There were many things we expected to see on Sunday at Brno. Rain was one of them. Order restored in Moto3 was another. But most of all, we expected to see a scintillating MotoGP race going down to the wire. We saw none of those things, yet the Czech Grand Prix turned out to be one of the most intriguing races of the season. The momentum shifted in Moto3 and MotoGP, and swung even further in Moto2. And apart from a few drops shortly after Moto3 finished, the rain stayed away all day.
Free practice had promised a thrilling MotoGP race, with little to choose between the pace of the top three riders in the championship. Expectations were both raised and dispelled after qualifying, with Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi locking out the front row. Lorenzo on pole was no surprise, nor really was Márquez on the front row. Rossi, though, was an eye opener, and on paper, a mouth-watering prospect. Qualifying has been Rossi's weakness since the system switched to the new qualifying format of two separate Q sessions. Starting from the front row means he doesn't have to fight his way through to the front before he can attack. The last time Rossi had been on the front row was at Assen, and there, he had gone on to win an epic battle with Marc Márquez. Could he pull it off again?
The clues that he would not be able to were there for all to see in the long run data from free practice on Saturday. But the insurmountable obstacle to any hopes of a thrilling race was the man on pole. Jorge Lorenzo had laid down such a withering pace in qualifying to take pole that he looked pretty much untouchable. He destroyed Cal Crutchlow's pole record from 2013 by over half a second, becoming the first motorcycle racer to lap the Brno circuit in under 1'55. His race pace was the strongest of the trio, but the gap looked manageable.
Jorge Lorenzo disagreed. The Spaniard put on another masterclass, firing off the line and into the first corner in the lead. Marc Márquez followed and latched onto Lorenzo's tail for the first seven laps, but then he had to give up the chase. Lorenzo's pace was unrelenting and blisteringly fast, too much for anyone to match. It was an utterly, devastatingly dominant display of superiority. This was Jorge Lorenzo claiming his rightful place as King of Brno, and putting the upstart pretenders in their place.
So why was it not a visually entertaining spectacle? Lorenzo's victories are textbook demolitions of any and all rivals, leaving no room for doubt. His riding is breathtakingly perfect, the pace leaving his rivals first struggling for breath, then begging for mercy. Yet his demolition jobs more closely resemble a clinical and surgical dismemberment, rather than a blood-and-gore slasher movie. The surgeon may possess a level of skill orders of magnitude larger than the psycho in the slasher flick, but it is the gorefest which audiences pack movie theaters to see.
Lorenzo's victory put him level on points with Valentino Rossi, and gave him the championship lead based on having five wins over Rossi's three. More than that, though, Brno felt like a pivotal point in the championship, the race where the odds swung in Lorenzo's favor. Leading the championship for the first time since Qatar 2013, and taking it away from Rossi, who has led the title chase since the first race of the year is an important milestone.
Most of all, though, it was the way in which Lorenzo took the lead. Lorenzo rolled out of pit lane and straight to the top of the timesheets. He was fastest in every session except FP2, and utterly relentless in his pursuit of speed. When Jorge Lorenzo is riding like this – smooth, fluid, precise, controlled – he simply cannot be countered. Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa can do nothing but stand idly by and try to limit the damage. With Silverstone coming up next – a track Rossi designated as a danger track for him – then Misano, one of Lorenzo's favorites, and the Aragon, Lorenzo could well be taking a comfortable lead into the flyaways. If he does, he will be in a position to start penciling his name on the trophy.
Does that mean that the championship is over? Absolutely not. With seven races still to go and the two Movistar Yamaha riders tied in the standing, it would be insane to claim it was. Yet it is hard to shake the feeling that this was an important result, which will echo far beyond the confines of the Brno circuit. The momentum has shifted, and with the rest of the races due to be run using the standard MotoGP tires – the tires with the edge treatment, made to counteract the effect of the heat-resistant layer added after the debacle at Assen in 2012, and the ones which Jorge Lorenzo prefers – Lorenzo will be able to exploit his ability to carry exceptional lean angles and corner speed, and put himself beyond the reach of the opposition. Lorenzo can be beaten, but it will be anything but easy.
Why couldn't Valentino Rossi stop his teammate at Brno? After the race, Rossi could not find a simple explanation, owning up to simply being slower. Despite starting from the front row, his start had been rather poor, getting swallowed up into the first corner and taking a lap and a half to get up into third, by which time Lorenzo and Márquez were gone. That was not the main reason though. "For sure the start was not fantastic, but more than the start I had no rhythm," he told the press conference. "I wasn't fast enough and for some reason I wasn't able to make the pace of yesterday." They had not changed much on the bike since Saturday, when Rossi had felt very good on the bike and been clearly competitive. But changing grip levels during the race meant he was three or four tenths slower than he expected to be, and was well off the pace. That the problem wasn't the start was evident by the gap Lorenzo opened while Rossi was chasing. When Rossi took over third, he was just 2.6 seconds behind Lorenzo. Twenty laps later, by the end of the race, he was 10.4 seconds behind. The four tenths Rossi lost from Saturday to Sunday were the difference between a podium and fighting with Lorenzo for the win.
Adding to Rossi's woes was the recovery of Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda man had one difficult session at Brno, where he worried that the RC213V had returned to its nasty old habits. By Friday afternoon, the team had made a big improvement and brought the wayward Honda back under control. From that point Márquez was there or thereabouts, topping FP2 and keeping Lorenzo honest throughout practice and qualifying. In the race he could manage to stay with Lorenzo for the first few laps, but only by taking a lot of risks. At Mugello and Barcelona, Márquez had tried to do the same, and paid the penalty, crashing out of those two races. The return to the 2014 chassis helped reduce the risk of crashing, but perhaps those two crashes also chastened the reigning world champion. At Brno, once he realized that he could keep up with Lorenzo without risking a crash, he let him go, and concentrated on staying ahead of Rossi.
That decision saw Márquez come home safely in second, losing five points to Lorenzo but gaining four on Rossi. He was happy enough with his decision not to push too much, and settle for points. "Tracks will arrive where we are able to win," Márquez said, "but where that is impossible it is correct and smart to finish on the podium." Given that the Repsol Honda rider crashed out at Mugello and Barcelona, that realization seems a little late.
But perhaps his view of the championship is a little different. Going in to Mugello, his deficit to Rossi was 33 points with thirteen races still to go. The 25 points he lost at Mugello meant he arrived at Barcelona 49 points behind, and still plenty of races to make up that deficit. Taking risks there would have put him right back in contention had they paid off, whereas at Brno, there is little reason to risk it all unless you have a realistic chance of the win. Márquez is now 52 points behind both Rossi and Lorenzo, and has all but given up on the title. Better to bring it home in one piece, and keep your powder dry for the next race.
The two Ducatis had a strong race at Brno, both Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso much closer to the front runners than they have been for several races. Though he said he was happy, Iannone lost crucial time to the leaders with a mechanical problem. The variable inlet trumpets were stuck, meaning the bike was down on power and on top speed. Iannone estimated that the malfunction cost him five seconds over the race, which would have put him ahead of Valentino Rossi.
Dovizioso ended up a couple of seconds behind his teammate, having lost out to Dani Pedrosa in the battle for fifth. That was a result he was content with, given the problems he is having with the Ducati Desmosedici GP15. The bike is strong in braking and in corner entry, Dovizioso said, but he was incapable of carrying any speed in the middle of the corner. Try to push to go faster at that point of the turn, and the front would protest, a dangerous game to play. So Dovizioso could hold first Valentino Rossi and later Dani Pedrosa off on the brakes, but they would simply sail by in the corner or on the exit.
Parked between the two Ducatis was the rider of the day, Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard had badly injured his foot in a crash on Saturday, a fall he bore absolutely no blame for. Barely able to walk, Pedrosa had climbed about the Repsol Honda and made a big charge forward through the grid. Starting from ninth on the grid, Pedrosa had tangled with the Pramac Ducatis, being run wide and nearly off the track through Turn 1. But he had fought his way forward, eventually catching Dovizioso, and taking too long to get past him to attack Iannone. That gap was simply too large once he was past.
Despite his heroic effort, Pedrosa labeled his race as being "sh**." He had not been fast enough, regardless of his foot injury. The Spaniard had lacked grip front and rear, as well as having to contend with the pain in his foot. Pedrosa had not wanted to have painkillers injected directly into the foot, fearing the damage that could do. So he had an alternative treatment, and this made a big difference. He already had a little more movement than he had on Saturday, making gear changes a little easier, and the painkillers helped him concentrate a little harder on riding.
The fight through the field saw him catch Andrea Dovizioso towards the end of the race, taking several laps to get past the Ducati. It had been an instructive few laps, though, giving an insight into the problems the Honda had, Pedrosa said. "Unfortunately, I could see many handicaps on our bike, riding behind," Pedrosa explained. "It's hard to make some progress, but we have to try to make the bike a little bit more easy to ride, because we have a lot of wheelie, and it's so hard to keep the wheel down, and then we lose a lot of acceleration."
This was an area which had been holding the Honda back for quite some time. Once upon a time, the Honda was among the fastest starting bikes on the grid, Pedrosa getting the holeshot time after time. Those days are long gone, however, the Honda's tendency to wheelie making it hard to get off the line, Honda riders losing out at the start. This is all part of the Honda's aggressive nature, the physical design of the engine making it want to rev too quickly and not give enough engine braking. With the engine design frozen, HRC will not be able to address this until next year.
The Suzukis had mixed fortunes, Maverick Viñales running in the battle for seventh, while Aleix Espargaro finished ninth after Viñales and Cal Crutchlow crashed out. Despite the crash, Viñales was excited to be in among the Tech 3 boys, less than 20 seconds behind the leaders. It was a sign that all they were missing was horsepower, the Spaniard said, and gave a clear indication to the Suzuki engineers of the area they need to focus. The crash had been entirely his own fault, he said, pushing too hard to try to beat Pol Espargaro. "When I was behind Pol I was thinking do I stay ninth or do I try to get seventh. I decide to try and go seventh." He asked just a little too much of his front tire, and down he went.
His teammate got a top ten finish, exactly the target of the ECSTAR Suzuki team, but Aleix Espargaro was far from happy. He may have finished ninth, but he was over forty seconds behind the leader, and twenty seconds behind his teammate when Viñales crashed. Viñales had reached the level where he had been at the start of the season, Aleix Espargaro said, but since then, he had taken two steps back. The problem was grip in the middle of the corner, from the moment he released the brakes to the point where he opens the throttle. It was impossible to carry the necessary corner speed at that point, Espargaro said, and he was losing time trying to get the bike turned. He had no explanation, and no ideas how to fix it, and was hoping for some dry time during Monday's test. Given the weather forecast, with heavy rain predicted for the entire day, that seemed an idle hope.
The other two races at Brno had plenty to recommend them, and an entirely different effect on the championship. In the Moto2 race, Johann Zarco dominated once again, taking a comfortable victory once it became apparent that Tito Rabat could not follow. Rabat had a good race, but continues to struggle with the 2015 Dunlop tires not giving him the feel his is used to. His title defense is still possible, though Zarco's advantage of 79 points is starting to put him out of reach. If Zarco continues this way, he will wrap up the title before Moto2 heads off to the flyaways.
Behind the battle for the lead, some intriguing developments took place. Alex Rins took third, and could have had second had he been a little closer, confirming the breakthrough year the rookie is having. Speaking of breakthroughs, Brno was the race where reigning Moto3 champion Alex Márquez finally started to come good on his promise. The younger of the Márquez brothers was strong all weekend, and finished a comfortable fourth. So far, Márquez had been shown up by his former teammate Alex Rins, but at Brno, he showed signs of matching Rins' performance. Sam Lowes finished in fifth after an epic fightback from thirteenth on the grid, a positive result from a difficult weekend for the Englishman.
While Zarco was locking down the championship in Moto2, Danny Kent was giving up more of his lead in the Moto3 class. The Moto3 race had been red-flagged after two big crashes on the first lap, which had looked extremely serious, but from which everyone escaped with relatively manageable injuries – broken bones rather than anything much worse, which we feared for a while.
The red flag – and limited TV time – meant that the restarted race was shortened to just 12 laps. That race turned into a frantic dash, and as he and his team had not saved an extra soft tire, Kent found himself having to battle with a large front group on a medium tire. A brief attempt at escaping failed, and Kent dropped further back through the group than he wanted.
Where Kent had failed, Brad Binder tried, but also came up short. Miguel Oliveira also tried pulling away at the front, but he could not manage it either. In the final couple of laps, Niccolo Antonelli pulled a small gap, sufficient to make it hard for anyone to attack him on the run to the line, and Antonelli took his first victory in Moto3, a day after securing his first pole. He was left lost for words at the press conference, saying that he thought his maiden pole was the best day of his life so far, but that experience barely lasted 24 hours. Winning was so much sweeter.
Despite starting from so far down the grid, both Enea Bastianini and Romano Fenati got great starts to propel themselves into the front group. Bastianini rode a brilliant race to finish in second, Fenati ended up in sixth, just ahead of Danny Kent. Bastianini's ride helped him claw back eleven points from Kent, the gap decreasing to just 45 points. In two races now, Kent has given up 21 points, and a title that looked almost in the bag is looking a little more open. Kent will want to reverse this as soon as possible, especially at his home round.
With all the talk this weekend being of Danny Kent being offered a ride in MotoGP, has he been distracted? On Saturday, Kent was adamant this was not the case. "I am focusing on my job here," he said. After Sunday's race, he was a little more honest, as is so often the case with riders once they have little left to hide. "It's obviously been on the back of my mind and at the beginning of the year I wasn't thinking about it," Kent admitted. "I don't have a manager so I'm trying to do that job and talk to all the people. I can't say that it's not a distraction though. In some ways I'd like to make a decision soon but I'm not going to rush it because at the end of the day it's my career and I want to sit down and look at all the options available."
With his home round coming up next, an announcement at Silverstone seems highly likely. Given that OCTO is both the title sponsor of Pramac Ducati, the team interested in Kent, and the title sponsor of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, it is hard to think of a better place for him to announce that he is stepping up to MotoGP with the team. The only danger is that his announcement will be lost in the noise of other announcements, with Bradley Smith and Cal Crutchlow also likely to announce their futures at their home rounds. Smith and Crutchlow's announcements will be much more low key, of course, as they are likely to tell everyone they are staying where they are. Whether they do or not remains to be seen. We have less than two weeks to wait to find out.
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