The man to beat. Stoner returned to commanding form at Laguna Seca, with the Aussie looking for title number two.
MotoGP’s brief summer vacation ends this weekend at Brno. As the 2011 championship enters Round 11, there’s plenty of interesting plot lines yet to resolve during the second half: Radiation fears, changes to tire rules, development of 2012 machinery… And action on the track seems to be heating up as well. Here’s what to watch for in the Czech Republic.
Repsol Honda’s Casey Stoner remains in command of the championship, with defending champ Jorge Lorenzo 20 points down on his Australian rival. Stoner rolls into Brno after a Laguna Seca victory that was impressive in its clinical efficiency – the 2007 champ patiently stalking Lorenzo before making his winning gambit. A bold pass through the high-speed, blind and 160-mph Turn 1 might not have been too dramatic on TV, but it got Lorenzo’s attention and was considered hair-ball by anyone who has ever raced at Laguna Seca. The points reflect consistent mastery, making the Aussie the man to beat at Brno.
Yet Stoner’s supremacy has not gone unchallenged, as the Factory Yamaha duo of Lorenzo and Ben Spies finished ahead of the Honda ace in all three races prior to Laguna. Lorenzo took the victory at Brno in 2010, and will be keen to pare his points deficit to at least 15 come Sunday. The Mallorcan’s performance at the Czech circuit will be extended by the official post-race test, where he will get to sample Yamaha’s 1000cc 2012 motorcycle alongside Honda’s 2012 prototype.
Lorenzo found his mojo at Mugello, but does he have enought to make up the 20-point advantage of Stoner.
Dani Pedrosa is 83 points behind his title-leading Repsol Honda teammate, but has a victory and another third-place podium to his credit in the three races since returning from a broken collarbone. Fourth in the championship, Pedrosa’s title hopes are improbable, though a lot could change in the remaining eight races. This is doubly true considering the two front-runners’ adamant positions against the forthcoming Japanese Grand Prix (Round 15).
The best-placed challenger to the Stoner/Lorenzo duo, however, is Andrea Dovizoso. Third in the points (50 behind Stoner), the Italian hasn’t finished less than sixth this season, with four podiums to his credit. While consistent, the odd man out in the Repsol trinity remains winless. He also will not be testing the 1000cc Honda prototype during the post-race test, with HRC having passed over Dovizioso at an earlier 1000cc testing opportunity (Stoner was offered two days rather than have Dovizioso fill in for an injured Pedrosa). Currently the fastest Italian in Grand Prix, the 25 year-old must capitalize on his remaining Repsol rides to curry favor for a top ride in 2012.
Valentino Rossi languishes in fifth in the championship. Ducati’s mishmash of changes to yield a competitive bike has yet to manifest a GP win. Continuing to flog the Desmosedici toward top-five results, with the odd podium (depending on what carnage takes place ahead of him…), Rossi seems resigned to his first-ever winless season in Grand Prix. That bitter pill is made all the more unappetizing by the Ducati’s race pace showing no remarkable gains on the Honda and Yamaha elite. The benchmark differences between the 2012 machinery will not be immediately evident, however, as Ducati has chosen to work on the 800 and not the 1000 during the post-race test.
Valentino Rossi faces the reality of his first-ever winless season in MotoGP, unless Ducati’s fortunes turn.
Perhaps the most telling sign of Rossi’s struggles with Ducati is that teammate Nicky Hayden is a mere four points behind The Doctor. The record-screeching notion of Rossi placing behind his teammate in the championship has only happened once, when Lorenzo took the title in 2010.
Yamaha’s Ben Spies is another American nipping at Rossi’s heels. Seventh overall, the Texan seems to have put his early season bad luck behind him and has been a consistent top-five rider since his first career GP win at Assen. Malfunctioning launch control got the blame for his terrible start at Laguna, spoiling a possible podium at Spies’ home GP. The former AMA and World Superbike champ is the only rider in seemingly eons to break the Stoner/Pedrosa/Lorenzo/Rossi stranglehold on GP wins. Becoming a podium regular in the second half would be a major development for the American.
Colin Edwards continues grind away in MotoGP, picking up points aboard the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. Eighth overall, Edwards has fared much better of late than his teammate, rookie Cal Crutchlow (15th overall). While both riders have faced collarbone injuries this year, Crutchlow has not been the same since his return. Starting 2011 a consistent top-10 rider, the British rider’s results have flagged as he looks for a second-half resurgence.
The Gresini Honda duo of Hiroshi Aoyama and Marco Simoncelli bookend the top 10 standings. Aoyama has been consistent but not spectacular, with Simoncelli the polar opposite. The Italian’s prowess in practice and qualifying has netted prominent appearances at the front of the MotoGP grid, but too many crashes, four DNFs and a whole mess of controversy from his reckless reputation.
The familiar face of John Hopkins returns at Brno. A busy man these days, Hopper is in the midst of three consecutive weeks of racing in three separate series (World Superbike, British Superbike, MotoGP). The current Samsung Crescent Suzuki rider followed up a solid 5-7 result in WSB at Silverstone with a double-podium day at Brands Hatch in his regular British Superbike duties – where he secured his place in the title-deciding BSB Showdown. This weekend Hopkins concludes his three-weekend streak with a return to former employer Rizla Suzuki. The American doubles the Suzuki GP effort at Brno, as he runs alongside the team’s regular solo competitor, Alvaro Bautista. The Brno performance marks Hopkins’ second run with Rizla this season, replacing the injured Bautista at Jerez to the tune of a 10th-place finish.
(Hopkins’ frantic wild card schedule is not unprecedented feat, as Yukio Kagayama performed an even more hectic schedule in 2003. The Japanese rider, also racing for the Crescent Suzuki BSB squad replicated the WSB/BSB/MotoGP trifecta. In fact, Kagayama exceeded it with nine consecutive weeks of racing, his regular BSB duties supplemented by two WSB wild cards, two MotoGP events, and the Suzuki 8 Hour. Kagayama’s MotoGP teammate, coincidentally enough, none other than John Hopkins.)
Hopper’s back. John Hopkins concludes consecutive weekends in World Superbike, British Superbike and now Grand Prix with a MotoGP wild card ride at Brno.
The Moto2 crew got an even longer summer break than their seniors, as the GP support classes did not compete at Laguna Seca. Viessmann Kiefer Racing’s Stefan Bradl enjoys a handy 47-point advantage over CatalunyaCaixa Repsol’s Marc Marquez. The Spaniard gained five points with a slim victory over Bradl during the last Moto2 race, over a month ago in Mugello.
After Bradl and Marquez the points tighten up in the well-stocked Moto2 field, but the third-placed Simone Corsi (Ioda Racing) is a whopping 83 points behind the leader. Motobi-chassis rider Alex de Angelis, and Tech 3’s Bradley Smith are a respective fourth and fifth overall. Suter riders Thomas Luthi, Andrea Iannone and Julian Simon will all be keen on improving their positions as podium candidates. The same can be said of Moriwaki’s Yuki Takahashi – already a double podium finisher in 2011.