Hello and welcome to the latest installment of StrawBales.
As I sit here contemplating the run in to the end of the season I must remain positive in my thoughts, it would be so easy to be drawn in to the negative aspects and disappointments of the season drawing to a close with WSB done and BSB almost done. There is still so much left undecided, even if some Championships are seemingly somewhat of a foregone conclusion, ie Moto's 2 & 3, but with MotoGP retaining some semblance of a fight to the finish there is still all to play for for Messrs Lorenzo and Pedrosa and the British Superbikes boys are again taking it to the wire.
This weekend in Japan we see the return of the current World Champion Casey Stoner to the fray and in his own words is feeling 'good and fresh' from his injury recuperation but freely admits that FP1 will be crucial in finding out how his ankle truly fairs and just how much weight transfer he can apply. It's good to have the Aussie back as I know the championship fight has missed him, and fans have certainly missed his style, he would certainly have had a big bearing on the current points standings.
As expected, and in the light of the Eugene Laverty/Max Biaggi farce in World Superbikes at Magny Cours, the spectre of 'team orders' was raised with the straight-talking Aussie and his reply said it all... 'HRC haven't asked me to help Dani and I don't think they will, I've said in the past I think championships should be won outright...' says it all really, and who in their right mind would argue..?
Dani goes well at Motegi and is the only rider to win there in all 3 classes, which is a feat in itself, and with it being Hondas home circuit you can be sure they'll be pulling out the stops to ensure there's a repeat of Dani's runaway win last season, with Casey second in an ideal world, no offence intended to Lorenzo fans anywhere but purely to keep the season alive!
There's also a big anniversary on race day, it will be 11 years exactly that Valentino Rossi clinched his first premier class crown on his Nastro Azzzuro Honda NSR500 down at Phillip Island in what was the closest race finish in years with the top nine covered by three seconds...oh to have that kind of racing today!
Incidentally three of those in that top nine finish were Japanese riders, a contingent that is largely absent from the three Grand Prix classes today and the series is somewhat the poorer for it. Mad samurai warriors like the Aoki's, Harada, Ui, Tsujimura, 'cheese n' Tamada, Haga, Aoyama et al were a sight to behold in full flight and hopefully it won't be too long before we see a new batch of fast Japanese riders like Takaaki Nakagami in Moto2 and female rider Yui Watanbe in the Red Bull Rookies Cup series becoming regular championship contenders..
I have to say it's great to see Danny Kent get his opportunity in Moto2 with Tech3 for 2013, he was beginning to suffer from the same handicap as fellow county-man Scott Redding with his height becoming a bit of hindrance against the continental pocket rockets, so this opportunity will be a breath of fresh air for the Gloucestershire youngster (what do they put in the water down there?!). Also if you look at how Bradley Smith has performed on a bike with almost no development (regardless of your thoughts on how talented he is/isnt) and what is essentially a nail of a bike compared to the Kalex and Suter chassis of the Moto2 world, then the future looks bright for the Danny. Could we see him make the MotoGP step in two years? I wouldn't bet against it...
World Superbikes rounded off the season at Magny Cours last weekend in typically dramatic fashion. Aprilia's Max Biaggi held a healthy 30+ point advantage over Tom Sykes going in to the weekend but inclement weather and an uncharacteristic slip in race one from the Roman and a strong third place for Sykes meant it was all to play for in race two. Sykes did all he could do by winning the race and hoped Biaggi finished lower than 5th for the Yorkshireman to take the crown but it wasn't to be and the Italian maestro took his second World Superbike crown by 0.5 points, the closest points margin possible (as a dead-heat requires race win countback).
There was an out-pouring of emotion on social media networks in favour of Tom winning the championship but, to be honest, it was actually Max's to lose with the points gap he had. If Tom won both races and Max followed him home both times the gap would still have been over 20 points so to say Tom lost the title is harsh on Biaggi, regardless of thoughts on his (lack of) personality. Sykes had a fantastic season, make no mistake - the teams goal back in February at Phillip Island was to finish in the Top 5, mission accomplished you would say. Bring on 2013!
This weekend, however, in a sleepy corner of the 'Garden of England' at Brands Hatch, the six Showdown contenders for the 2012 British Superbike title will fight it out over three races to see who will be finally crowned king. Shane Byrne leads the way by 9 points from uber-consistent Aussie Josh Brookes with Silverstone double-winner Alex Lowes 15 points adrift of Brookes in third and reigning champ Tommy Hill realistically, but not mathematically, out of the battle 18 points in arrears of the Lincolnshire twin. The remaining contenders of Laverty and Bridewell unfortunately, I believe, are too far back to make an impression on the top three in the championship although they can both have a big say on the race results as they're both capable of podium finishes - Bridewell was particularly quick at Brands last year on a Honda Firebalde that was actually five years old and was immediately retired after the race so, regardless of points standings, we have a minimum of six riders who all have podium potential, what a prospect!
For me its all in Shakey's hands, a double race win there at the summer round back in July and a host of dominant race wins prior to that must be ominous for the chasing pack although I have to say he was pushed well by Brookes and Hill that weekend and they weren't runaway wins by any means. Brookes was only .5s behind in race one and 1.5s in race two. Tommy Hill also has a strong record at Brands add Lowes to the mix and you have the makings of a race weekend to rival anything that happened last year...well...almost anyway, but this is motorcycle racing and anything can happen.
Byrne is in the ascendancy after his performances at Assen and Silverstone, where two of his main rivals each had rounds to forget - Hill with his starting grid crash in race one at Assen and Brookes at Silverstone who's Suzuki looked slightly down on power at the fast flowing venue, despite all his obvious efforts, compared to the Kawasaki and Honda he was chasing. Could Shakey have his off day this weekend, or was his off day at Cadwell Park in August? Has Brookes got what it takes to beat the Kent man in his own back yard or will Alex Lowes spring a further surprise, a 24 point deficit to claw back over three races is certainly achievable. It only takes a small mistake to put you on the back foot this weekend, as Brookes and Laverty will attest to from last year and if Hopper's bike hadn't reset itself on the opening lap of race two on the Sunday then race three would have had a whole different look to it...
The British Supersport title is far from over too, leathery Triumph-mounted Aussie Glen Richards holds a 12.5 point advantage over young Irish contender Jack Kennedy going in to the final two races this weekend. The Mar-Train Yamaha rider has had two rounds to forget at Assen and Silverstone after crashing out of at least one race each weekend so he has it all to do to turn his season back around and prove that the title-winning form he's shown wasn't just a flash in the pan and that he can over-come the smoothness and consistency of the old man of the series. Kennedy is definitely one for the future - whether that future goes through World Supersports or British Superbikes first is yet to be determined but he's definitely a star in the making.
There are masses of 'if's', 'but's', 'maybe's', 'why's', 'wherefore's' and 'd'you mind if I don'ts' this weekend, possibly more than ever before as three riders can win the crown and the pressure will be at it's maximum for them all, so mistakes WILL be inevitable - how costly they are will remain to be seen. So, for those in the Eurosport coverage umbrella (sorry to you guys in South Africa who'd love to see BSB, yes that means you Ella!) for Saturday and Sunday afternoon make sure you've been to the toilet, take the phone off the hook, put a Do Not Disturb sign on the front door, if you're other half isn't in to racing sit them down and watch them change their mind (failing that throw them some cash and send them shopping, whether male or female!) and enjoy what will be possibly the most intense series of races you've ever witnessed.
I'll be there and, like a 5 year old child at Christmas, I absolutely can't wait!
Thanks for reading.