MotoGP is back from its summer break, and though the fans only had to face two weekends without the series - and one of those saw a World Superbike event - they are breathing a collective sigh of relief that the Four Aliens and their mortal cohorts are back on track once again. And with good reason: Brno is a fantastic circuit, both in terms of layout and location; the wide track and series of left-right and right-left combinations offer a lot of different lines and passing opportunities - even for 800cc MotoGP machines - and the steep wooded hills of Moravia make for great viewing and some tough challenges.
As if to reward us for our patience, the Brno MotoGP round offers very rich pickings indeed. For Sunday's race is just one dish from the smorgasbord of intrigue and interest that is likely to be forthcoming. There is also Monday's test, the first public appearance of Honda's and Yamaha's 1000cc bikes - though not of the Ducati, more of which later - a much-anticipated event. Then there's Silly Season: Brno is traditionally the point at which teams start making their plans more concrete, and contract conversations stop being quite so casual.
First, the race. Nearly three weeks off the bike will have allowed everyone some time to heal, with so many riders heading into the summer break pretty badly banged up. Jorge Lorenzo is nearly completely healed from his monster highside on Saturday at Laguna Seca, and will return as perhaps the healthiest of the championship frontrunners. Dani Pedrosa has taken another step towards full recovery, and is back in training, something he had had to abandon after the second operation to his collarbone, this time to secure the loose bone chip. His shoulder is still a little painful, but he is getting better every day.
Then there's Casey Stoner, who revealed after Laguna Seca just how badly he had been suffering with his neck, injured in his crash at Assen at the end of June. The break has done Stoner some good, but the recovery process will be long. Worryingly for his competition - and more particularly, Jorge Lorenzo - that did not stop him from winning at Laguna Seca, the Repsol Honda man seemingly unhindered by the neck injury.
Further down the grid, things are looking grim: the Pramac team, for example, are both still pretty badly hurt, Capirossi still recovering from his dislocated rib and Randy de Puniet from the huge crash at Laguna Seca which caused him to miss the race. His pelvis, fortunately, is not fractured, as was at first feared, but that does not make it any less painful. Just completing the race will be achievement enough for both men.
If you were the type of person who likes a wager, then the safe money says a Honda - any Honda - to win at Brno. The final section of the track, up what has been nicknamed Horsepower Hill to the final left-right combination before the start and finish line strongly favors the massive grunt that Honda somehow manages to squeeze from their 800cc RC212V. With Stoner fast regardless of his injury, the Repsol Honda rider is surely the favorite to extend his lead yet further, and a victory would take him at least a race clear of Lorenzo. But what the Yamaha lacks in horsepower it makes up for in agility, and a fully healthy Lorenzo - or at least, as fully healthy as any professional motorcycle racer is during the season - should be more than a match for Stoner on the Honda. Of course, Lorenzo will also have a resurgent Dani Pedrosa to deal with, and the Spaniard should be able to last the distance at Brno. Things could start to close up at the front.
The fourth Alien is still AWOL with bike issues, Valentino Rossi struggling to deal with the wayward Ducati. The GP11.1 has not produced the step forward he had hoped for, Rossi and Hayden stuck stubbornly around 6th place, and a long way off the pace. Monday brings a chance for both men to work on the GP11.1 - Hayden is to stick to the GP11 during the race, and give the GP11.1 a thorough shakedown on Monday - and also a chance to try some new parts. Speculation is rife as to what Ducati has brought for Rossi, with some in the paddock hinting that an aluminium twin spar frame could make an appearance, but that could just be wishful thinking. There will at least be new parts to test for the Ducati riders, though only for the 800 rather than the 1000. With 5 days of the maximum permitted of 8 already used up, Ducati is awaiting further significant updates from Borgo Panigale before taking to the track again with their 2012 bike. That is currently scheduled for Misano, after the race there in early September, at which point Rossi and Hayden should have enough to test.
And so we will see only the Yamaha and Honda 1000s on track at Brno, though that will provide a big clue as to what next year will bring. At Mugello, Ducati team boss Vito Guareschi told journalists that simulations showed that their 2012 bike should be half a second quicker than the 800 at the Italian track. With lap times at Brno some 8 or 9 seconds more than Mugello, there should be a similar margin between the 800s and the 1000s. Yet reports from Jerez suggest that the Honda 1000 was a full 2 seconds faster than the 800s, though the 1000 had much better conditions to ride in. However, take away 1 second for the better track conditions, and you're still left with a huge performance boost.
By the look of things, Honda's 2012 bike is going to be a rocketship, and the only bike likely to be capable of matching it is the Yamaha. Little has been seen of Yamaha's 2012 machine (other than a couple of spy videos, one of which is over on GPOne.com) and this will be the first test in the hands of the factory riders Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies. It seems reasonable to surmise that Yamaha are a couple of months behind Honda, but the late start might work to their advantage later on, as they will have more testing at the end of the year, with more possible updates.
Indeed, the 2012 season will be the main focus at Brno, as teams and riders will start to take shape. The six top factory rides are already in place for 2012, with Yamaha, Honda and Ducati having Lorenzo and Spies, Pedrosa and Stoner, and Hayden and Rossi under contract for next year respectively. There has been some scuttlebutt about Rossi negotiating with Honda for an extra bike, but the veracity of those claims were hard to verify. The hardened paddock cynics suggested that the rumor was being circulated at the request of Rossi himself, to put some pressure on Bologna, but that seems a little far-fetched. After all, the only thing that is needed to put pressure on Bologna is to show them the timesheets for this year.
The real action is not with the factories, but with the satellite machines. There will likely be a decision here from Honda on exactly how many bikes they will be running in 2012, with very strong rumors that there will be only 4. Honda has been hit hard by the Japanese tsunami - especially the car division, production having been badly affected, and consequently, profits too - and some hard bargaining will be going on with the board about the size of HRC's involvement. On the positive side, sponsors are looking at moving in to help - Viessmann is reportedly talking to LCR about backing a second bike in the LCR Honda team for Stefan Bradl, though Viessmann could also stick with the Kiefer team and move up as either a CRT or independent Honda entry - but on the negative side, MotoGP remains immensely expensive, and Honda may not be willing to put in the investment, no matter what the sponsors want.
Andrea Dovizioso and Marco Simoncelli look set to stay with Honda, though both will likely lose their factory backing. Dovizioso will lose his spot at Repsol Honda, and move to LCR Honda instead, while Simoncelli will stay with San Carlo Gresini. Unless, that is, his manager Carlo Pernat is to be believed, who would have us believe that Ducati is keen on signing the Italian, one of the factors feeding the Rossi-to-Honda rumors.
The fate of the Pramac Ducati squad is equally uncertain, Pramac reportedly having contacted Honda about satellite machines, tiring of their links with Ducati, especially as the GP11 remains such a handful to ride. Loris Capirossi looks set to retire - at last - while Randy de Puniet will almost certainly stay on somewhere, though he is not looking forward to another year on a Ducati. Karel Abraham and Hector Barbera will both stay put - though Abraham's position is much more certain that Barbera's - and both will stay with satellite Ducatis. Barbera could be joined by a second Spaniard in the Mapfre Aspar team, though it is unclear whether that will be Julian Simon - currently in Moto2 - or Alvaro Bautista.
Bautista's fate depends in part on what Suzuki will be doing for 2012, and at the moment, it looks like the team will be present, as will at least one factory bike. That could be a revised version of the 2011 800cc GSV-R, though, as this is the cheapest option for Suzuki to stay in MotoGP, though the Japanese factory has shown little stomach for racing in either World Superbike or MotoGP. There are also some questions about whether Suzuki will be a single-rider team, or whether John Hopkins will join Bautista to expand Suzuki's efforts.
At Tech 3, team boss is faced with something of a quandary, though much of his fate lies in the hands of Yamaha Japan. Cal Crutchlow has a two-year contract, though the Englishman has fallen foul of team boss Herve Poncharal for the last few races, the Frenchman increasingly frustrated at Crutchlow's string of crashes. Now at a track he has raced at again, Crutchlow should show some more competitiveness. If he doesn't, Poncharal has shown an interest in Stefan Bradl, but Randy de Puniet could also find a new home at the Yamaha satellite squad.
Colin Edwards' future is deeply uncertain, but much of the doubt surrounds the 2012 MotoGP machine. Edwards is likely to be asked to stay on for next season, and given a lead role in developing the new 1000cc bike for next year. That, however, would probably have to come out of Yamaha Japan's pocket rather than Poncharal's, and Yamaha, like Honda, is suffering, from the after-effects of the tsunami, the high yen and the falling demand for sportsbikes.
So far, there is much speculation, yet very little concrete news. Once the paddock fills with MotoGP's finest - as well as the newshounds that follow the circus - more, much more, will emerge. It's going to be a busy and fascinating weekend.