When it comes to racetracks, the most damning accusation that MotoGP fans can make is that a particular circuit is a "cookie cutter track." What they mean by this is that the track consists of a bunch of symmetrical, computer-designed turns stuck together to resemble something which has just rolled off a production line, rather than grown organically with the landscape to seamlessly become one with its environment, and the tracks they point to when using this term of abuse are places like Shanghai in China and Sepang in Malaysia.
And yet if there was one track which most resembles a shape for cutting pastry when you look at a paper map of the track, it would have to be the Autodrom Brno. The circuit seems to consist of a collection of short straights connected by standard left-right combinations, and looks more like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle than a racetrack. And yet, once you see it in the flesh, your opinion changes instantly. Suddenly, the elevation changes caused by the rolling Czech countryside transform those seemingly uninteresting pairs of corners into a fast, flowing roller coaster of a track, both stunning to watch and thrilling to ride. Add in the fact that the track is one of the widest that the MotoGP circus visits all year, allowing multiple lines through most of the corner combinations, and the beautiful countryside surrounding it, sat in the middle of the Moravian forests, and it soon becomes clear that this is anything but a cookie cutter circuit.
Fight Or Flight?
But as gorgeous as the location, and as spectacular as the track is, the men chasing the championship leader will face the Brno weekend with some trepidation. For after leaving the tracks where maneuverability was going to be key, and the agile Yamahas and Hondas would have the edge over the fast, but less nimble Ducati, MotoGP starts on its round of fast, flowing tracks which suit the Ducati down to a tee. But while Valentino Rossi had hoped to recover the deficit he had conceded to Casey Stoner during the early summer, Stoner actually increased his lead over the five-time world champion, and looks well on the way to his and Ducati's first world championship.
Going by last year, Casey Stoner should easily extend his 44 point lead in the title race. Loris Capirossi walked away with the race in 2006, leading from start to finish, and never looking in trouble at any point during the race. Brno suits the Ducati, its fast straights, high speed corners and flowing turns all working in the Bolognese bike's favor. And so it would be a very foolish fan who would bet against Casey Stoner in the Czech Republic.
A Sea Of Troubles
His team mate, on the other hand, is having a much tougher time. Already struggling to get to grips with the Ducati GP7, Loris Capirossi learned that Marco Melandri had been hired to take his place for the 2008 season directly after the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. Then Ducati added insult to injury by offering to field a third bike for Capirex, making it very clear where he would stand in the pecking order. Then, a week ago, the Italian tax authorities announced that they would be charging Capirossi with tax evasion, for the years 1995 to 2000, despite Capirossi having lived in Monaco for that period, where he is theoretically not liable to pay Italian taxation.
On the eve of the Brno Grand Prix, Capirossi finally announced his future lay with Suzuki, and he would be joining Chris Vermeulen there for next season. The Italian must surely hope that having settled his future, he can put the many problems he has had this year behind him, and concentrate on trying to get his season back on track. A repeat of the 2006 race is extremely unlikely, however.
Over in the other Ducati team, the situation is similarly muddied. Alex Hofmann is absent once again, still suffering the after-effects of the horrific hand injury he picked up in Laguna Seca, where he was torpedoed amidships by Laguna rookie Sylvain Guintoli. The German was recently seen at the Brands Hatch round of World Superbikes, talking to several teams about 2008, as Hofmann's luck in MotoGP seems to have run out. Although there was much speculation that Hofmann's place would be taken by Chaz Davies, the young British rider who made such a good impression substituting for Hofmann at Laguna Seca, team manager Luis d'Antin instead opted for Ivan Silva, the Spanish Formula Extreme rider who sat in for Hofmann last year.
On the other side of the garage, Alex Barros will be hoping for a return to form now his hand injury has healed. Barros should also be capable of exploiting the Ducati's advantage around Brno, as it's a track he has previously done well at, but Barros is also coming under pressure. The list of names being mentioned in the context of the Pramac team next year are providing strong hints that another year in MotoGP for Barros will depend very heavily on his results. Barros' 2008 season starts at Brno.
Time Running Out
The man under the most pressure at Brno will surely be Valentino Rossi. The Doctor is 44 points down in the title race, and about to race at a track which will play to the strengths of the Ducati, leaving the Yamaha struggling once again with a lack of power. With just 7 races to go, the title is already out of his hands, for even if Rossi wins every race left, Casey Stoner can still take the championship by finishing 2nd. So Rossi's attention will be focused entirely on winning as many races as possible. But Rossi, like Capirossi, also has tax distractions. As part of their crackdown on tax evasion, they have slapped The Doctor with a demand for 112 million Euros in fines and unpaid taxes, for the period during which Rossi has lived in London. If there's one thing that Rossi doesn't need when he's trying to focus totally on racing, it's this kind of off-track problem.
The rest of the Yamaha riders are more concerned with on-track problems. Already, 3 of the 4 Yamaha seats have been taken for next year, with Yamaha announcing that both Jorge Lorenzo and James Toseland will be riding for the musical motorcycle brand. This leaves just one open seat, and three current riders to fight over it. Makoto Tamada has achieved more or less what he achieved at Konica Minolta last year, which is very little, and looks like being in his final season in MotoGP, while his team mate Sylvain Guintoli has done much better than most people expected in his rookie season. But Guintoli is up against Colin Edwards for the final Yamaha seat, and the Texan veteran has a number of things going for him: He is a proven development rider for both Yamaha and Michelin, and Valentino Rossi loves having him as a team mate. If he can keep putting in steady performances, and help move the Yamaha M1 forward, making Rossi's job easier, he looks a good bet to stay at Yamaha.
Edwards will also get a second chance after the race is over, as Yamaha is bringing a new engine to Brno, to try out during the official tests on Monday and Tuesday. The engine is reported to be using pneumatic valves, in an attempt to find the power that the current iteration of the M1 is down on to the Ducati. It may not help on Sunday, but it could make the difference once the circus hits Sepang and Motegi.
The Honda riders will also have new parts to test, but they won't be waiting until Monday to try them out. HRC has been hard at work on a new "evolution" bike over the summer, in an attempt to correct the dramatic miscalculations they made with the RC212V. Underpowered and totally lacking in front-end feel, the Honda has been uncompetitive so far, with only a brilliant ride in Germany by Dani Pedrosa saving Honda from the humiliation of extending their longest winless streak since entering the class in earnest. The new engine and chassis should go a long way towards getting the Honda back at the head of the field, the place which HRC believes is theirs by right.
Both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden will be hoping that HRC have got it right this time. Pedrosa was expected to challenge for the title this year, but has struggled with a bike that was reputedly designed specifically with the Spaniard in mind. The title looks beyond his reach, but Pedrosa will surely be set on strengthening his hold on 3rd place, and possibly challenging Rossi for 2nd. Brno last year was the first place MotoGP fans were treated to the spectacle they had been waiting for all season, with Pedrosa finally engaging Valentino Rossi in full combat. Rossi eventually came out on top that contest, but this year, Pedrosa will be hoping to turn the tables.
As for the reigning world champion, Nicky Hayden, perhaps more than anyone, must be hoping that HRC have finally got their sums right. The Kentucky Kid has had a dreadful season aboard a bike which is obviously not suited to either his size or his riding style, and will be hoping that if Honda have found a little more power, and can be persuaded to tone down the electronics, he can start to put on the kind of worthy defense of his title we saw glimpses of at Assen and the Sachsenring.
Break A Leg
As for the remainder of the Honda teams, their fortunes are mixed. The Gresini Honda team has a leg problem, with both Marco Melandri and Toni Elias recovering from broken bones. Marco Melandri's broken ankle didn't stop the Italian from taking a heroic podium at Laguna Seca, though it stopped him from walking to get from the pit lane to the podium, but Toni Elias' spiral fracture of the femur is a much more serious injury, and will leave the Spanish fan favorite struggling just to ride, never mind compete.
Shinya Nakano has finally received the new parts which all the other riders have had, and may now stand a chance of competing for a place in the top ten, and not just acting as grid filler aboard his Konica Minolta RC212V. His first task will be to beat Carlos Checa on the LCR Honda, as their machines will now be of more or less equal specifications. But it won't just be his own future the Japanese rider is fight for: the team's contract with Konica Minolta is up at the end of this year, and they need some strong results to convince the Japanese electronics giant to continue to fund them.
Young, Gifted And Green
Over at the team that Nakano left, the two young riders are engaged in a battle of their own. With John Hopkins moving from Suzuki to Kawasaki next year, there's one open seat left at Team Green. At the beginning of the year, Kawasaki seemed committed to Randy de Puniet, but the Frenchman has blighted his strong showings with a series of unforced race crashes, a pattern which has not improved from last year. But Ant West, who stepped in to replace Olivier Jacque after the French veteran retired, has shown very fast and very solid growth, finishing each race better than the previous one as his experience with the bike increases. The Australian is looking more and more like a rider it would be foolish to pass over. If Kawasaki don't take him, there are other teams who may just snap him up.
Suzuki is probably the only team which has its future settled for next season, and that calm should allow both Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins to concentrate on the job in hand, which is trying to win some more races. Hopkins will be determined to win a race before he leaves Suzuki at the end of the year, after spending such a long time on what used to be an uncompetitive bike. Hopper's podium, and Vermeulen's win and podiums have proved that Suzuki is a package to contend with, and though neither rider is especially strong at Brno, both will be utterly determined to go well there.
That leaves the final bike on the grid. Team KR will be hoping to alter that status, as the new chassis they had at Laguna Seca brought some significant improvements. If the team can find an extra half second on top of the half a second they found at Laguna, they could start to actually compete again, and mix it up with the rest of the field. But Kurtis Roberts' appearance on the entry lists suggests that his older brother Kenny is either yet to be convinced of the improvements by the new chassis, or else he has lost interest in competing in MotoGP. No announcement has been made yet, but Kenny Jr's motorhome was cleared out after the Sachsenring MotoGP round, which suggest that KRJR's career in MotoGP is at an end. The torch passes to Kurtis, and if the team can provide some improvement, Kurtis should be able to start to race again.
The Waiting Ends
And so the long summer hiatus draws to an end, and MotoGP gets back to business once again. After the relief of a few weeks rest and relaxation, the teams and riders should have their batteries recharged and be ready to enter the fray once again. They will need to be, for the final third of the season will be one of the most fiercely contested in recent memory. For MotoGP's many fans, the waiting will be amply rewarded.