MotoGP: 2012 Brno
In 1956 director Don Siegel and writer Daniel Mainwaring premiered their sci-fi thriller "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". Hoaky by today's standards, the movie became a classic that spawned an entire genre of fiction. Four decades later the made for television series "invasion" introduced audiences to a modern variation of the theme. In this made for prime time mini-series, the snatched persons were not always cognizant of the fact that they had been replaced, and indeed the physical switch was not always beneficial. The result was a hodge-podge community where the snatched and snatched-in-waiting grated against each other with unpredictable results for everyone and where the next bomb to drop was sometimes not the one that anyone was waiting for. When Ben Spies set the fastest time in warm up at Indianapolis not too many people took notice. When he launched off the line to pass pole sitter Dani Pedrosa on the outside through turn one and hold the inside line for a dramatic block pass to turn two for the lead, that got some attention. When he held off Pedrosa for several laps, outbreaking him into corners after being passed upright everyone wondered what had happened to Ben Spies and who was riding beneath the helmet. For a few minutes GP fans witnessed a man transformed. Spies would reveal to the US commentary team that the difference lay in his preferred spring rates, which he had been able to use at Indy but which were not available previously. Yet any elation that Spies and his fans felt was short lived. After a rousing battle Pedrosa slipped past and Spies fell to almost a second back instantly. Then, as championship leader Jorge Lorenzo loomed ominously in the background, the real Ben Spies stood up proudly as his engine grenaded in a plume of smoke. This DNF marked the second in a row due to catastrophic mechanical failure, a feat unmatched in recent history for a factory bike. More importantly, as the onboard camera shots of riders entering corners blind in a haze of smoke illustrates plainly, these failures are coming closer to collecting more than just Spies in their area of effect. Soon the question may not be how much Spies is willing to risk, but also how much the rest of the field is willing to risk riding next to him. If the "real" 2012 Spies made himself known with a most unlikely - and yet simultaneously expected and common (for him) - race terminating failure, surely the "real" factory Team Yamaha remains absent with a mere farce of their true selves represented in the Texan's garage. That there is still a world class effort buried beneath the disaster that this season has become is beyond doubt - one need only look across at Lorenzo's result for proof of that. Both rider and machine have been rock solid for 2012, maximizing points at every opportunity even when an outright win is not an option as they did at Indianapolis. This alone makes the unpredictability - or predictability of failure for the other side of the coin - of Ben's machine all the more perplexing. On the one hand it would be easy to lay the fault with his personal crew, and they do indeed bear some part of the blame. However it would be remiss to forget that Ben's crew got him to the rookie of the year with podiums aboard a 2 year old (optimistically) customer M1. For sure the team made mistakes in 2011, however is it possible for a high profile factory team to actually get worse as the years go on? And when the team seems to be working just right in providing setup and support, as it did at Indy and to a lesser extent Laguna, the bike itself comes apart. Whatever the cause, the world will be watching with baited breath to see what happens at Brno. Should one be placed under duress to define Valentino Rossi's current form in a singular phrase then chances are that the result could be paraphrased as, "... [A] shadow of his former self." There are other adjectives that have been thrown around to describe Rossi's posture and performance for the past 18 months - awkward, lackluster and disappointing to name just a few. With the announcement of his impending move to Yamaha, and Rossi's own admittance that he is unwilling to push the Ducati beyond its seeming performance envelope in search of results, it would be too easy to write off his continual off podium finishes as the sign of an ex-champion merely making up the numbers to collect a paycheck. However behind the Wobbly-Weeble That Sometimes Falls Down who pilots the GP12 may lurk a crafty veteran merely waiting to unleash a pent up rage. Now that the deal with Yamaha, which undoubtedly has been in the works for much longer than the recent rumor and announcement, has been confirmed and is in the open a new possibility has come to light. In 2010 Rossi faced a new, hard reality that he had avoided for more than a decade of racing - his age and the current level of development of prototype racing makes serious injury both a greater possibility and risk for any hope that he has of matching or beating the remaining records. Faced with 1) this truth, 2) the possibility of a return to Yamaha and 3) Ducati's inability (despite obvious willingness) to actually deliver planned improvements on a reasonable or competitive schedule then the most prudent course of action would be to push the GP12 to the very razor's edge of its performance without going over. There can be no doubt that pushing further would be to invite serious injury. Casey Stoner - Ducati's most decorated rider - consistently did and when he wasn't exhausting himself to the point of exclusion from racing he was crashing in sometimes spectacular fashion. Rossi had already experienced a near career ending accident in 2010; with only a few short years (many journalists quote 2 to 3 as a reasonable number) left in Gran Prix racing, Rossi simply cannot afford to risk serious injury in the hopes of a podium or occassional win. So for the next 3 months the world will wait to see which Rossi throws a leg over his baby in the first post-season test. Until then, we expect we know which one will show up at Brno. Unless, of course, a bit of Rossi rain graces the track and provides the front end feel that he craves. Further afield audiences were stunned when, for the first time, a CRT (and wildcard entry no less) took the fight to a full on prototype during a race. Native Californian Steve Rapp races in the AMA Superbike class aboard his Attack Performance Kawasaki ZX-10R, and was therefore a natural choice when the team entered a wildcard CRT machine for the Indianapolis GP round. Rap was able to make the qualifying cutoff, a first for a wildcard CRT entry, however less was expected of him than of the CRT regulars who - despite increasing pace - still generally struggle to match the pace of even the satellite prototypes. Viewers tuning in late would therefore have been stunned to see a rider, suspiciously outfitted in Rapp's leathers, battling with championship leader Jorge Lorenzo. Rapp put in a gutsy performance, sliding his tires through the corners and making himself as wide as possible as he fended off the factory M1 of the one-time MotoGP champion. Yet it was all in vain as, after almost a lap gone, Lorenzo stuffed his bike up the inside of Rapp's bike and rocketed away. Ironically Rapp had not been battling with Lorenzo at all as the champion elect was in the process of lapping the American rider in pursuit of first place Dani Pedrosa. Rapp's antics cost Lorenzo an easy 2 seconds in the gap to the lead and guaranteed that, barring a serious mishap from Pedrosa, Lorenzo would take second place. Lorenzo showed his clear frustration with an extended leg after he had gotten past Rapp, who then disappeared from all coverage of the race. Whether it was truly the man beneath the mask, or The Stig had slipped into his leathers, neither Rapp nor Kawasaki will say. Fortunately for the front runners, the team will not be making the grid at Brno and such antics are very unlikely this weekend.