In the 250cc class, a young champion typically made the ascent to MotoGP with plenty of fanfare —even more so had he won for the past two seasons. Moto2 has been a little different, of course. MotoGP rubber man Toni Elías has gone up and down between intermediate and premier classes, the height of his bounce diminishing with every year. His replacement at LCR Honda, Stefan Bradl, has been going about his business almost silently, but the praise is growing for the young German.
Five rounds in, Bradl's rookie campaign has been an eye-opener, if not spectacular. The reigning Moto2 champ — who won the title in the garage at Valencia and only had his future clarified after the post-race test on the 800cc Honda — has finished every race so far and has come home inside the top 10 on each occasion. With the top three in the standings almost dead certs for the podium, the spots below them are even more creditable in 2012, so he isn't doing half badly. More impressive still is the fact that he only finished around a second behind riders with considerably more experience (i.e. Nicky Hayden and Álvaro Bautista) on his maiden ride in Qatar, and that he beat Hayden and Valentino Rossi in a straight fight at Jerez. The crowning moment of the campaign to date — the one which really earned him the plaudits — was his fifth place in France in the wet.
LCR Honda boss Lucio Cecchinello is understandably a much happier man than he was at this point last year, when Elías was struggling so badly. Bradl may not have been able to convince German heating firm Viessmann to make the jump to MotoGP with him in a plan shelved in late 2011, but he has been capable of attracting sponsors from his home market to the open advertising space that is the Honda RC213V. This is what keeps LCR going and gives the team a stronger position with the factory, should the proposed restrictions on satellite teams come to fruition.
Such is the high regard in which Bradl is held —at least in the media centre- that he is already part of the rider roundabout speculation taken up a notch by Casey Stoner's retirement announcement. His part in the theories that vary from plausible to certifiable appears to be as a stopgap in the factory Honda team, warming the seat for Marc Márquez. It seems ever so slightly unfair, considering the disruption this measure would cause to all involved and the fact that Bradl is no slouch himself, although I acknowledge that even last year the Spaniard was the star rider in Moto2.
Bradl has been part of the Repsol Honda set-up before, albeit only for the briefest of spells during pre-season. The year was 2007; the man overseeing the project, one Alberto Puig.
Many fans haven't warmed to former racer Puig, if you'll permit me to make the understatement of the year. This is due in no small part to the same reasons that make most of those taken under his wing immensely grateful and appreciative. Get in his way and you're in trouble. Earn his respect and he'll do all that he can to get the best out of you.
Unfortunately, the demands placed on Bradl weren't really what the then-teenager was looking for in a mentor. You got the feeling that they weren't really on the same wavelength, in particular on one occasion in which I attended a pre-season medical for the three-man team of Bradley Smith, Esteve Rabat and Bradl in Barcelona. Puig joined ex-rider Raul Jara in overseeing the various fitness tests, and at one point Smith was taking his turn on the treadmill whilst Puig talked boots and helmets in Spanish with Jara, Rabat and myself — Bradl seated by the side and listening respectfully. In a brief pause, Puig looked over to Bradl, then turned back to us.
"The German kid doesn't speak much, does he?" he said, bemused.
Bradl decided to quit the team and racing itself soon after, in a chapter of his life about which he doesn't really go into too much detail. He's been part of smaller, less daunting teams since then, with less pressure from outside forces. If Honda HQ make the call to him, can the unassuming guy in the corner make the jump?