For many years now, the Grand Prix of the Czech Republic at Brno has been a turning point, a fulcrum around which the fates and fortunes of all those involved in MotoGP pivot. Its singular position has much to do with the race's place in the MotoGP calendar, coming as it does at the end of the long summer break. Despite the fact that already, well over half the races have been run, Brno is regarded as the midpoint of the MotoGP year, and signals the start of the second half of the season.
This is largely because although the racing stops for the summer, in factory research and development departments, in team workshops, in tire development facilities, and in gyms all over the world, teams, manufacturers, and riders have all been hard at work, developing new parts for the bikes to make them turn faster and make more power, testing new rubber compounds and tire constructions to improve grip without sacrificing durability, and honing fitness and strength levels to cope with the immense physical and mental strains of racing in MotoGP.
Brno is also the place where the season which is to follow starts to take shape. Teams want to have their rider line-up clear for next year, their sponsors signed and their budgets sorted, just as riders want to be sure they have a contract for the next season, on a strong team with competitive machinery and a generous salary package if possible, or on a second-rate bike on a tiny team for no wage at all if necessary. Brno is the place where teams, manufacturers and riders start to build, towards the end of the season, and the foundations for next year.
Last year, Brno was even more pivotal than usual. Valentino Rossi arrived at the Czech track trailing championship leader Nicky Hayden by 51 points, and having given up on his title aspirations after a string of incredibly bad luck left him out of contention. Rossi vowed to go out and enjoy himself on the track and try and win as many races as possible. Nicky Hayden, on the other hand, was concentrating on not making mistakes and conserving his lead, despite constantly being given new parts to test by Honda. With Rossi finishing 2nd here, and Hayden only taking 9th, the tables turned, and The Doctor embarked on a thrilling title chase which eventually went down to the wire, decided at last by the final race of the season at Valencia.
This year, Valentino Rossi once again arrived at Brno behind in the championship standings, hoping to turn his season around and repeat last year's remarkable comeback, but with one crucial difference: This time, Rossi is determined not to let the title slip through his fingers.
But there are more differences between this year and last: Though Rossi's deficit going into the race was only 44 points, and not 51, the shortfall was not down to bad luck. This year, The Doctor, his Yamaha M1 and the Michelin tires he uses have been comprehensively outclassed by Casey Stoner on the Bridgestone-shod Ducati. No luck is involved at all, just some astute guesses about what it would take to build a race-winning 800 cc MotoGP bike, and a highly talented and eminently confident rider, capable of taking what has been given him and turning it into an unbeatable package. And where last year, Rossi rid himself of the distraction of a possible move to Formula 1 by staying in MotoGP, just a week ago, the Italian tax authorities announced they will be pursuing Rossi for tax evasion, making it even more difficult for the 5 times MotoGP champion to concentrate on racing. If Rossi wanted to force a change in fortunes, he had to start here.
The first day of practice was not encouraging for The Doctor. Despite the anomaly of the young Frenchman Sylvain Guintoli setting the fastest time on a qualifying tire in the afternoon's free practice session, the day belonged to Casey Stoner, the Australian championship leader picking up where he left off at Laguna Seca, consistently being the fastest rider on race tires by a comfortable margin. Saturday did not improve Rossi's outlook: Once again, Stoner was fastest in both sessions, by almost a country mile. Even a brake malfunction and an oil leak early during qualifying couldn't faze Stoner, the Australian sitting calmly in the pits waiting for the Ducati engineers to finish fixing his bike. Forty minutes later, Casey Stoner took his third pole position in a row, and looked set to stage a repeat of Laguna Seca.
Valentino Rossi would have to start his fight back from down in 6th spot on the grid, behind not just Casey Stoner, but also Dani Pedrosa, the man challenging Rossi for 2nd place in the title hunt, and his team mate Nicky Hayden, whose fortunes and demeanor have revived since he gave up his championship defense as a hopeless task, saddled as he has been with a bike that was designed for someone much smaller, and without sufficient horsepower. As the bikes rolled up to the line, and red starting lights lit up, Stoner's rivals knew they had their work cut out.
The Chase Is On
The lights dimmed, engines roared, and as the bikes powered off the line, Rossi's job got a lot harder. Casey Stoner had once again got his jet-propelled start, firing into the long right-hand Turn 1 ahead of the chasing pack. Behind Stoner, Dani Pedrosa edged ahead of John Hopkins, the Spanish Repsol Honda man taking full advantage of his front row start. With Hopkins charging through from the second row, Nicky Hayden lost a place, while behind Hayden, Loris Capirossi followed his Marlboro Ducati team mate's lead and picked up a couple of places, entering Turn 1 in 5th ahead of Randy de Puniet and Valentino Rossi.
Dani Pedrosa would not enjoy his 2nd place for long: As the field braked hard before flicking left for the first of the many left-right S bends which are such a feature of the Brno circuit, John Hopkins swung inside and deftly stuffed his Rizla Suzuki up the inside of the Spaniard, taking over Pedrosa's leading spot in the hunt for Stoner. Seeing Hopkins take one Repsol Honda, Loris Capirossi tried his hand at the other. Slipping up the inside of the Kentucky Kid, Capirex drew level, but as they flicked right for the second part of the S bend, Hayden held station, forcing Capirossi outside, and back into 5th from whence he came.
Once Hopkins was past Pedrosa, he was quickly on Stoner's tail, opening up a gap back to Pedrosa, traffic starting to accumulate traffic behind the Spaniard. Nicky Hayden sat almost impaled on the razor-sharp tail of his team mate's RC212V, Loris Capirossi peering over Hayden's shoulder for a glimpse of the action.
Having lost a place at the start, Valentino Rossi moved to get it back. Biding his time behind the Kawasaki of Randy de Puniet, he lined the Frenchman up coming out of Turn 8, the first part of the double left-hander in the stadium section. Getting more drive out of 8, Rossi drew level on the short straight, before easily outbraking the Kawasaki into Turn 9, and turning his attention to the riders ahead. And one specific rider in particular.
As they crossed the finish line for the first time, Casey Stoner led, as he has so often this year. A fraction behind was John Hopkins, with another tiny gap back to Dani Pedrosa, who was hard at work trying to shake off the unwelcome attention of Hayden and Capirossi. His resistance was not long-lived, as Nicky Hayden made a wily move into Turn 4, choosing the outside line of this very wide track, before deftly sliding up the inside of Pedrosa as the track flicked back right for Turn 5. It was a classic Brno move, using the width of the track and the S bend combinations to force your opponent's hand in one turn, just to stick it to him on the next.
Once past, Hayden dropped Pedrosa straight away, leaving the Spanish prodigy to fend off the unwelcome attentions of Loris Capirossi. Pedrosa blocked, holding the Italian off all the way up the steep hill back to the finish line, parried another attempt into Turn 1, but as they braked hard for Turn 4, Capirex whipped out of Pedrosa's slipstream and hammered on the brakes, taking the inside line from the Spaniard, and with it, 4th place.
As they crossed the line for the start of the lap 4, the field was starting to splinter. Casey Stoner led from John Hopkins, but Stoner's advantage was anything but decisive. What's more, that lead had been gained the easy way, while Hopkins was being held up by Pedrosa on the first lap. Since passing Pedrosa, Hopper had slowly been gaining on Stoner, a few hundredths of a second at a time. During the practice sessions, Hopkins had been the only man who could stick with Stoner's pace, so the task ahead of the Anglo-American was to run the fast, consistent times he'd shown on Friday and Saturday to get close enough to take his shot at Stoner. But while Hopkins is outstanding at running fast, smooth laps, Casey Stoner is perfect. Seeing Hopkins close a few hundredths on lap 4, on lap 5, Stoner responded, dropping his lap time while Hopper lost a little, pulling an extra half a second from Hopkins, increasing the gap to over a second.
But Hopper wasn't ready to surrender just yet. Once again, Hopkins started to reel Stoner in a few hundredths at a time. With 15 laps of the race left, a tenth here and a few hundredths there would be all Hopper would need to get Stoner in range, allowing the Suzuki rider to pounce when he was ready. For three laps, Hopkins closed, but then, Stoner struck once again, putting in another blistering lap, nearly 3/10ths faster than his previous lap, and enough to break Hopkins resistance. Now the gap was 1.5 seconds, and Hopkins strategy of a few hundredths at a time would no longer suffice.
While Stoner's and Hopkins' lap times were so close that you couldn't fit a timing sheet between them, the difference with the rest of the field was telling. Nicky Hayden was running a strong but lonely race in 3rd, but was still surrendering nearly half a second a lap to the front two. But while Hayden was slower than Stoner and Hopkins, he was fast enough to stay ahead of the bunch behind him.
That bunch were far from settled. Stung into action by Capirossi's pass, Dani Pedrosa latched onto the tail of the Ducati and pressed to get the position he'd given up back. For nearly two laps, he peeked, and poked, and tried to find a gap he could squeeze his tiny frame through. Eventually, on lap 5, Pedrosa found a way: Gritting his teeth and hanging on to the tight line through Turn 6, he eased ahead of Capirex on the short straight between the second part of the double right hander, holding his line through 7 to convincingly snatch back 4th position from the Italian.
Capirossi's forward progress had stalled. Once Pedrosa had passed him, he now had Valentino Rossi to contend with. By lap 7, Rossi was already 8 seconds down on Stoner and pulling points back was looking beyond his reach. The Doctor's only option now was damage limitation, trying to keep the number of points conceded to a minimum. But to do that meant passing as many people within his reach as possible, starting with Loris Capirossi. Rossi's first chance came immediately after Capirex was passed by Pedrosa, the Spaniard's pass allowing Rossi to get on the pair's tail. He looked up the inside at Turn 9, then Turn 10, but couldn't get close enough to force Capirossi aside. Two turns later, with Rossi welded to his tailpipe, Capirossi's used the raw power of the Ducati to gain some breathing space, motoring up the hill back to the finish line, with Rossi's Yamaha painfully short of the grunt needed to follow Capirex.
The pattern repeated itself over the next few laps, with Rossi all over the back of Capirossi through the turns, only to lose out up the hill, the terrain playing into the hands of the Ducati. With Rossi stuck behind Capirossi, holding each other up in vying for 5th, Randy de Puniet and Chris Vermeulen were able to join the party, 5th to 8th places concertinaing like cars on a slack tow rope. Capirossi, seemingly confused by the sudden cacophony of engine noise behind him, looked back to check who was behind him, and in doing so, let Rossi past.
Rossi had clawed back more precious points, but in taking such a long time getting past Capirossi, he'd let Pedrosa get away. Now over 2.5 seconds down on 4th place, The Doctor had a mountain to climb.
A Day At The Office
The mountain to the win was already impossible to scale. Valentino Rossi was over 9 seconds down on Casey Stoner, and over a second a lap slower. From lap 9 onwards, Casey Stoner was the fastest man on the track, his lead building lap after lap to eventually take victory by nearly 8 seconds, in almost a carbon copy of his win at Laguna Seca. Once again, Stoner had dominated from the moment his Ducati rolled out of the transporter in the Czech Republic, taking the pole, fastest lap and the win, while barely breaking a sweat. Casey Stoner now has 7 wins from 12 races, and is becoming something of an unstoppable force. With another intimidating performance at Brno, Casey Stoner took another big step towards the 2007 MotoGP world title on Sunday.
Behind Stoner, John Hopkins rode home to his second ever podium and his best ever finish, a feat which he celebrated with one of the finest stand up wheelies ever to grace a MotoGP race. Any speculation that Hopper would be distracted by his move to Kawasaki next year was comprehensively banished. On the contrary, with his future settled, Hopper seems more determined than ever to bag that elusive first win in MotoGP. It is Hopkins' misfortune to have encountered an apparently indomitable Casey Stoner just as the Suzuki has come good for the American.
Joining Stoner and Hopkins on the podium was Nicky Hayden. The reigning world champion is back on the box once again, for the third time in four races. Hayden and his team have found some solutions to the problems the Kentucky Kid had with the RC212V at the start of the season, and the stream of parts emerging from HRC in Japan are helping. Not by a significant amount, and certainly not enough to get Hayden in contention for the win, but the world champion can run with the front of the field again, in a position more fitting for the #1 plate on his bike.
While the podium was settled early, the rest of the places were disputed almost to the line. Fourth place looked safest, Dani Pedrosa keeping hold of 4th despite a charging pack behind him. First Valentino Rossi tried, but failed, to close down the Spanish Repsol Honda rider, then Chris Vermeulen took over the baton. Vermeulen's attempt was more successful, lapping consistently faster than Pedrosa, but by the time Vermeulen started his charge, he was too far behind to catch the Spaniard, and Pedrosa rode home to take a comfortable 4th spot, and valuable points in his chase for 2nd place in the championship. Despite that, Pedrosa's face as he entered the pits was a picture of frustration, and the signing of Pedrosa's new contract which HRC keep saying is imminent looks further away than ever.
With the top 4 places apportioned, the struggle for 5th grew more intense. With Rossi past the Ducati of Capirossi, The Doctor started to stretch out a gap over Capirex, taking advantage of the tooth-and-nail battle which raged behind him. Having given away 5th, Capirossi dug in his heels, determined not to concede any more places. Seeing de Puniet slip past him following in Rossi's wake at Turn 15, Capirossi unleashed the Beast From Bologna down the straight, and was back ahead of the Kawasaki as they braked for Turn 1. Once forewarned, the Italian made himself wider than ever, fending off everything the Frenchman could throw at him.
Meanwhile, de Puniet had to turn his attention from the red bike ahead of him to the blue bike behind, as he struggled to hold off the hard-charging Chris Vermeulen. The Australian Suzuki man was making his customary surge forward, as he settled into a fast rhythm after another indifferent start. Once latched on de Puniet's tail, it was merely a matter of time before Vermeulen was past. In the event, it took Vermeulen just under two laps, and once past de Puniet, his next target was Capirossi. Another two laps later, and Vermeulen had dispatched the Ducati as well, stuffing his Suzuki up the inside of Capirex into Turn 12 as they began the long drag up the hill.
Next up was Rossi, but The Doctor would surely present a more difficult target. Rossi had snatched a half-second gap while Capirossi had been holding up the trio behind, and created some breathing space between himself and the bunch. Some, but not enough, as Vermeulen was running so hard that he was with Rossi in a heartbeat. Once again, it was merely a case of delaying the inevitable, the delay lasting for two laps, before Chris Vermeulen shoved his nose into Turn 10 ahead of the Yamaha to take 5th, Valentino Rossi seeing another precious point leech away to Casey Stoner in the title chase.
But The Doctor had more pain to come. His tires had surrendered most of their grip, and try as he might to hold of a resurgent Loris Capirossi, once again, it was just a matter of time. Two more laps of bitter struggle, and Capirossi unleashed the Beast once again, leaving Rossi standing over start and finish, and down in 7th. With 5th surrendered to Chris Vermeulen, and Loris Capirossi with a firm grip on 6th, it was all Valentino Rossi could do to hang on to 7th place ahead of Randy de Puniet, who pushed him all the way. It had been another grim day at the office for Rossi, and he'd given away another 16 points in the championship to the invincible Casey Stoner, an immeasurably valuable sum.
While the fight for 5th had been gripping, the fight for 9th had been better yet. Alex Barros, Carlos Checa, Toni Elias, Anthony West and Sylvain Guintoli had slugged it out for most of the race. Guintoli had had the upper hand early on, the Frenchman putting on yet another impressive performance on allegedly inferior rubber, but his Dunlops only started losing grip with some 7 laps to go. Alex Barros finally got the best of the fight, putting on a strong charge through the field from 13th on the grid to finally take 9th place, and building a comfortable gap once past Guintoli.
Carlos Checa finished 10th on the LCR Honda, having to scrap hard for every position, holding off Toni Elias on the Gresini Honda. Elias' ride was heroic, despite finishing a lowly 11th, as the young Spaniard is still recovering from a very nasty spiral fracture of the femur. He had described his fitness as 60%, so if Toni Elias at 60% can deliver 11th place, Elias at 100% should be a formidable prospect indeed.
Behind Elias, Anthony West finished in 12th, a solid ride from the Kawasaki rider, who had struggled to get to grips with the Brno track all weekend, ahead of Sylvain Guintoli, the Frenchman's Dunlop tires failing him in the end. Guintoli looked like being out of a job at the weekend, with Colin Edwards, who had crashed out on the second lap, the favorite to take the remaining seat at Tech 3 Yamaha, the seat currently occupied by the French rookie. But Guintoli has surprised a lot of people this year, and his performance at Brno may have been enough for him to secure a ride with the Pramac d'Antin Ducati squad for 2008.
Behind Guintoli, there loomed a literal and figurative gap back to Shinya Nakano, the Japanese rider unable to get much benefit from the new parts he'd finally received for his Konica Minolta Honda. Nakano's move to Honda has been nothing short of disastrous, and murmurings can already be heard that he may return to his roots at Kawasaki for 2008.
Calling Mr Dante
Taking the final championship point in 15th was Kurtis Roberts on the KR212V. Team KR's new chassis has given them a half a second a lap improvement, but the team is at the very bottom of the food chain for Honda engine parts. Roberts is using the same underpowered engine his brother started the season with, and can only hope that they will soon start receiving the engine upgrades Nakano got this weekend at Brno, to allow the team to make another step forward. While they wait, they continue to languish in the 8th layer of MotoGP hell.
Between Team KR and Makoto Tamada, the sole occupant of the 9th and deepest level of MotoGP's inferno, Ivan Silva finished a workmanlike 16th on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati, not putting his contractually binding position as first reserve rider for the team to any particular effect. But he still finished ahead of Tamada on the other Tech 3 Yamaha, the lost soul in the frozen wastes of MotoGP, and the one rider who can be absolutely sure that this will be his last season in the series.
No Room For Doubt
Brno, as ever, proved to be a turning point in the season. To Valentino Rossi's bitter disappointment, it was not the turning point The Doctor ordered, but the point at which Stoner's position in the championship changed from strong into unassailable. Casey Stoner now has a 60 point lead in the title race, with 6 races left to go. What's more, Stoner is in the midst of a perfect season, the young Australian withstanding everything that Rossi throws at him, and never putting a foot wrong. Every race on the calendar makes clearer that though the Ducati is good, and the Bridgestone tires are excellent, the thing that's making Casey Stoner's season so flawless is Casey Stoner's exceptional talent.
The question is no longer whether Stoner will be the next MotoGP world champion, but rather when. Stoner's perfect year could become even more of a fairy tale, with the young Australian likely to wrap up his title at his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island in mid October. Looking round the paddock at the competition, the only thing capable of stopping Stoner is bad luck, and a sea change in his fortunes. Going by the rest of this season, Fate seems otherwise inclined.