Strictly speaking, all races are equal. Every race scores 25 points for the winner, 20 points for 2nd place, 16 points for 3rd, so in purely mathematical terms, they are all of equal importance.
Of course, some mathematicians would probably refute that, pointing out that 25 points in the first race of the season count for a whole lot less than 25 points in the final race of the season. After all, a win in the first race is usually little more than a sign that you've got your season off to a good start, while 25 points - or less - at the last race can be the difference between going down in the history books as World Champion and the chump who came up short. Taking these factors into account, you can be pretty sure that someone, somewhere has created a mathematical formula which perfectly encapsulates the relative importance of the points scored in each race.
But the MotoGP championship, like all motorcycle racing, is more than just a statistical exercise. Though the number of points scored may not change from one race to the next, the impact one race can have be worth double or even triple the points on offer. For example, though the difference between 1st and 2nd at the season opener is only 5 points, the race can sometimes set the tone for the rest of the season. Take 2007, when Casey Stoner and the Ducati turned up at Qatar and showed the world that what Honda and Yamaha had pinpointed as key factors in building an 800cc MotoGP bike were completely wrong, and that horsepower was still king.
The Numbers Game
It's not just early races which are important, though. Races at the end of the season can be important too. Nicky Hayden was leading the 2006 championship comfortably, until his team mate crashed into him at the penultimate round in Portugal, and seemed to gift the title to Valentino Rossi. The next race, the last of the season, Rossi returned the favor, succumbing to the pressure of a poor start and the accumulated woes of a troubled season.
The 2006 season also shows that races in mid-season can have a huge impact, far beyond the actual points available. At Laguna Seca, the final race before the summer break, Rossi suffered a broken engine, putting him out of the race which Hayden went on to win. His title hopes looked over, but 4 weeks later at Brno, the first race after the summer break, Rossi was back on the podium and back in contention, after Hayden finished off the podium for the first time in what was to become a string of difficult races.
The Agony And The Ecstacy
And some races become pivotal, the point at which a season, sometimes even an entire career, can change. Sete Gibernau, grandson of the man who founded the famous Spanish motorcycle manufacturer Bultaco, had a racing career littered with such moments. Gibernau's transformation from fancied outsider to title challenger began after the death of his team mate, Daijiro Katoh from injuries sustained in a crash in Japan. At the next race, which Gibernau won, he was a changed man, with no sign of the erratic nature which had held him back. That season, Gibernau became a focused, dedicated racer, and pushed Rossi hard for the title.
Two years later, another race changed Gibernau's season, this time for the worse. At the 2005 season opener at Jerez, after a tense battle throughout the race, Valentino Rossi dived up the inside of Gibernau into the final corner. Gibernau tried to slam the door, but it was too late. The Spaniard clashed fairings with the Italian, and ran off into the gravel. Robbed of victory in front of his home fans, and despite finishing with just 5 points fewer than Rossi, Gibernau became bitter and obsessed and was never competitive again. Sete Gibernau lost not just the race that day, he also lost the title, and started on the downhill slide which ended with his retirement.
The previous race of the 2008 season seemed to be one of those pivotal moments. It certainly had all the key ingredients: Casey Stoner had been on an intimidating run of poles and victories, and slowly gaining ground on championship leader Valentino Rossi; and Laguna Seca was the last race before the summer break, meaning that whoever came out victorious there would carry momentum into the summer, and have the advantage once the racing resumed.
The race delivered. Casey Stoner may only have given away 5 points to Valentino Rossi, but the manner of Rossi's victory, forcing Stoner into an error after a scintillating duel for 23 laps of mortal combat, swung the season back around again. Suddenly, the unstoppable Stoner had been stopped in his tracks, and Mr Perfect had been shown to be fallible. Stoner's outburst about Rossi's tactics in parc ferme, in the press conference, and in the press afterwards all contributed to the impression that the US Grand Prix had been worth a lot more to Valentino Rossi than just the 5 points he extended his lead by.
And so the MotoGP circus descended on Brno straining under the weight of expectation. The riders arrived refreshed after the summer break and mostly recovered from the various injuries which so many of them had struggled with earlier. Casey Stoner even seemed to have spent some time reflecting on the US race, as he apologized to Valentino Rossi for overreacting at the last race, and said he had left what happened behind him.
But the atmosphere was still tense, and the coldness with which Rossi treated Stoner showed that his words might have been forgiven, but they were a very long way from being forgotten. The stage looked set for another nail-biting battle between two men at the peak of their ability, prepared neither to give nor receive any quarter.
Practice made it immediately clear that this was a two man race. On the first, dry day of practice, Rossi was fastest in the morning, while Stoner was quicker in the afternoon, the rest of the field a long way off the pace. Saturday's practice was a rain-sodden affair, and with dry weather expected for race day, proved little other than the fact that if Casey Stoner is fast in the dry, he is terrifyingly quick in the wet.
The stage was set for a showdown, with the race obviously to be fought out by Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, the other riders likely to be little more than a sideshow after a few laps. But the race was shaping up to be pivotal for more than just the championship.
After disastrous results at both the Sachsenring and Laguna Seca, Michelin needed a good result to restore its credibility in the paddock. But before the first session of free practice was over, it was clear that Michelin had got their tires wrong again. This time, it wasn't a managerial malfunction as at Laguna, where they ignored advice and brought compounds which were far too hard. The tires they'd made for Brno were simply the wrong construction to cope with the new surface, despite having had two days of testing back in June.
The Michelin riders could choose between a front tire that would last the whole race, but not give any grip, or a grippy front tire that would destroy itself within a few laps. At a special safety meeting convened on Saturday evening for all of the riders in the MotoGP class, the riders called on Dorna to impose a single tire rule. The ominous part of that being that the Michelin riders were unanimously in favor, with only a few Bridgestone riders against. Now on three disasters in a row, Michelin's time in MotoGP was looking very much at an end.
As the bikes sat on the grid, Bridgestones to the fore, Michelins to the rear, the focus switched from tires to riders, and the question of who would lead into the first corner. Valentino Rossi, sitting beside Casey Stoner on the front row, had made no secret of the fact that he had to be in touch with Stoner away from the line. If he allowed the Australian to get a gap, then the reigning champion could well disappear without a trace again, leaving Rossi little more than damage limitation once again.
Off To The Races
When the lights dimmed, the deafening wail of four cylinder MotoGP bikes shattered the leafy Moravian idyll, and the pack leapt off the line and down towards the long, broad hairpin of Turn 1. The sight of a red Ducati tipping into the corner first surprised no one, and all eyes looked to see how closely Valentino Rossi had managed to follow.
But The Doctor did not have it so easy. While Casey Stoner was already clear at the front, John Hopkins, starting from 3rd on the grid, had managed to draw level with Rossi and hold the inside line. Finding the line taken, the Italian was forced to relinquish second place to the Kawasaki, and try to pass at the first opportunity.
Behind Rossi, Chris Vermeulen held onto 4th, while Hopper's Kawasaki team mate Ant West forged his way into 5th. Blazing into 6th, from way down in 12th on the grid, came Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa, raising suspicions that the factory RC212V has a JATO protruding from under the seat, rather than an exhaust pipe. Pedrosa looked determined to push as hard as he could from the start, to try and get some heat into his hard Michelins, and stay at the front.
As they headed down the short back straight towards Turn 3, the bikes fanned out across the track ready to make a move. Rossi dived up the inside of Hopkins, and into 2nd place, while Ant West pulled out of Vermeulen's draft to pass the Suzuki and take 4th, putting Westy on his team mate's tail.
Catch As Catch Can
Rossi had been behind Hopkins for just two corners, but at the first intermediate timing point, it looked like even that had been too many. After just three turns, Casey Stoner already had a lead of 0.6 seconds, and was pulling away. Rossi followed, chasing hard, but by the time they crossed the line for the end of the first lap, Stoner was already 1.1 seconds ahead.
If Rossi seemed slowly to be losing touch, the rest of the field were completely out of it. John Hopkins crossed the line already two and a half seconds behind Stoner, and well over a second behind Rossi, with the rest of the pack breathing down his neck. Practice was proving to have been an accurate reflection of the relative strengths in the paddock, with Stoner and Rossi clearly head and shoulders above the rest.
As lap 2 progressed, Rossi started matching Stoner's pace, and stopped losing valuable tenths at every intermediate split. Now with only the red dot of Stoner's Ducati ahead of him, Rossi started pushing to catch the Australian. The Italian had made his strategy clear: he had to close enough to battle with Stoner if he was to stand any chance of winning the race. But over 1.2 seconds down, and with Stoner smashing Loris Capirossi's lap record by 8/10ths on his first flying lap, Rossi had his work cut out.
Over the next two laps, Rossi shadowed Stoner from a distance, though still giving up hundredths of a second every lap. On lap 5, Stoner kicked once more, trying to break Rossi, and shattering the lap record for the second time, but instead of cracking, Rossi matched Stoner's pace, losing just 4/100ths of a second to the Australian's blistering speed.
But still, if Rossi wanted to execute the strategy he believed would break Casey Stoner's rhythm, he would first have to catch him. And with Stoner flying, Rossi would have to do it fast, or the race would be over. The next lap, Rossi picked up the pace, and in the space of a single lap, took back 3/10ths of a second. At the end of lap 5, Stoner's pit board had shown him up by 1.3 seconds, but as he crossed the line to start lap 7, he saw +1. Rossi was coming back.
For the first few laps, the prospect of another epic battle between the two best motorcycle racers in the world had seemed distant, but with Rossi closing, the possibility started to grow again. Putting his head down once again, Stoner pushed on, trying to get back the time he'd just lost. Like Rossi, Stoner knew that Rossi's best chance lay in another close scrap, and Stoner was determined not to grant Rossi that opportunity.
A little bit too determined, it seemed. As he laid the bike over through the fast right hander of Turn 4, Stoner folded the front, tried to catch it, but failed, crashing off into the gravel, and gifting Valentino Rossi the lead. Stoner scrambled back to his bike and remounted, but his efforts were in vain. A few corners later, Stoner was coasting, and out of the race.
Whether it was the pressure, or the after-effects of the cold Stoner had, or just an unlucky slide he had been unable to get back, unlike the hundreds of others he had previously, Casey Stoner was out of a race for the first time since joining Ducati. Instead of closing the gap to Rossi, and making up some of the 25 point deficit, he was now looking at being down 50 points in the championship, leaving a huge mountain to climb.
For the pace Stoner had set had not only forced Rossi to ride at the limit, it had also given the pair a lead over the following pack of over 12 seconds. With Stoner out of the equation, Rossi could afford to take fewer risks and give up nearly three quarters of a second a lap if need be. If he could stay on board, The Doctor had the win in the bag.
If the crowd had been robbed of a great fight at the front, they were being handsomely compensated further back. The radically revised bike which Kawasaki had brought to Brno was paying dividends, leaving John Hopkins leading his team mate Ant West in 3rd and 4th positions. Behind West, Chris Vermeulen was clearly unhappy at having 4th taken from him by West at Turn 3, and had his Suzuki firmly latched on to the back of Westy's Kawasaki.
On lap 2, he struck back, seeking revenge at Turn 3, but West hung tough round the outside line, stuffing his Kawasaki back up the inside into Turn 4. He held Vermeulen off for another half a lap, but the Suzuki man was back at Turn 13, and this time, West was forced to cede the position.
But Vermeulen wasn't the only Suzuki in a hurry. Loris Capirossi was charging, and past West on the next lap. This left the two Suzukis chasing John Hopkins and closing fast. Hopper held on bravely, but with the Vermeulen and Capirossi pushing, it was only a matter of time. Vermeulen was first to pass on lap 5, and two laps later, Capirossi was also through.
But Hopper's dreams of 2nd were still not lost. Once past Hopkins, the two Suzuki men set about each other with a ferocity which belies their off-track camaraderie. Capirossi got past briefly at the bottom hairpin, but Vermeulen was back, with a vicious stuff up the inside at the uphill left hander of Turn 11, a pass which almost had the pair of them off.
A lap later, Capirex got his revenge. Trailing his Australian team mate closely round Turn 1, he drove off the exit and round the outside at the Turn 2 kink, and into 2nd.
What About Alice?
But Capirossi would not savor the pleasure of 2nd for very long. The Italian veteran had made outstanding progress up the field, battling his way up from 9th, but he was being outdone by another rider. Toni Elias had started from 13th on the grid, and after an indifferent start, was starting to fly. Once past the rolling roadblock that his Michelin's had reduced Dani Pedrosa into, Elias was hammering through the field with some of the style and death-defying passes that have made him such a firm fan favorite.
After he'd joined the group scrapping over 6th, he paused, then on lap 5, dove up the inside of Dovizioso at Turn 1, before stuffing Ant West coming out of the stadium area and going off to chase 5th place man Capirossi.
Catching the group on lap 8, two laps later he was past, after taking advantage of Vermeulen running wide. Elias, Vermeulen and Hopkins had run into the corner three abreast, and Elias came out on top, putting the unruly Spaniard right on Capirossi's tail. As they made their way out of Turn 12 and up horsepower hill, Elias unleashed the power of his Alice Ducati and was past Capirossi and up into 2nd.
Elias wasn't the only rider to be moving through the pack. Further back, another satellite bike was on a charge through the field, though satellite is perhaps not the right description. Shinya Nakano had got off to a terrible start, dropping from 8th to 12th at the end of the first lap. But after 5 laps sizing up his factory-spec Gresini Honda, he started to find his feet.
By the halfway mark, Nakano was back up to 8th, and into his stride. His lap times were dropping, from 1'59s to high 1'58s, and by lap 15, he was matching Valentino Rossi's pace, contesting the title of fastest man on the track. The Japanese rider forged onwards, passing Dovizioso to take the honor of first Honda, and then passing Chris Vermeulen to take 6th.
A lap later, Nakano was ahead of one Kawasaki, in the shape of John Hopkins, before taking Ant West two laps after Hopper. Once past Hopkins, his next target was Capirossi, but with a 5 second deficit and 4 laps to go, it seemed too much to ask. If Nakano had been quicker away from the line, more could have been possible, but his poor early laps left him short of the podium.
The Doctor Is In
The same could not be said of Valentino Rossi. After Casey Stoner had crashed, Rossi had backed off his pace, from mid 1'57s to low 1'58s, but for much of the race, that still left him the fastest man on the track. The 12 second lead he inherited on lap 7 grew to over 16 seconds, a second of which he gave away on the final lap with his celebrations. The win at Brno was important, but seeing his main title rival crash in front of him was more important still, as it gave Rossi a 50 point lead in the championship. If Rossi saw the title come into view at Laguna Seca, at Brno, he got to tentatively lay the first fingertip on it.
Most important of all for Rossi was his ability to match Stoner's speed. The reigning world champion set off at his usual blistering pace, gaining over a second a lap over the rest of the field. The rest of the field but one, that is, and Rossi not only followed, but even closed on Stoner's Ducati. After the race, Rossi said he believed the Yamaha was now fast enough to match the Ducati, making it possible for him to fight with Stoner at every racetrack the series visits. The race at Brno showed this to be no idle boast.
After his epic ride through the field, Toni Elias came in 2nd, his first podium since Motegi last year. Like everyone but Stoner, Elias had struggled with the Ducati. But over the past few weeks, the young Spaniard's form has drastically improved. Elias put it down to the new parts the team had received before the Sachsenring race, saying he could have been on the podium in Laguna Seca if he hadn't had such a terrible start. On the basis of Sunday's showing, few would refute that.
Elias' return to form brings up an interesting point. For the many years that the team was run by Luis d'Antin, the riders struggled, and arguments between d'Antin and former riders over money occasionally blew up in public. Since d'Antin has left the team - allegedly over team funds being spent on yachts and fast cars, rather than hotel costs and Ducati parts - the team's form has turned around. Elias' podium could see Alice start to get value for their sponsorship Euros at last.
Back In Blue
The final spot on the podium was taken by Loris Capirossi. The Italian veteran has always done well at Brno, and taking his first podium on a Suzuki, after the problems he had suffered with his arm injury, delighted Capirex. With Misano up next, a track which saw two Suzukis on the podium last year, this may not have been Capirossi's last podium this year.
Shinya Nakano was unable to make up the final few seconds that would have taken the Japanese veteran onto the podium. But 4th place was Nakano's best result since leaving Kawasaki, and came after a run of indifferent results.
More importantly for HRC, Nakano's result proved that the bike he was riding - roughly the same spec machine as Dani Pedrosa's bike, and the basis for next year's satellite equipment - is basically sound, and more significantly, is capable of performing on Bridgestones. The factory team is clamoring for Japanese rubber, and the data from Nakano, who will have the new spec bike for the rest of the year, will go a long way to helping decide whether to make the switch at the end of the season.
In 5th place came a welcome surprise. Ant West's 6th place on the grid had surprised few people, having been set in a downpour. But consolidating that in the dry and racing with the front runners showed that the problem had indeed been with the old Kawasaki, and the radical changes made over the summer had brought improvement. West's confidence will have been given a huge boost, and he may now actually have a shot at staying in MotoGP, if he can build on this trend.
Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen finished in 6th, after fading towards the end of the race. But after two podiums in a row, and looking capable of another in Brno, Vermeulen, like West, cemented his claim to stay in MotoGP. Suzuki and Vermeulen are currently in the middle of fresh negotiations, after Vermeulen finished outside the top 6 in the championship after Laguna Seca. But another good result in Brno, and with Misano up next, where Vermeulen finished 2nd last year, the negotiations look to be swinging in the likable Australian's favor.
Marco Melandri came home 7th, after a late charge brought him up from 11th. Melandri looked more comfortable at Brno, but is still not the man he was on a Honda. At least 7th will have silenced the talk of an early end to the Italian's season, and he should now finish out the year on board the Ducati. But he certainly won't start 2009 on one.
Alex de Angelis finished 8th, and displeased to be behind his Gresini Honda team mate. As first of the satellite spec Hondas, but nearly last of the Bridgestone runners, his performance was mixed.
Andrea Dovizioso was 9th, and first Michelin runner home. The Team Scot Honda rider put up a creditable performance on dismal French rubber, and underlined once again that he is a talented rider capable of dealing with difficult circumstances.
Not far behind Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo was the first of the Michelin-shod Yamahas home. Finishing 10th was not what he had in mind, but it will have helped him rebuild the confidence he has lost after too many painful crashes.
John Hopkins finished a tired and disappointed 11th. Only just back from injury, Hopper had slipped down the field after being passed by Nakano, as his tires started to lose grip. His leg injury meant that he had difficulty compensating for it, and left him a long way down from his Kawasaki team mate.
Sylvain Guintoli came home 12th, after a problem with his tires left him incapable of running the speed he'd shown in practice. Seeing his team mate on the podium leaves Guintoli's place in MotoGP a little more in jeopardy after Brno.
Slough Of Despond
The Tech 3 Yamaha team came home in 13th and 14th place, James Toseland ahead of Colin Edwards, and both men disgusted with Michelin. They had been left powerless to play any part in the proceedings, despite having new parts from Yamaha.
But the Tech 3 team's anger was as nothing compared to the wrath of Dani Pedrosa. After his rocket-propelled start, he plummeted down through the field as though fitted with thrust reversers. Still in pain from his hand injury, and determined to salvage something of his title challenge, Pedrosa was furious with Michelin for robbing him of any chance of competing at Brno. He made several public statements severely criticizing the French tire maker, and dropped his biggest hint yet that the Repsol Honda team will be on Bridgestones next year.
If anything, Pedrosa's manager Alberto Puig was even more furious. Before the race, he had been seen rushing along pit lane, trying to persuade the other Michelin runners to pull in after the warm up lap, in a display similar to the Formula 1 race at Indianapolis in 2005. That was the race that triggered the introduction of a single tire rule in Formula 1, and most likely, it was Puig's intention that such a display would be the catalyst for a similar change in MotoGP.
Pedrosa was lucky to score any points at all. As the end of the race approached, Randy de Puniet, whose 5th lap crash made it every a crash in every session for the hapless Frenchman, was closing Pedrosa down. In the end, Pedrosa held on by just over a second, but another lap would have seen de Puniet pass Pedrosa to take 15th.
Some Points Are More Equal Than Others
The Brno MotoGP race may only have added 25 points to Valentino Rossi's admittedly impressive total, but it was far more important than that. Thanks to Casey Stoner's crash and Michelin's failure to provide decent tires, Rossi greatly increased his lead over Stoner, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Dovizioso. Now 50 points ahead of Stoner, the title is now entirely within Rossi's control.
For Stoner's crash has also meant that it is no longer enough just for Stoner to win the remaining 6 races, Rossi must finish worse than 2nd in at least one of them. Mathematically, Casey Stoner is still in with a chance, but it will require at least some help from Dani Pedrosa, and preferably a stroke of misfortune for Rossi.
The Bad Old Days
The biggest question of all, though, hangs over the reason for Stoner's crash. After the race, the champion had no explanation, saying that the front just went away too quickly for him to catch, as he had done several times previously during the race. But losing the front end is a return to Casey Stoner's old habits, a trait he displayed pushing too hard on the third-rate Michelins he was forced to use in his first year in MotoGP.
And after his crash at Laguna Seca, it's hard not to draw the conclusion that Stoner succumbed to the pressure. Last year, Casey Stoner seemed almost unassailable and completely impervious to any pressure Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa or anyone else tried to put on him. But this year, he has occasionally shown signs of weakness, such as when he ran off the track twice at Jerez.
More worryingly, the Australian has previous form in this area. In 2005, at his home Grand Prix, he threw away his chance of becoming 250cc World Champion by crashing out of the lead. Stoner has come a long way since then, grown a little older and gained a great deal of maturity. But his crash at Brno puts a dent in his image as Mr Perfect.
Did Stoner crash as a result of the pressure Rossi had put on him? Was it because he feared getting caught up in another race-long battle like Laguna Seca, and pushed too hard when he saw Rossi closing? Or was it just one of those things, a mistake all riders make? The jury is still very much out, and it will take more than just his crash at Brno to prove the case one way or another.
This Time It's Personal
The next race, though, will be crucial. Valentino Rossi will arrive at Misano, a track just a few miles from his home town, hoping to take his 68th victory in the premier class. This would see him tie the record for most wins with another Italian, the legendary Giacomo Agostini. It would also allow him to wipe away the humiliation of his exit from last year's race, when the first outing of Yamaha's pneumatic valve engine ended in mechanical disaster. Finally, it would mean he had taken a win at every track the MotoGP circus currently visits.
It is impossible to overestimate just how much Valentino Rossi wants to win at Misano. There is a huge amount at stake, and he will not let any man stand in his way. There can be no doubt that Rossi believes that the mental pressure he is placing on Casey Stoner is working, and at Misano, The Doctor will be dishing out more of the same medicine. How Casey Stoner responds will be the measure of him as a racer, but also as a man. If you thought Laguna was big, and Brno even bigger, just wait till we get to Misano.