After getting schooled by the Dueling Andreas of the factory Ducati team in Austria, the fast movers at Movistar Yamaha and Repsol Honda look to get even this week in The Czech Republic. These ambitions appear justified, in that the Automotodrom Brno has a healthy number of what are called “turns,” whereas the Red Bull Ring is more of a long straight with a couple of kinks in it. It will take a heroic effort from the Ducs to convince the racing world that Sunday’s historic result wasn’t an outlier.
Despite this rather sour outlook, the stock of the Ducati program jumped this past weekend. Series leader Marc Marquez this week shared his opinion with the media that the Andreas Dovizioso and Iannone will be a force to be dealt with for the rest of 2016 and beyond. Ducati will be fronting Jorge Lorenzo in 2017 and 2018, which will raise the team’s prospects yet another notch. Ducati should also be competitive at three of the fast circuits left on the 2016 calendar – Brno, Silverstone and Sepang. Only their execrable start to the season appears to stand between them and Alien status.
Recent History at Brno
In 2013 rookie Marc Marquez, suddenly the blessed heir apparent, won at Brno for a fourth straight victory, edging teammate Dani Pedrosa by 3/10ths with Lorenzo another two seconds back. Marquez ended the day leading Pedrosa by 26 points and Lorenzo by 44 with seven rounds left.
An anxious Lorenzo got off early from the five hole, hoping to blitz the field, but the Hondas gradually reeled him in, Marquez going through on Lap 16 and Pedrosa three laps later. Valentino Rossi, gradually rounding into form on the Yamaha after two years in red, pipped pretender Alvaro Bautista at the flag for 13 points but still trailed Lorenzo by 26. It was at this point of the season that many people began getting comfortable with the idea, previously unthinkable, that rookie Marquez would take the title that year.
Brno was the site where Marquez’ amazing 2014 win streak came to a curious halt at 10 by way of a fourth place finish that was utterly mystifying. #93 led most of the practice sessions and qualified on pole. Again. Having watched the race pretty carefully, it appeared to me that he just wasn’t that into it, that he let himself be beaten rather than trying to extend a streak that tested belief. It was Pedrosa’s first win in 10 months, his last having come at Sepang in 2013, edging Lorenzo by a few tenths and Rossi by five seconds. Those were the days where Marquez routinely rode out of control, and we saw none of that at Brno.
The “anyone but Marquez” mentality that had gradually descended upon the grid was in full force that day. It was Andrea Iannone on the Pramac Ducati who tangled with Marquez twice early, with Rossi assigned to keep the rookie at bay later in the race. Not that it mattered, as the 2014 championship had been decided well before then. Marquez would head to Silverstone leading Pedrosa by 77 points and Lorenzo by 90, what we in Indiana refer to as “a country mile.” I suppose if you ask Aliens whether they ride for titles or records they will usually choose titles; records can be broken, taken away. Titles, not so much.
The 2015 bwin Grand Prix České republiky gave the crowd of 138,000 a rather disappointing high-speed parade; six of the top 8 starters crossed the line in the same position they started. One of these was polesitter Lorenzo, who flogged his Yamaha YZR-M1 to the fastest lap ever recorded at Brno on two wheels in qualifying on Saturday. Leading, as if on rails, from wire to wire, Lorenzo pulled into a tie with teammate Valentino Rossi for the 2015 world championship and, holding the tiebreaker, pushed Rossi out of the lead for the first time that year. Marquez and Rossi joined Lorenzo on the podium that day.
With Marquez wrestling his 2015 RC213V to a draw most of the season, the Rossi/Lorenzo rivalry would keep growing until the first round of the Pacific flyaway in Sepang, when Marquez and Rossi tangled for the second time, the first having come at Assen. The wheels proceeded to come off the championship chase, so to speak, in a firestorm of hard feelings and bad sportsmanship, culminating in an ugly season finale in Valencia in which Rossi was forced to endure a last row start after some highly unbecoming behavior in Japan.
Paraphrasing the words of ex-Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, most of the riders in the premier class grid can be accused of being overly optimistic about their prospects on a given weekend. Nicky Hayden, now competing in World Superbike, was perhaps the most prominent example of this thinking. Having won his only world championship during the down year of 2006, with but three premier class wins to his name during a 13-year career, The Kentucky Kid was generally convincing when describing his chances at any race, other than those few in which he was injured, as being good. His usual take – “Well, we’ll wind it up, try to stay with the front group, look for some opportunities to steal a spot or two, and see what happens. The reason they run these danged things is on account of you never know who might win.” All this, during his last five seasons, generally on his way to 12th place and four points.
Now, suddenly, Dani Pedrosa is sounding an awful lot like Hayden. His last three outings have produced a total of 23 points. In the midst of what has arguably been his least productive premier class season ever, the following words came out of his cake hole yesterday: “It’s very wide, with some very fast corners, and you must be able to hit the best lines to set good lap times, as it doesn’t forgive the smallest mistake.” He continued, “I just hope that the weather is stable so we can use all the practice time and try to build up some more confidence and speed.”
Finally, he adds: “In this second part of the season, we should find some more suitable tracks for us. Of course Brno has some long straights that can be demanding for us, but it’s a track that I’ve liked since I started racing, and I always have a good feeling there.” The headline which accompanied this soliloquy read “Pedrosa upbeat on Brno prospects.” Jeesh.
Your Weekend Forecast
Weather conditions in the greater Brno area are expected to deteriorate as Sunday approaches. The best chance of rain appears to be on Sunday, with a weather system moving in on Saturday night. I’m starting to sound like Al Roker. Practice sessions should be dry, but Sunday could give us another hilarious flag-to-flag event. Both Moto3 and Moto2 could have a red flag in their future on Sunday morning.
As to the podium, I am leaning toward Marquez, Lorenzo and Rossi. #93 is a fast healer and will want to get back in the mix after the problems he experienced in Austria. Lorenzo and Rossi count Brno among their favorite tracks, assuming the weather cooperates. I would like to see a Ducati or two on the podium, but fear Iannone and Dovizioso may still be nursing hangovers from last time out, in addition to a little irrational exuberance. Those two will be praying for rain.
We’ll have results and analysis right here later on Sunday.