appearance at Ducati, but he would not be drawn on details. He admitted that it was a subject of discussion, but added "they're always kicking around ideas."
Ducati's struggles had been one of the reasons for the emergence of rumors over the summer that Valentino Rossi had been in talks to secure a Honda to race in 2012, but in the press conference, Rossi dismissed that rumor completely. He joked that he had read something "from my new manager, Superbike rider Marco Melandri," about what he would be doing next year, then went on to quash any further rumors. "I will race with Ducati next year for sure, but it's not in doubt. I already have a contract signed, so the situation is 100% fixed," Rossi stated emphatically, before adding mischievously "If Melandri agrees!"
Motegi was also at the front of everyone's mind, now that the report commissioned by Dorna from the Italian ARPA agency came back showing that there was no cause for concern. Dani Pedrosa said that though he was not looking forward to racing at Motegi, as the report said it was clear, he felt it was right to go, and both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi have softened their stance a little. Stoner made his announcement in the press conference, dropping the bombshell that the reason he had been so dead set against going to Motegi at Silverstone was because he and his wife Adriana had discovered that she was pregnant at around that time. This had made him react more emotionally than he might have otherwise, he explained, thinking more like a protective father-to-be.
Since then, he had put a lot of of time and effort into finding out more about the situation in Japan. He had spoken to several scientists in Australia about the issue, and had also sought contact with people with experience of the situation through people he felt he could trust. He had, in effect, conducted his own independent research into the situation, and what he had found out had softened his resistance a little. He was still leaning more towards not going than going, but he was open to evidence and argument. If it took courage to stand up and say that he would not go to Motegi, it took a lot more courage to admit that he had reacted emotionally, and to be willing to listen to the impartial evidence of scientists.
That does not mean that Stoner will definitely be going, though. He will make a decision in the near future, and it will be a decision taken without pressure, and only taking into account the wishes of his wife and his family. Asked if he would stand by that decision even if Honda regarded that as a breach of contract and decided to drop him, Stoner had a one-word answer. "Yes."
Stoner's softening stance towards Motegi leaves Jorge Lorenzo out on a limb. The Spaniard, who had been equally vociferous about not going, was now a lot more vague when pushed about the issue. He will make a final decision "within a month" he said, though he did not give the impression that he had changed his mind. Karel Abraham, also in the press conference at his home Grand Prix, was much clearer on the issue. He felt they should go, but more strongly than that, he felt that the riders should act as a whole, and either all go or all stay away. Though that would be the right thing to do, it will be hard, as Alvaro Bautista revealed that he was under a lot of pressure from Suzuki to go. This story looks set to run for a while yet.
The other big story at Brno is the coming of the 1000s on Monday. Both Honda and Yamaha will have their bikes on the track, and all four riders are keen to get going. When I asked Dani Pedrosa casually if he was looking forward to riding the 1000 after his official debrief was over, his face lit up. "Very much!" he said enthusiastically. His teammate was equally keen, both to ride the 1000 himself and to hear Pedrosa's input on the bike. Getting a second opinion was important, Stoner said, especially as Pedrosa had been forced to miss the Jerez test after being injured at Le Mans. Stoner went on to say that he was especially looking forward to riding the 1000 at Brno. The track suited the more powerful 1000 better than Jerez, and should give them a chance to open the 1000 up properly.
Of course, the question is just how many Hondas there will be on track for 2012. Head of HRC's marketing efforts Livio Suppo said that he expected the final decision to be taken at the end of August. The chances of Honda supplying six bikes were fairly slim, he said, but there is a good chance that there will be five RC213Vs on the grid in 2012. This would be a great deal better than fielding just four bikes, leaving a vacancy that a CRT team could potentially fill, though their results would be nowhere near those of a satellite Honda squad.
Tomorrow, it all happens for real, and the bikes take to the track once again after a layoff. I leave you with a photo (taken on my mobile phone, but still), to give a sense of perspective on just how hilly the Brno track is. I walked the track this afternoon, under a hot sun, but with a refreshing wind helping me up the hill, and I was struck once again by just how steep the climb back up the hill towards the finish line is. From the wide hairpin of Turn 11, the track drops down into a hollow, before climbing steeply back up the hill, winding its way up like a mountain road. It truly is a stunning track.