For the past few years, attending a MotoGP round has been a disheartening experience for most British fans. After sitting in traffic for several hours, they then faced a day getting soaked to the skin while watching their local heroes - if any were actually on the grid - circulating around at the rear of the pack. At the end of the day, they faced yet more hours sitting in a traffic chaos in a downpour to get home again. They loved it, of course, but it tested their courage.
2012 would be different. The miserable weather magically disappeared for race day - it was far from perfect, but it remained largely dry - Scott Redding got on the podium in Moto2, and Cal Crutchlow put on a heroic and brilliant performance in MotoGP. It might be fair to question the wisdom of Crutchlow's decision to lie about his foot not being broken and race anyway, but there is no question about his bravery or pain threshold, nor, after starting at the back of the grid and slicing through the field to finish 6th, matching the pace of race winner Jorge Lorenzo, about his ability. The British fans have a hero again. More than one, in fact.
It started well with the Moto2 race, the first laps enlivened by an intense battle between Scott Redding and Bradley Smith. There is no love lost between the two young Brits, adding a fierceness to the battle for the front. Redding came out on top, but he could not do much about Pol Espargaro, the HP Pons rider dominating at Silverstone all weekend. A win may have been just beyond his reach, but Redding would not be denied the second spot on the podium, holding off a fierce challenge from Marc Marquez at the end of the race. Where Espargaro's performance was imperious, Redding's was deeply impressive, showing resolve, grit, intelligence and a big dollop of talent to keep Marquez behind him. If Redding could put in this kind of race on a more consistent basis, he could seriously challenge for the championship.
The man Redding beat to the line was at the center of a lot of speculation over the weekend. On Sunday, it became clear that the Rookie Rule is to be dropped for next season, allowing Marquez to go straight into the Repsol Honda team in 2013. That Honda should want him there is no surprise, but after a strong start to the season, Marquez' momentum is just starting to flag. The Spaniard will likely be signed at the Repsol Honda team within the next few weeks, but with Espargaro growing stronger every weekend, those who had penciled Marquez' name in for the 2012 Moto2 championship are reaching for their erasers. It is entirely possible that Marquez could find himself going to MotoGP without having won a Moto2 title. That is not necessarily a disadvantage - Casey Stoner did not win a single championship in the support classes, and that did not slow him up in MotoGP - but it will certainly take some of the shine off Marquez' silver spoon.
In MotoGP, we had a serious and interesting race, for a whole host of reasons. The track, the weather, the lack of setup time, all of these conspired to make the MotoGP race pretty entertaining, almost to the end. Silverstone's fast and flowing nature allows passes to be made, but more importantly, it offers the rider being passed an opportunity to strike back immediately. This was demonstrated vividly by Casey Stoner, who swapped the lead with Jorge Lorenzo for the better part of half a lap, despite Lorenzo being half a second quicker than him at that point.
Lorenzo is having 'a perfect season' in his own words, and Silverstone was just another example of this. A difficult start on Friday, some bad luck during qualifying on Saturday, but on Sunday, Ramon Forcada gave Lorenzo just what he needed to win. The Yamaha is the better bike in 2012, though Lorenzo would be the first to deny that. "Just a few more km/h on the top, and it will be perfect," Lorenzo said after the race. When riders are complaining about something as trivial as three or four kms of top speed, then you know the bike is good.
Lorenzo could perhaps come to regret those requests for more top end power. The 2012 season is about tires more than anything - even more than usual - and the bikes that can get the best from them. The switch to a softer construction has been a massive safety improvement, with the cold-tire highside on Friday morning firmly a thing of the past. But the softer construction also means that the tires are wearing more quickly and generating more chatter, for some at least. Managing that is key, and this is what Yamaha have got so right this year. Winning a title requires a few things to come together: a smattering of luck, a bike which offers some kind of advantage to be exploited, a smart crew who can put a package together, and a massive dose of talent on the part of the rider. Lorenzo's talent has never been in doubt, that 90% of the equation has not changed, but the small things are coming together to make Lorenzo's season just that little bit easier.
The same thing happened to Casey Stoner in 2011, the coin falling in the Australian's favor more often than not, as he acknowledged himself towards the end of the season. 2012 is not going quite so swimmingly for Stoner - when it all comes together, as it did at Estoril, he is absolutely unstoppable, but that has not happened as often as he would have liked. Tires have been the bane of the Honda this season, the bike chewing up the rear more often than it should. Engine braking appears to be part of the problem at the rear, while at the front, chassis stiffness is an issue. The factory Hondas have suffered with chatter, while the satellite bikes (which use an older iteration of the RC213V frame) have had no such problems.
At Silverstone, Stoner was hampered by more than just the usual tire wear, however. The Australian's rear tire lost grip within a few laps, the left-hand side of the tire destroying itself far more quickly than it ought to have. Nor was Stoner the only rider to suffer: Ben Spies had a similar issue, losing grip within four laps and the left-hand side of the tire blistering severely, causing the Texan to drop back from the lead and finish 5th, 11 seconds off the pace of the winner, teammate Lorenzo. There was clearly a quality control issue for Bridgestone at Silverstone, an extremely unusual occurrence in MotoGP. When asked how often he had had a bad tire from Bridgestone, Casey Stoner pondered a while, and replied "very rarely". Simple statistics means it must happen from time to time, and then it is just a matter of chance who gets the bad tire. If one of the CRT machines had had a bad tire, we would never have heard of it, but it was the defending champion...
Though Honda may be having a few issues with the tires, they are minor compared to the situation at Ducati. The aggressive nature of the Ducati's power delivery means that it rips up rear tires very quickly, as Nicky Hayden showed at Silverstone. After a strong start where the Kentuckian ran at the front with Spies, Stoner and Alvaro Bautista - the Spaniard had an outstanding weekend, and topped it off with a superb result - Hayden burned through his tire too fast, through no fault of his own, and switch to defensive mode, trying mainly to limit the damage. The taste of running at the front had whetted Hayden's appetite, and dropping back through the pack had not gone down well. The new engine to be tested at Mugello this week by Franco Battaini, and by the factory riders after the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello is supposed to help in this regard, providing much better response to the first touch of the throttle and being less hard on tires.
It needs to be better if Valentino Rossi is to stay at Ducati. The Italian said that his only priority now was to have a competitive bike, and he hinted that this was the only issue standing between him and a new contract with Ducati. As an observer, it looked like Rossi's patience is slowly starting to wear thin, after nearly 20 months of being pummeled into submission by a bike he has never been able to ride. In the rain, when Rossi knows he can be competitive, the Italian looks like the old Rossi, the man who can work magic on motorcycle. In the dry, once the limitations of the Ducati meet the limitations of Rossi's riding style - without a solid front end with good feedback, Rossi is a little lost - the old Rossi goes away again, to be replaced by the timid shadow of a man who circulates in mid-pack. Rossi himself admitted that he had nothing on his teammate at Silverstone - "The real Ducati was the one being ridden by Nicky Hayden," he said - but his dejection was clearly visible. The new engine could end up being decisive for Rossi's future, though he himself said that it was not "the last chance" for Ducati to keep him. The performance of the new bike with the new engine will be important, he said, though assessing it will be difficult at a track with such a tight layout as Laguna Seca. The marriage between the two Italian icons may not yet be over, but the bed in the spare room is starting to get much more use than is healthy.