As the MotoGP paddock reassembles in Portugal after the enforced layoff of the canceled Hungarian round, all of the talk in the paddock will be of one subject: the return of Ducati's prodigal son. And that's a terrible shame.
For the place where MotoGP finds itself is at Estoril, one of the finest circuits on the calendar. The track is a mass of contradictions and ambiguities, best summed up by the old PERL programmer's motto, TIMTOWTDI: There Is More Than One Way To Do It. For the track is both the slowest circuit on the calendar and yet boasts some of the highest top speeds of the year. It has the slowest corner of the season, and a treacherously fast right-hand flick along the back of the paddock.
And it's not just that the corners are so diverse; it's also the lines through them. Three corners truly exemplify this: Turn 4, the Curva VIP; Turn 6, the Parabolica Interior; and the chicane at Gancho, comprising Turns 9 and 10. Turns 4 and 6 are very long hairpins, so long that there are two distinctly different lines through them: the classic out-in-out route through the apex, or the berm route so admirably demonstrated by Toni Elias over the past few years, whereby you hug the outer rumblestrip, maintaining corner speed to fire out onto either the back straight or the run into Orelha, carrying more pace than the riders you were behind when you entered the corner.
The chicane, however, is a beauty, one of the finest of its kind. You can either flick left then right, attempting to maintain momentum, or you can stuff your bike up the inside of the man ahead and execute that fan favorite, the block pass. If you're ahead, on the other hand, you can slam the door on anyone attempting to get under you, forcing them almost to a standstill if they wish to remain on the track.
The schizophrenic nature of the track lends itself to passing, and if a rider is in touch then you can never count them out. There's the obvious point at the end of the front straight going into Turn 1, but then the series of rights which follow allow you to line up a pass, much as at Barcelona. The Gancho chicane is followed by the Esses, and a block pass at Gancho is often followed by a counter attack through the Esses, once the blockee has regained the momentum lost to the blocker. And finally there's the Parabolica Ayrton Senna, a great corner named after a great driver. The long and increasingly fast right hander allows you one last chance to get onto the tail of the rider ahead, and whip out of the draft down the long run to the finish to sneak ahead.
As great as the track is, right now the MotoGP paddock is focused solely on the return of Casey Stoner. The Australian gave a press conference on Thursday evening, which was at the same time both informative and perplexing, with no real conclusion as to the cause of Stoner's health problems, just lots of little clues. Having been off the bike for over two months, the 2007 World Champion is unlikely to run away with the race on Sunday, but he did say that he was feeling better than he had for a long while. Given that prior to Donington, Stoner was managing to be either on or close to the podium despite his illness, the Australian should be at least near the front for much of the race.
The front is likely to consist of the same two, or perhaps three, riders as ever. The Fiat Yamaha Civil War continues apace, with Valentino Rossi the last to gain an advantage, adding 5 points to his championship lead with a victory at Misano. The battle at Estoril looks finely poised: Rossi has never been off the podium here and has won five times at the circuit. On the other side of the garage, Estoril is the scene of Jorge Lorenzo's first MotoGP victory, taken in just his third ever race in the class. With little to choose between the two, the only thing we can be sure of is a close battle, and with a bit of luck Estoril may turn into a repeat of Barcelona. This time, though, Lorenzo will be determined to ensure the result is reversed.
With the Fantastic Four all now back on the grid, the final member of the Untouchables is also likely to feature. Dani Pedrosa lost out to Jorge Lorenzo by just 1.8 seconds at Estoril last year, and the Repsol Honda star will not want a repeat of that. Pedrosa's problem is that though his RC212V has improved significantly over the last few races, it is still no match for the masterful Yamaha M1. Pedrosa will have his hands full coping with the two Fiat Yamahas, but as Lorenzo and Rossi will be more focused on each other than on Pedrosa, the diminutive Spaniard might just be able to take advantage of their duel.
Pedrosa's team mate, Andrea Dovizioso, has other things to worry about. Dovi has taken on the job of test mule for the new Ohlins suspension, while Pedrosa sticks with the familiar Showa springers. Dovizioso had less to lose and more to gain by the switch, and with a full race weekend of experience at Misano behind him, he should be able to make another step forward.
The remainder of the field fall broadly into three categories: Those with new contracts and nothing to prove; Those with new contracts and scores to settle; And those without a contract and desperately looking for one.
Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards fall into the first category, yet entirely different results might be expected from the two men. Capirossi is working on the improving Suzuki, the Hamamatsu factory beavering away to make the GSV-R competitive for next season, having given up on 2009. Edwards, on the other hand, has a brand new (if much reduced) contract with Tech 3 Yamaha in his pocket, and may decided to back off the pace a little, and get ready for the arrival of fellow Texan Ben Spies in the Tech 3 team next season. But Edwards is still irritated at being dumped in the gravel at Misano, the result of a wildly optimistic first-corner maneuver by Alex de Angelis. He may feel he is owed a result, and go out chasing one.
Much the same can be said for Nicky Hayden, the American looking increasingly optimistic around the paddock. Where early in the season, Hayden was all bewilderment at how to handle the Ducati, the two post-race tests at Brno have given him the clues he needs to improve, and Hayden has moved much closer to the top four than before. He had been hoping to build on his podium at Indianapolis, but Alex de Angelis destroyed his dreams at Misano along with those of Colin Edwards. Hayden will be keeping away from the Man from San Marino this weekend.
Chief of the men with new contracts and scores to settle must surely be James Toseland. The Briton has finally lost his ride to Ben Spies, and is returning to the World Superbike paddock taking the seat that Spies will be vacating. But before he moves back to ride in World Superbikes, Toseland has a point to make. He is still bitterly disappointed in his season so far, especially after making such a strong debut in MotoGP at the start of 2008. So he is plotting his revenge, which can only be extracted in the form of bettering his previous best result, by cracking into the top 5. Given the depth of talent in the series, that's a tough nut to crack, and on the basis of his form so far this year, would seem nigh on impossible.
Though the many seats in MotoGP are nearly all taken, there are still a couple of men in the paddock without a contract for next year. As the season nears its end, riders without contracts get more desperate, and therefore usually faster. The most prominent rider with nothing signed for next season is surely Toni Elias, and Elias has history here. The last time Elias raced in Portugal with nothing signed for the following season, the impish Spaniard produced the race of his life, outfoxing Valentino Rossi to take victory in 2006, robbing Rossi of 5 valuable points, the points he lost the 2006 world title by. A repeat of that victory is unlikely, but with Elias, you can never be sure.
His team mate Alex de Angelis is in the same boat, and after his wild pass at Misano, taking out both Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards at Turn 2, De Angelis will be out to make amends. The man from San Marino is still not sure where he will end up next season, but he needs to continue his recent run of strong results to ensure he gets on a decent machine. De Angelis, like Elias, will be on a mission. Given the desperation of the pair, we will have to hope it's not a bombing run.
With MotoGP returning to action after a long layoff, the riders will be rusty but keen to get back on their bikes. Valentino Rossi's objective is to play it safe, and not squander any expensive points. He faces a team mate with little to lose: 2nd place in the championship is pretty well tied up, and Lorenzo really needs to win everything if he is to catch Rossi. If he fails, it will not be counted against him, as to fall short to the mighty Rossi in only his second season would be regarded by most riders as a resounding victory. So he might as well give it his all, and see where he ends up. Add in the X factor of Casey Stoner, and a continually improving Dani Pedrosa, and we should have a fascinating weekend of racing. The track is ready, the riders are ready, the fans are ready. It's time to go racing again.