The weather gods have really got it in for MotoGP this year. The Brno round looked like being warm and dry just a week ago, but that turned out to be hopelessly optimistic. It started raining on Friday night, and only stopped in the middle of the FP3 session for Moto2. That was not before both Casey Stoner and John Hopkins had crashed, however, Stoner coming away unscathed, while Hopkins was far less lucky, breaking one finger and fracturing another, and ruling himself out of the Brno race.
It was an undignified and completely undeserved end for the American, who has been deeply impressive since he stopped drinking and concentrated on racing. Hopkins had competed in three different series on three consecutive weekends, racing as a World Superbike wildcard at Silverstone and scoring pole and a couple of top ten finishes, then getting a podium at the Brands Hatch BSB triple header last weekend, before coming to Brno and posting a very decent pace on the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP machine. What Hopkins has proved over the past 6 months is that he deserves a second chance at MotoGP, and the way things look at the moment, that's not entirely out of the question.
The weather improved as the day went on, the track being dry once qualifying got underway, and Dani Pedrosa unleashed the mojo he has been hoarding over the summer break. Pedrosa was confident, calm, and very, very fast throughout, securing pole without really breaking a sweat. Following him as he walked towards press conference room for the QP press conference, he even walked differently than he has done recently, walking taller and straighter than he has in a long time. Pedrosa is full of confidence, and when he's full of confidence, he's nigh on unstoppable.
Jorge Lorenzo would beg to differ, a completely different Lorenzo talking to the press after qualifying than the one that spoke to us yesterday. Lorenzo is once again confident on the brakes, and believes he can give Pedrosa a run for his money. Looking at the timesheets, there may be some merit in Lorenzo's argument, the Yamaha man matching the race pace of Pedrosa fairly well.
Speaking of race pace, that brings us to Casey Stoner, and the difficulties that neutral observers have in judging the real pace of the Australian. Stoner's qualifying time was a quarter of a second off his Repsol Honda teammate's, but the Australian was confident they could have gone faster still if necessary. Stoner and his crew went in the wrong direction at the end of qualifying, and he reckoned he could have gone quite a lot faster otherwise.
Look at the timesheets, and it looks like Stoner posted a lot of qualifying laps, going out for one lap and then coming straight back in again. But those were actually race simulation laps, and Stoner posted a very fast time - a lap in the low 1'57s - on a tire that already had 13 laps on it. If ever there was a dark horse for Sunday's race, it's Casey Stoner. Livio Suppo pointed out that what people are forgetting is that this is Stoner's first year on the Honda, switching brands after four years on the Ducati. While all the focus has been on Valentino Rossi's move to Ducati, Stoner - and his crew, nearly all of whom he took with him - is just as new to the Honda. Though of course, the Honda is a great deal easier to ride than the Ducati.
Which brings us rather neatly to that other dark horse, and a man who could be on for his best race of the season - though not his best result, perhaps, helped as Valentino Rossi was by the removal of Marco Simoncelli and Dani Pedrosa from the equation at Le Mans. Rossi was the happiest he has been for a long time after practice on Saturday, his team having made some changes, and Ducati having brought some new parts - "something in the headstock" Nicky Hayden said - which helped the Italian get back some of the feeling with the front tire. The handlebars have been moved higher, the angle changed, and they have been moved further forward, and this has changed Rossi's position on the bike. That modification had given Rossi more feeling from the front tire, allowing him to brake deeper into the corner and trail brake while leaned over, giving him much more confidence in the front end.
The changes Rossi and his crew - with a little help from Filippo Preziosi back in Bologna - made are all too reminiscent of the change made by Casey Stoner's crew last year at Aragon, where they moved his seat position further back, which had the effect of putting more weight onto the front and his body further forward. Stoner went on to win 3 races after that modification, and though that is probably a bridge too far for Rossi at the moment, it should certainly allow Rossi to at least mix it up in the second group, the riders fighting over 4th.
I spoke briefly to Stoner's crew chief Cristian Gabbarini today, Honda allowing him to explain to me what Stoner meant by "loading the front". That clarified in part how Ducati got itself into this mess, Stoner's absolute faith in the front Bridgestone tire and his ability to put pressure on the front - mainly through heavy braking into the corner, trail braking and then carrying more corner speed - allowing him to heat the tire correctly and get the most out of it. With Stoner on the bike, the lack of feel was never a huge problem, but the difference has now clearly been revealed to be in the rider, not in the bike.
Rossi's quest for the second group will be helped in some small part by Ben Spies' trapped nerve. The Texan said that he was lacking too much strength from the injury - he was at a loss to explain where the injury came from; "I was just sitting at the table" when it happened, he said - to last a full race distance. The bike was great; Spies, however, wasn't.
Motegi remains an issue, though the lack of organization among the riders means that the race is almost certain to go on, with nearly all of the riders likely to attend. A Safety Commission meeting saw just 9 or 10 of the riders turn up, and they still found it hard to agree among themselves. The split in the paddock comes down mainly to those who have contracts for next year, and those who do not. Riders who have contracts for 2012 are more free to make their own decisions - though it could be costly in terms of fines imposed. Riders without contracts for 2012 are being told that they could find themselves without a job for next year. And it's not just riders: some 125cc and Moto2 teams who have expressed their intention to skip Motegi have been told that this may affect the chances of their entries for 2012 being accepted. The big fish in the paddock are clearly playing a game, and the game they are playing is called hardball.
Silly season continues apace, not just among riders - all attempts at drawing up a provisional list of MotoGP riders (outside of the factory riders currently under contract) are proving nigh on impossible - but also among the Moto2 and potential Moto3 teams. After grabbing the majority of the business in Moto2 this season, Suter is falling out of favor, with teams complaining that the Swiss chassis manufacturer is favoring Marc Marquez' Catalunya Caixa team. Given the size of that team's budget that is hardly surprising, but expect a large number of chassis defections over the winter.
In worse news for Suter, the awful times posted by the BMW-powered Suter CRT machine at the official Mugello test - 6 seconds slower than the 800cc MotoGP machines, and slower than Suter's own 600cc Moto2 machine - has had a huge effect both on the CRT project and on Suter. There has been a shift away from Suter towards the only other viable alternative at the moment, the Aprilia-powered FTR. One minor detail is that that bike has not yet turned a wheel - though FTR's Kawasaki project for the BQR team is rumored to be nearly ready to start testing. Despite a lack of concrete news from the entered teams, there should be 3-4 CRT machines on the grid in 2012. "CRT is not going as fast as we hoped," IRTA secretary Mike Trimby told me, "but it's definitely headed in the right direction." Trimby hinted that there were a few extra projects also starting up which could see the grid expand further beyond 2012. But all that is still a little way off.
First, there's a race tomorrow, and one that should be held under dry and possibly even sunny skies. Three men are all posting very close times, so we live in hope of seeing a clash of the titans on Sunday. And maybe, just maybe, an old hand will put in a guest appearance. Tomorrow, all shall be revealed.