Up until the start of MotoGP qualifying, it looked like Dani Pedrosa had the race at Brno just about wrapped up. The media center joke was that they might as well start writing his name on the trophy, so much faster was the Repsol Honda man. And then he crashed in qualifying, and started going an awful lot slower, in a tale that has echoes of Casey Stoner's time at Ducati.
The crash was relatively simple - "maybe I was on the limit too much," Pedrosa said, and Brno with its long corners, some flat and some downhill, means the riders are pushing the front for a lot of the time at the circuit - but the consequences were serious. Pedrosa returned to the pits, got on his second bike, and immediately had much worse chatter than before. Despite the setup being identical on both bikes. This is the kind of thing that Casey Stoner used to suffer at Ducati, two identical bikes that felt different, an issue that he never suffered at Honda. But the problem with hand-built prototypes is that apparently, even tiny deviations can cause a difference in feel, especially when pushed to their very limits by riders as sensitive as Pedrosa.
The issue highlights just how close Honda are to a solution. One apparently tiny difference between machines, and the difference is massive, from a bike that is almost impossible to go fast on to a bike that has some chatter, but is still rideable. Casey Stoner told reporters at the test at Catalunya that progress had been made by switching out a "two-dollar part". There aren't that many two-dollar parts on the bike, which means that somewhere a bushing or a spacer or an insert could be part of the solution. It also means that small variations in two-dollar parts - not known for requiring massive precision in manufacturing - could also be part of the problem.
While Pedrosa faltered - through no fault of his own - Jorge Lorenzo made a massive step forward, reverting to the setup he used at Brno last year. Not quite the identical setup, but according to his team manager Wilco Zeelenberg, the same balance, weight distribution, ride height, spring stiffness as last year, more or less. The result was breathtaking, Lorenzo scorching round the Brno circuit to a new pole record, beating Valentino Rossi's old mark from 2009 by well over a third of a second. The extra power of the 1000cc bikes helped, Lorenzo explained, giving the riders the power they need to help them up horsepower hill, the long section through turns 11 and 12, all the way back to the front straight.
Between Lorenzo and Pedrosa is Cal Crutchlow, the British rider posting his best qualifying position in MotoGP to add to the news that he had just signed a new contract with the Tech 3 team. His tactics appeared to have paid off; the bargaining and cajoling and flaunting other deals forced Yamaha, Monster and Tech 3 to come through, and improve the deal he was offered at Tech 3. Crutchlow said he had had plenty of deals to choose from: Gresini Honda had offered him a factory-spec RC213V, and "a manufacturer returning to the championship" - code for Suzuki, who will be coming back in 2014 - had also contacted him. In the end, staying with Yamaha was his best option, having been with the factory in one class or another for the past four years.
Heading up the second row is another brace of Yamahas, Ben Spies sitting in front of Andrea Dovizioso, making it four Yamahas in the top five. It could even have been an all-Yamaha front row, but a mistake on his two fastest laps meant Ben Spies sits just four thousandths of a second behind Pedrosa. All the talk at Spies' media debrief was not of bikes, however, but of contracts: journalists had gotten wind of a Gresini offer to Spies, to stay in MotoGP, the same deal as was on the table for Crutchlow. There are good reasons for Spies to take the deal - and to get some help from Dorna. Spies would get a factory-spec RC213V, presumably with some backing from HRC, and help from Dorna keen to keep a competitive American in the series, a key consideration given there will be three US rounds in 2013.
But Spies is not the only rider in the frame for the Gresini Honda ride, however. Scott Redding is also rumored to be in talks with Gresini, and Redding would be a much more affordable option for the satellite Honda squad. Signing a British or American rider would see Gresini's sponsor San Carlo reduce their support for the team, meaning a serious cash shortage in a team that is already complaining of being on a very tight budget. That money would have to come from somewhere; Scott Redding would be able to bring sufficient money to the team - a surprising small amount, by all accounts, while Ben Spies would expect to command a comfortable salary. Dorna's income from TV rights could be the decisive factor; either way, MotoGP loses out, as both Spies and Redding are interesting prospects on the Honda.
One of the happiest riders of the day was Valentino Rossi. The bike had worked well, the team had found a decent setup and Rossi was surprisingly competitive. After Indy, Rossi had said he was looking forward to Brno as the Ducati went well there, and the Italian did not disappoint. Rossi has the pace to match what he refers to as the 'second group', in this case matching Ben Spies and Andrea Dovizioso, and maybe Cal Crutchlow if he pushes hard. The track seems to suit the Ducati; running wide is less of a problem at a track which is already massively wide, and the track turns right far more often than it turns left. Even the soft tire - traditionally Ducati's bugbear, as it brings out the Desmosedici's tendency to run wide by pushing the front even more - worked very well, both during free practice and during QP.
Rossi could score his best result in the dry at Brno, building on the confidence he gained from racing here last year. A local reporter asked him if the thought he was capable of winning here, given his illustrious history at the track - five wins and three seconds in the premier class - and Rossi smiled wryly. A win was out of the question, but a podium, a bona fide dry weather podium, that just might be possible. Next year, things might be very different though.
Next year and beyond was on the minds of all of the teams. On Saturday, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta presented his proposals to all of the independent team managers - the satellite and CRT teams - for the future of the sport. The idea is that in 2013 Dorna will make available free of charge a spec ECU from Magneti Marelli to any CRT team that wishes to use it. That ECU will be compulsory from 2014 onwards, along with a rev limit of 15,500 RPM (an extra 500 RPM was added, which appears to have been enough for Ducati to drop their opposition to it). The independent teams are in favor of the change, though there are naturally doubts as well. LCR Honda boss told me "Looking selfishly, I want the advantage that Honda electronics give me, but from the other side, I also need to look at what is good for the sport and good for the show. MotoGP should be about emotion, adrenaline, excitement, we need to provide a better show." Whether the factories are willing to accept such limitations remain to be seen. With Suzuki coming back, Ducati likely to accept the proposals and BMW seriously considering the series, Carmelo Ezpeleta may be willing to risk gambling that the Japanese factory threats to walk are just posturing. It is a big gamble to take.