It's been a long summer break. Three consecutive weekends without racing - four, for the returning Moto2 and Moto3 classes - means that the MotoGP riders return well-rested and raring to get back on to a bike again. Some, of course, have already spent some time on a bike over the summer, with both Yamaha and Ducati testing (more of which later), but for the most part, they have had an all too brief vacation cut short by a return to training. Training never stops for a motorcycle racer.
The location they make their return is a spectacular one. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the true home of American motor sports. It is a vast arena, a sprawling complex set inside a two-and-a-half mile oval (though it is more of a rectangle with rounded corners than an oval), housing an eighteen hole golf course, a magnificent museum and acres and acres of space to roam around in. It can seat up to 400,000, which it regularly does for the Indy 500. It oozes history; like Monza, everywhere you go, the ghosts of racing legends are at your side. In the shadows, you can hear them whisper.
The problem of having MotoGP at the heart of American racing is that to most Americans, motor sports involve four-wheeled vehicles. Americans love motorcycles, but the motorcycles they love are mostly American. The real American motorcycle racing fans can be found on Saturday night a few miles away, at the Indiana State Fairground, where American motorcycles turn laps on an oval made of dirt. Those American motorcycle racing fans - hard working men and women come to watch the most blue collar of sports - are joined there by a large part of the MotoGP paddock, entranced by this most quintessential piece of Americana. The Indy Mile is just one of the things that make this weekend so very special.
Sadly, the road course inside IMS' spectacular facility is not one of them. Originally designed to be run in the opposite direction for Formula One, the track which MotoGP uses is tight, with most of the corners closing up instead of opening out, as they were intended to be run the other way. The asphalt - though resurfaced - is a bit of a patchwork, with four different types of tarmac as the track runs onto and then off the oval, and through the center of the massive facility. Last year, there were a lot of complaints that the new tarmac had no rubber on it, which led to a large number of serious crashes. The worst of those hit Casey Stoner, who effectively ended his season and his title defense there when he broke the bones in his foot and ankle. This year, the track should be a little better, now that it has had cars lay down a little rubber on the surface, but it remains a finicky and difficult track to ride.
You have to wonder if the memory of last year's crashes will linger with the two men tipped to win the title this season. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa return to action at Indianapolis still not fully recovered from their broken collarbones, and at the start of a triple header of three races on three consecutive weekends. Will they tread with a little more care around Indy's road course, its changing surface ready at any moment to catch them out? It will be hard for them to hold anything in reserve, for they both trail rookie Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa lagging 16 points behind his Repsol Honda teammate, while factory Yamaha man Jorge Lorenzo has a 26 point disadvantage to the young Spanish prodigy.
What's more, Indy is a Honda track: a group of tight corners tying a couple of straights together. The slow exit onto both the back and front straights plays to the advantage in acceleration which the Honda has. The history books bear that out: a Honda has won the last three editions of the Red Bull Indianapolis GP, Dani Pedrosa winning in 2010 and 2012, while Casey Stoner took victory in 2011. The odds of Honda making it four in a row seem strong.
But which Honda? Marc Marquez comes off the back of two victories in a row, at the Sachsenring and again a week later at Laguna Seca. Marquez has momentum on his side, and he is just about hitting his stride. He won his last two races here, taking victory in Moto2 in 2011 and 2012. He enters the weekend leading the championship, and as favorite to take the win, while both Pedrosa and Lorenzo are still not back to 100%. On a track that turns left, their recovering left collarbones will be tested hard.
Adding more complications is Stefan Bradl, the LCR Honda man having found his feet in the MotoGP class since the switch to Brembo brakes after the test at Aragon in June. Since then, Bradl has had his first front-row start, his first pole position, and his first podium. He arrives at Indianapolis with his contract for 2014 confirmed, and brimming with confidence. Bradl could pose a problem for the front runners. If he can stay with Marquez, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, he could end up taking points from any of the championship contenders, making life much more complicated than before for them. If Marquez gets away, Bradl could end up costing either Lorenzo or Pedrosa precious points. Alternatively, if either Lorenzo or Pedrosa make a break, and Bradl gets between them and Marquez, he could help to close the gap. The Indy round of MotoGP could have a profound impact on the 2013 title race.
Then there is Valentino Rossi, of course. Rossi, like Lorenzo, is at a disadvantage at Indianapolis, the Yamaha losing out to the Honda on acceleration. But Rossi's confidence is high, boosted by his win at Assen and bolstered by the test at Brno held last week. The seamless gearbox they tested at the Czech circuit is an improvement, but not yet ready to be raced, at least not as far as Yamaha is concerned, though both Rossi and Lorenzo feel otherwise. Even if it was completely ready, the factory Yamaha men would probably not be able to use at Indy, as if it needs new engine cases - which most insiders believe it does - then they can only use it with a new engine, and Rossi and Lorenzo only have one unused engine each left in their allocation.
So can Rossi and Lorenzo hold back the Honda Hordes? It will be tough, and it will require strategy more than anything. Their hope will be that the track is a little dusty and a little green. On a slippery, greasy track, the Hondas lose their advantage, the Yamahas coping with those circumstances much better. If the Hondas can't get their power down, Rossi, Lorenzo and Cal Crutchlow will hope to take the fight to the Hondas, and come out on top.
A strong result at Indianapolis will be doubly important for Cal Crutchlow. The Englishman had a dismal race at Laguna Seca, out of character with the rest of the outstanding season he has had so far. Crutchlow is out to make amends for his poor performance, but also to make a point. Fresh from signing a two-year deal with Ducati, he wants to prove that he deserves a factory ride, and show his potential. Crutchlow is still chasing his first win in MotoGP - his critics would say that he has to get one before he leaves Yamaha for Ducati - but Indy seems an unlikely spot for him to achieve this. Silverstone, on the other hand ….
While Crutchlow has two weeks to wait before his home Grand Prix, the man he will replace next season races in front of his home crowd this weekend. Nicky Hayden lives just a few hours from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and brings a large following to the track. That support always gives him an extra boost, and he has been on the podium here twice, including once on the Ducati. That, though, was way back in 2009, but Hayden will want to be closer to the front runners in front of his home crowd.
Fortunately, the layout of Indy helps. There are no really fast changes of direction, which is where the Ducati suffers most, though the tendency of the bike to run wide was made painfully clear at Turn 1 last year. With his future still in the balance - the Kentuckian has admitted he is talking to "everyone" - Hayden will be looking for a good result at Indianapolis.
Ben Spies, the other American on a Ducati, will be more concerned with easing his way back into MotoGP. The Texan returns after a long layoff, which was in turn down to trying to come back too early from his shoulder surgery. Spies damaged his shoulder at Sepang last year, had surgery on it, came back to test the Ducati in February, a long time before he was fully fit, then to race. The struggle to compensate for his weak shoulder saw him overcompensate with his chest muscles, leading to a complications in his pectoral muscles. After Mugello, he finally conceded he was not yet fit and did the right thing, waiting until he was back to full fitness before even trying to ride a motorcycle.
Now, of course, the big test comes. Being able to do a full work out in the gym is a completely different proposition to wrestling a 160kg, 260bhp MotoGP machine around, especially a bike as physical as the Ducati. Spies wants to demonstrate that he can still race at the highest level - or at least, as high a level as the Desmosedici will allow in its current state - but coming back for three races on three consecutive weekends is a tough return. Objective number one for Spies is to finish the weekend in one piece, objective number two is to get back up to speed. But after such a long layoff, and such a long period of doubt over his fitness, his main objective will surely be to test where he really can still race a motorcycle competitively again.
Moto2 and Moto3 return to action at Indianapolis as well, and the two classes look set to continue their respective two-way and three-way fights. (There is a pleasing numerological symmetry in the fact that Moto2 has two men battling for the title, while Moto3 has three young riders fighting over who will be champion.)
In Moto2, Pol Espargaro returns to Indianapolis hoping to maintain the momentum he built after the test at Mugello, the Spaniard brimming with confidence now that he has a solution to the lack of grip he complained of earlier in the season. He can also focus completely on 2013, now that he also has his contract for MotoGP with Yamaha for next year signed. Scott Redding comes to Indy determined to get his title challenge back on track, after being forced to take a back seat to Espargaro since Barcelona. Redding, too, has little to worry about for next year, though his deal will probably only be announced at Silverstone. It has been an intriguing battle so far, and it should continue at Indianapolis. Espargaro has the better record at the track - a pair of 2nd places, vs a 3rd a 5th and a 6th for Redding - and the hard acceleration out of the final corner militates against the Marc VDS rider. But Redding will be looking for something to disrupt Espargaro's progress.
As for the Moto3 class, the trio of Spaniards continue to battle it out at the front. Luis Salom, Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins have battled all year long, with little to choose between them. Salom is showing maturity and wiles in waiting to the end of the race to pounce, Viñales has established himself as a genuine title candidate after showing much promise last year, and Rins has been the surprise package of 2013, battling for the championship in just his second full year of Grand Prix racing. It seems unlikely that anyone will be close to the trio come Sunday.
Those that do get close will have to be on a KTM. The layout of Indianapolis suits the horsepower of the Austrian machine, putting anyone on a Honda out of contention. This is especially hard for Jack Miller, the Australian having repeatedly outperformed the underpowered FTR Honda he is riding. The track at Indy leaves Miller little room to take advantage of the superior handling of the FTR chassis, as he will be left for dead once the bikes hit the two straights at the circuit. Honda continue to live up to the spirit of the Moto3 regulations - providing affordable production racers - which leaves them giving away precious horsepower to KTM, who have basically been providing a factory racer down to a price. The revised regulations for 2014 and 2015 should help rectify that situation, but by then, there may not be a single Honda in the Moto3 paddock.
MotoGP's visit to Indianapolis could well end up being the series' last to the iconic venue. Rumors continue to build that the circuit will be dropped from the calendar next year, with three races in the US being considered too much of a good thing. Though few will lament losing the circuit for its layout, there will be many that will mourn the loss of the Indy event as a whole. The ghosts of heroes past that haunt Indy will whisper a little quieter once the thunder of MotoGP departs.