With two thirds of the season completed, the MotoGP World Championship is starting to enter the home stretch and the finish line is drawing ever nearer for Casey Stoner. Three consecutive victories either side of the summer break have powered him into a commanding position in the title race, and Jorge Lorenzo knows that only too well.
The reigning champion had a 63 point lead when he left Indianapolis for Misano 12 months ago but how the tables of turned. Lorenzo, who was almost an ever-present on the podium last year, hasn't enjoyed the sweet taste of champagne since Laguna Seca in July, having been comprehensively beaten in the last two events.
Honda secured a lockout of the rostrum positions at Brno with Stoner leading home Andrea Dovizioso and Marco Simoncelli while the Australian was joined on the podium in Indianapolis by Dani Pedrosa and Ben Spies, who emphatically outpaced his teammate.
In the build-up to the San Marino Grand Prix, Lorenzo has stressed the importance of looking forward and not dwelling on what was a disappointing August, but that surely is now his only option. The Yamaha leader has his back firmly against the wall and now knows that the only way he is going to force his way back into title contention is by winning. Surely, nothing else will do.
The harsh reality for Lorenzo is that the championship is now out of his hands. With the deficit to Stoner now standing at 44 points, Lorenzo now knows that six wins in the final six events may still fall short of crowning him as the champion, with Stoner now able to play the percentages and protect his lead.
Both have victories at the AdriÃ¡tico circuit on their CV and both in the middle of a title winning campaign. Lorenzo's win in 2007 helped secure him a second 250cc crown while Stoner's victory in MotoGP, later that same day, came in the middle of his all-conquering 2007 season.
The Misano World circuit sits close to the Adriatic coast in Eastern Italy and crucially, doesn't seem likely to produce the kind of tyre wear that affected so many at Indianapolis last weekend. The 4.226km track is twisty for the most part but features a high speed section between turns 11-13 which sees the riders swoop through a series of tightening right-handers.
Since the track returned to the MotoGP calendar in 2007, victories have been shared among the big three manufacturers, Honda, Yamaha and Ducati but the changes in rider line-ups mean that the form book from previous year's is largely irrelevant.
Yamaha have won two out of four but neither of those were with Lorenzo on board, Ducati's only win came courtesy of Stoner while Dani Pedrosa took the Honda to the top step of the podium last year, minus the threat of the Australian who was toiling on the Ducati.
Without question, Stoner is the man to beat again this weekend though as he looks to increase his podium streak to 11 races. His victory in the United States last time out was comprehensive and if the Honda RC212V is in its element, he will take some stopping.
Pedrosa may be the man best placed to challenge him as the Spaniard's impressive comeback from injury continues. The 25 year old led in the early stages at Indy before Stoner's superior pace made the difference but as he showed at the Sachsenring, Pedrosa is becoming a serious threat as far as race wins are concerned and this weekend may swing his way.
The two other factory Hondas had differing fortunes in the United States with Andrea Dovizioso racking up another 11 points in fifth place. Marco Simoncelli fell backwards though as the searing heat took its toll on the tyres. The Italian fell all the way back to 12th but will be right in the mix this time if he avoids any repeat of those problems.
In the Yamaha camp, Lorenzo will be hoping that Italian soil treats him as kindly as it did in July when he beat Stoner to victory at Mugello. The reigning champion has promised not to let his crown go without a fight and his supporters will hope the fightback starts here.
Teammate Ben Spies is in sensational form though having beaten Lorenzo to the final podium position at his home grand prix. A former winner at Misano in World Superbikes, Spies will surely be a contender if the YZR-M1 is up to the job and with Lorenzo playing catch-up in the title stakes, the American could have a vital role to play.
Another grand prix in Italy of course means another home race for Valentino Rossi and Ducati. Unfortunately for the thousands of fans ready to fill the grandstands, their hero's hopes of victory look slim at best. The team have long since confirmed that they are planning for 2012 and Rossi has been quick to play down his chances in the run-up to this race.
Nicky Hayden knows all about the disappointment of struggling at home having done exactly that at Indy, another man whose tyres wilted in the heat. A weekend with the GP11.1 will have done him good though and he will be intent on moving forward at Misano.
Monster Yamaha Tech 3 will be high on confidence after one of their best races in quite some time in the U.S. Cal Crutchlow finally returned to the form that put him on the MotoGP map earlier this year and won't have to worry about learning the track this time while Colin Edwards took a strong seventh in Indy, giving the French team reason to expect a strong showing here.
Rizla Suzuki are also a team on the up following Alvaro Bautista's run to sixth last weekend and will be keen to capitalise on their new found momentum on a circuit the Spaniard has won on in 250s. Hector Barbera and Toni Elias have also tasted success here in the intermediate class so will eying the top ten on their satellite machines.
Pramac Ducati picked up their best result of the season in Indianapolis with Randy de Puniet coming home in eighth, owed partly to retirements ahead of him, but the team are clearly taking steps in the right direction, giving de Puniet and home rider Loris Capirossi the chance to add to their modest points totals.
Both have been outscored by MotoGP rookie Karel Abraham but the Czech youngster hasn't quite recovered from the miserable time he encountered at his home race three week back. Hiroshi Aoyama has been struggling too of late but will have been pleased with ninth last weekend, giving him a much-needed confidence boost ahead of Misano.
With the championship entering a critical stage, titles and careers are now starting to come into sharp focus. Whatever the objective for the 17 riders taking to the track this weekend, they all know that the margin for error is getting smaller and smaller. For some, it may disappear altogether if they don't deliver on Sunday.
This weekend is certain to be an emotional occasion for everyone involved in the Moto2 class, one year on from the tragic death of Shoya Tomizawa. The Japanese youngster succumbed to injuries which he sustained in an accident during last year's race with Scott Redding and Alex de Angelis. Tomizawa will go down in history as the first man ever to win a Moto2 race and is sorely missed by everyone in the Grand Prix paddock. He will be remembered by his former Technomag-CIP squad at a special event, entitle “Shoya's Day”, on September 13 at Pole MÃ©canique d’AlÃ¨s, the team's home track.
Fittingly, the French outfit will have a Japanese rider in their ranks this weekend although not in ideal circumstances. Kenan Sofuoglu fractured his right foot in a practice crash at Indianapolis and will sit this race out, allowing former 125cc racer Tomoyoshi Koyama to step in.
Stefan Bradl saw his lead in the title race cut to 28 points by Marc Marquez and the Spaniard is unquestionably the form man in Grand Prix racing. The pressure is certainly on the championship leader this weekend.
125cc leader Nicolas Terol eased some of the pressure on his shoulders with victory at the Brickyard while chief rival Johann Zarco struggled down in fifth. The Frenchman must surely end his wait for a maiden victory to prevent Terol from running away with the title, making this an intriguing weekend across the board in MotoGP.
The 125s will kick off the weekend's entertainment on Friday with the opening practice session starting at 8:15am UK time. The Checkered Flag will have full coverage of all three classes throughout the weekend.
|No Grand Prix Events Took Place at Misano Between 1994 & 2006
|Jean Phillippe Ruggia
*Was run as the Italian Grand Prix