After three weeks of official rest and relaxation, but actual frantic negotiations about 2007, the MotoGP circus descends on Brno in the Czech Republic this weekend. Set amidst wooded hills west of the city of Brno, in the east of the Czech Republic, Brno is the last of the former road tracks which MotoGP visits. Once upon a time, as at Assen and the Sachsenring, racing took place over the public roads around here, but, like the Sachsenring, eventually a separate track was built to accommodate.
And Brno resembles the Sachsenring in more ways: set among similar woods, it also has surprising elevation changes, making setting bikes up to handle lifting the front as they charge up the hill as well as remaining stable under hard braking very difficult indeed. But Brno differs from the Sachsenring in two important aspects: The track is much longer and much wider. In fact, the track is so wide, (up to 50 feet in places) that it's hard for riders to keep their lines: make a single mistake, and you end up running so wide that everyone passes you up the inside. This also means that overtaking is a breeze, which is of course a very double-edged sword. As most of the corners are in chicanes or combinations, getting past in one corner leaves yourself wide open running into the next.
The prospect of a race at a track where passing is possible is tempting enough, but the situation is made even better by the state the championship is in. Last year, Valentino Rossi arrived at Brno with a virtually unassailable 120 point lead in the championship, and went on to win the race, after a freak electrical problem made Sete Gibernau run out of fuel on the last lap, adding yet another stroke of bad luck to a fateful season.
This year, the tables are turned on Valentino Rossi. Not quite by 180 degrees, as Sete Gibernau will not be racing at Brno, after his doctors advised him to give his collarbone yet more rest after having surgery for the second time after Laguna Seca. But unassailable leads are few and far between, and the reigning champion is a very long way from retaining his title, after suffering a run of bad luck in a fateful season. The Doctor trails the championship leader by 51 points, and with six races to go, that's a huge mountain to climb. And given the Yamaha's propensity to blow itself up or wreck its tires, that mountain could be beyond even the reach of the 7 time world champion. Added to this is Rossi's very mixed record at Brno: winning one year, and crashing, or at best doing poorly the next. Rossi won last year.
The man leading the title race, Nicky Hayden, looks the firm favorite to stay at the head of the pack. With a 34 point lead over his closest rival, team mate Dani Pedrosa, the title seems to be getting ever closer for the Kentucky Kid. But his path is not entirely smooth: friction is starting to appear in the Repsol garage as Honda are seen to be openly favoring their anointed champion, Dani Pedrosa, over the man mostly likely to actually take the crown (Hayden). Pedrosa's future at HRC is secure, but Hayden could be tempted to take the #1 plate with him to another team at the end of 2006. And another factor to add a little spice to the mix: Hayden's championship lead is entirely due to his outstanding regularity, getting on the podium almost every race and not having a single DNF all season. But he averages 2 DNFs a season, so it's entirely possible that he is due. Staying calm is going to be the key for Hayden, as he can't risk throwing points away just yet.
Behind Pedrosa in third place in the title is Marco Melandri. Melandri has had a very up and down season, winning two races, but also regularly finishing down in sixth and seventh. There is no doubting Melandri's ability, or his dogged determination, as his gritty rides after seriously injuring himself at Catalunya so clearly demonstrated.
And behind Rossi is another picture of grit and determination. Loris Capirossi has ridden through incredible pain for the past four races, in a bid to hold onto a title challenge. That challenge is entirely notional now, but Loris will want to make up for the lost part of the season due to that crash at Catalunya. Added to this is the fact that both Capirossi and the Ducati run well at Brno, and he is still a serious threat come race day.
Kenny Roberts Jr is one of the surprises this season, having virtually been written off after leaving Suzuki at the end of this season. Moving to his father's team, Team KR, was also not expected to produce spectacular results, the old Proton and the KR / KTM both languishing in the caboose of MotoGP. Yet the Honda 211V motor matched with the Team KR chassis has proved a very capable package, and Kenny Jr seems to have refound the fire that brought him a world title, and which he lost during the four-stroke years at Suzuki.
The other big surprise is of course Casey Stoner. Almost from the very first race, Stoner has run at the front, and been a factor to be reckoned with. His weakness has been his tendency to take trips into the gravel, crashing out of three of the eleven races held so far this year. But at every race, he is a threat.
The same could be said of many other riders at this point in the season. It's contract negotiation time, and so there are a lot of riders with little to lose, and everything to prove. Some are riding for their places in their team, others are riding for a place in another team, and some are riding for their future in MotoGP. Makoto Tamada, for example, probably has only six races left in the premier class, unless he can pull off a consistent miracle, and get several podiums by the end of the year. James Ellison and Alex Hofmann need to start finishing further upfield to secure their place in the series. The situation is particularly difficult for Ellison, as rumors abound that James Toseland could be aboard a MotoGP bike next year. As Ellison is dependent upon the support of Dorna for his place, as Dorna need a British rider in the series, Toseland could make Ellison surplus to requirements.
Then there's riders like Carlos Checa, who has steadily been moving up the field throughout the year, as the Dunlop tires have improved. He can be confident of a ride in MotoGP next year, but he'd really like to have a more competitive ride. A couple of decent finishes, and he could be back on equipment which could take him to a podium.
With everyone out for blood, and almost no one with very much left to lose, the racing at Brno looks like being closer and more exciting than ever. At a track where there's room for passing, this race looks like it could be a classic. And if Valentino Rossi's stated goal of "enjoying himself, and concentrating on winning races" is anything to go by, the action will be fast, furious, and fun.