Race day turned up plenty of surprises at Brno, some good, some bad, and some, well, just surprising. The three races turned up a tense duel, a full-on fairing-banging barnstormer and, well, a MotoGP race with a surprise podium, and proved that the layout of the Brno circuit is one of the very best in the world.
The 125cc race saw Sandro Cortese win from Johann Zarco, but more importantly, it saw Zarco claw back a whole host of points from Nico Terol after the Bankia Aspar rider was forced out of the race with a mechanical problem. Zarco would once again be denied victory, coming home 2nd to Sandro Cortese, but Zarco's championship prospects improved drastically, cutting Terol's lead from 32 to just 12 points, and throwing the title race open again.
In the Moto2 class, Stefan Bradl is still firmly in control of the championship, but he too is starting to leak points to Marc Marquez. At Brno, Bradl limited the damage to just 4 points, and still leads by a very generous 43-point margin, but with Marquez on a roll, a single DNF by Bradl would blow the championship open again.
Though the championship may not be so exciting, the racing certainly was. The Moto2 race turned into the kind of classic that we have come to expect from the intermediate class, with five riders taking the race right down to the wire, the lead swapping multiple times in the last few laps. The quality of some of the passes was perhaps a little suspect, raising some calls - among the non-Spanish media at least - for more consistency from Race Direction. A few of the moves that Marc Marquez put on Alex de Angelis and Stefan Bradl were right on the edge, but some paddock insiders believe that Marquez goes unpunished because of the backing the Spaniard has - from Repsol, from Dorna, from Spain. But given that Marquez was getting just as good as he was giving - especially from Alex de Angelis, a rider not known for either his subtlety or his politeness - unpicking the mess at the front would have beyond the powers of Race Direction to do fairly.
The fans, needless to say, loved it.
The MotoGP race was far from thrilling, though again, there are signs of improvement. Groups are sticking together for longer, the finishing order less often decided already during qualifying. What it lacked in thrills and spills it made up for in surprises and intrigue, with all three podium spots unexpected. The one name we expect to see on top of the podium is of course Casey Stoner, and once again the Repsol Honda rider delivered a post-graduate thesis in blowing away a MotoGP field. But anyone brave enough to suggest on Saturday night - or even after Sunday warm up - that this might happen would have been laughed out of the room.
The name pencilled in on the winner's trophy was Dani Pedrosa, and the chisel was ready to engrave it after warm up, Pedrosa posting a blistering pace seven tenths quicker than anyone else. And for two laps, Pedrosa looked like converting his practice form into maximum points, until suddenly the Repsol Honda rider disappeared into the gravel. Pedrosa had no explanation for the crash, and was taken completely by surprise. He had just got back on the gas when the front went, but there was no discernible cause. "I was going through the corner, very smooth, and then I was on the floor," Pedrosa said.
Naturally, after so many crashes and so many injuries this season, I asked him what had gone through his mind as he crashed. Had he been worried about hurting himself again? "I didn't think about it at all," Pedrosa answered, "I couldn't believe this is really happening. I still can't believe it."
Pedrosa's crash left the way open for Stoner, and with no one capable of matching his pace, the Australian was gone. His crew had found a little more edge grip for the race, but had been forced to gamble after what they had tried in the warm up had not worked at all. Stoner owned up to his petulance after the race, telling the press conference that he had had "a bit of a sulk." But a comfortable victory - and getting 12 points on his title rival Jorge Lorenzo - had done much to smooth things over.
Lorenzo had been the biggest loser at the Czech Grand Prix, Lorenzo and his team - Lorenzo, crew chief Ramon Forcada and his Bridgestone tire technician - electing to use the softer of the two front compounds that were available at the test. They had gone for the soft tire because they had had the best results with that compound all weekend, and consistently been quicker than with the hard tire. But warmer conditions on Sunday and a totally different track - Lorenzo said it was much slippier - meant that he could not sustain the pace the thought he had all weekend. It was a costly mistake - if mistake it was, for it only became apparent with 20/20 hindsight - and Lorenzo is now 32 points behind Stoner. He still has his destiny in his own hands - just - but he has to win all 7 races to be certain of retaining the number 1 plate.
The mathematics of the situation prompted Spanish journalists to try to provoke Lorenzo into an answer as to whether he would go to Motegi. Lorenzo skillfully avoided their provocations, saying merely that it was all hypothetical and there was no point discussing it. There are three more races between now and Motegi, and plenty can happen in between.
With Pedrosa out and Lorenzo handicapped with a bum tire, two podium slots opened up, and Honda's "Other Two" neatly took their place. Andrea Dovizioso made a brilliant start to get straight through to the front, though he could not match the pace of Stoner, and Marco Simoncelli fought his way forward to take 3rd, and his first and long-awaited podium. The result was hugely popular - Simoncelli remains a firm favorite with the fans, especially in the UK, for some reason - and deserves further examination. Is this the breakthrough that Simoncelli needed, and will it mark the start of a string of podiums and his entry to the elite club of Aliens that has ruled MotoGP? Is it a sign that he has finally learned the lessons from earlier in the year, when his season seemed to be a comedy of errors?
From the evidence of today - though pretty threadbare, with just one race - it would be a stretch to say this marks the beginning of a new era. The good news for Simoncelli was that he finally kept his head and settled for a podium, rather than losing it and ending up collecting gravel - either alone or in company. The bad news is that when Simoncelli did try to make a move on Dovizioso, the Repsol Honda man merely upped his pace and put some time on Simoncelli that the San Carlo Gresini man was incapable of recovering. Simoncelli has still not finished ahead of Dovizioso this year - despite being on equal material - and Brno was no exception.
But there is another reason to regard this not as a major breakthrough, but as the two Italians being smiled on by Lady Luck. A mistake by Dani Pedrosa - whatever caused it - meant that one Alien was taken out of the equation, and a mistake in tire selection cast another Alien back among the mortals. Under normal circumstances, both Pedrosa and Lorenzo would have been on the podium; these were not normal circumstances, and so Dovizioso - who, to his credit, predicted that a podium was possible on Saturday night - and Simoncelli ended up on the box. But 8 seconds or so from the winner is a big gap to close.
Valentino Rossi was even further back, crossing the line over 10 seconds behind Stoner. Yet after the race, Rossi was the most optimistic he has been for a very long time. Compared with Laguna Seca, Rossi had cut the deficit by half on the new bike, and the Italian was confident that the improvement was permanent.
Rossi was coy on exactly what had changed - refusing to answer the question directly, saying only that they were "details" - but he was fulsome in his praise of Filippo Preziosi. "Ducati are very clever," he said, "such a small change makes such a big difference." The improvement had been major, allowing Rossi to brake much deeper giving both stability and improving corner entry and giving him much more feeling with the front. He kept talking about having made "a step" and his surprise at such a small part bringing such big results. "I hope Filippo has a few more boxes!"
This breakthrough basically means the end of the GP11. Rossi said that he felt that there was more potential with the GP11.1, and the improved front end meant that there was a real sense of progress. Rossi will run back-to-back tests of the GP11 and GP11.1 on Monday, but that will probably be the last outing for the bike. Nicky Hayden will also try both bikes, and though he is far less certain about which bike he will be racing at Indianapolis in two weeks' time - Indy being Hayden's home round, the nearest circuit to his home in Owensboro, Kentucky - he was buoyed by Rossi's improvement on the GP11.1. "I hope they bought enough parts for me!" he joked, and questioned reporters on exactly what Rossi had said after the race.
The Ducatis will not be the only 800s to be tested. The Yamaha factory riders will be giving the 1000 a first roll out to confirm that the direction the bike is being developed in is fundamentally correct, before turning their attention to the 800. Yamaha have brought a new engine for the 2011 bike, one which Lorenzo is fervently hoping has more power. Lorenzo will be trying that engine tomorrow, and spending most of his time working on this year's bike. He has a championship to defend after all.
But most of the attention at the test will be on the 1000s here, Yamaha's 2012 M1 and Honda's RC213V. Listening to the bikes warming up in pit lane this evening, they already sounded better; deeper, gruffer, more vicious. Visual differences between the bikes are minimal, and only detailed study of the pictures will show up the detail changes. Similar or not, the appearance of the 1000s is eagerly awaited, and everyone I have spoken to in the paddock will be arriving here fresh and early for the test. The future may be starting tomorrow, but the fact that it is locked in the pit garages downstairs at Brno makes the anticipation even worse.