After a four-week break, the second half of the MotoGP™ season begins at Brno in the Czech Republic this weekend, with just 10 points separating Championship leader Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) from fourth-placed Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha).
In between those two, Maverick Vinales (Movistar Yamaha) and Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) are also well in the mix, while Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) is close behind in fifth position in one of the closest Championships on record.
The undulating 5.4km Brno circuit, which has hard-braking areas and powerful acceleration zones, is one of the finest on the MotoGP™ calendar.
Rossi has won at the venue five times in the MotoGP™ class, while Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) are two-time winners.
Marquez and Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) have one win apiece, the latter a sensational victor in 2016 after his gamble to fit harder compound wet-weather tyres reaped dividends.
In the process, he became the first British rider to win a premier class race in the World Championship since Barry Sheene in 1981.
If the weather turns nasty again this year, Crutchlow will fancy his chances, as will Aussie Jack Miller (EG 0,0 Marc VDS Honda), but if it remains dry the victor will most likely come from the big five – Vinales, Marquez, Rossi, Dovizioso or lap-record holder Pedrosa.
Marquez, who won at Brno in 2013, is looking forward to getting back into it.
“I enjoyed having time to rest and go to the sea with some friends, but I also used this long summer break to train for the second part of the Championship,” he said.
“Such a close season is exciting but also very demanding, meaning that you have to always keep your concentration high and try to constantly be at the best level possible, adapting to every situation.
“So, it was good to go testing at Brno during the summer break because it allowed us to work on the bike and stay focused on the job.
“Brno is a nice track but one of the most demanding, with many changes of direction and uphill and downhill sections.
“We’ll try to make the best of the work we’ve done during the test and to prepare to fight for the podium on Sunday.”
Vinales is also happy to be returning to the saddle: “I’ve enjoyed the summer break a lot. I spent it with friends and family, but now I can’t wait to be back aboard my Yamaha YZR-M1 again.
“We have to be focused on the second half of the season as it is going to be crucial if we want to fight for the championship title.
“There is no room for mistakes.
“I’ve been training during these weeks to be ready for Brno and Austria, two tracks that I really like and where I think that I can be strong.”
With the championship so evenly poised, Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rookie revelations Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger (the 2016 Moto2™ winner at Brno) could really shape the final pecking order, especially if they produce bouts of front-running form like in the first half of the season.
Zarco is sixth in the standings ahead of Folger, Danilo Petrucci (Pramac Ducati), Lorenzo and Crutchlow.
Miller is 12th, and is just coming off a fourth-place finish in last weekend’s Suzuka 8 Hours World Endurance Road Race in Japan, where he rode alongside Moto2™ pilot Takaaki Nakagami.
An announcement on Miller’s 2018 MotoGP™ plans is also expected at any time.
Other riders to watch at Brno include Aleix Espargaro on the ever-improving Aprilia, Andrea Iannone (Ecstar Suzuki) and Alvaro Bautista (Pull&Bear Ducati), while Lorenzo will be looking to make the second half of the year much better than his indifferent first half on the factory Ducati.
Franco Morbidelli (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) is a long way ahead in the standings, and now the pressure is on the Italian to hold his nerve – which can be a bigger mountain to climb than being the man on the chase.
Swiss veteran Tom Lüthi (CarXpert Interwetten) is the man chasing Morbidelli, followed by Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo) and Alex Marquez (EG 0,0 Marc VDS).
Marquez crashed out at the last German round and will require a fitness test to race at Brno, where the 2014 Moto3™ world champion has a great record.
Rookie Francesco Bagnaia (Sky Racing Team VR46) is fifth overall, just ahead of veteran and Mugello winner Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Racing Team).
Meanwhile, Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia), who has previously taken pole position and a podium in the Czech Republic, will be another contender.
Aussie Remy Gardner (Tech 3 Racing) will again be in the hunt for points.
The first half of the season was all about Leopard Racing’s Joan Mir, who is 37 points clear on his Honda.
However, there are still nine races to go and could anything could happen, which is the attitude the likes of Romano Fenati (Marinelli Rivacold Snipers Honda), Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda), 2016 Brno winner John McPhee (British Talent Team Honda), Jorge Martin (Del Conca Gresini Moto3™ Honda) and Fabio Di Giannantonio (Del Conca Gresini Moto3™ Honda) will be taking.
Martin and Giannantonio finished second and third behind McPhee last year.
The three World Championship races at Brno will be held over the following distances and times:
- MotoGP™: 22 laps, 118.9km, starting 2.00pm local time (10.00pm AEST)
- Moto2™: 20 laps, 108.1km, starting 12.20pm local time (8.20pm AEST)
- Moto3™: 19 laps, 102.7km, starting 11.00am local time (7.00pm AEST)