2013 Laguna Seca MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Of Surprise Front Rows, Record Books And Qualifying Shake Ups
After free practice at Laguna Seca, things looked pretty well sewn up. Marc Marquez was on another planet, with his fourth pole position a mere formality. Alongside him on the front row would be Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi, with Crutchlow looking like having the stronger pace after free practice, while Rossi possessing more sheer outright speed. The rest? Well, they were irrelevant, and would be even more so once qualifying had proved the pundits right.
Only it didn't quite work out that way. A hectic and eventful qualifying saw Stefan Bradl take his first ever pole position, ahead of Marc Marquez and another surprise package in Alvaro Bautista. Rossi and Crutchlow were left on the second row, just ahead of the walking wounded pair of Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda rider heading up the third row.
Both Bradl and Bautista have excelled at Laguna Seca so far, Bradl showing more speed, but Bautista posting a ferocious and competitive race pace. The success of the two is surprising, and wagging tongues in the paddock attribute their sudden burst of speed to the fact that both their seats are currently being widely discussed as being up for grabs for fast and competitive riders. Bradl, it is said, is likely to be moved aside to accommodate Cal Crutchlow, while Bautista could be dropped in favor of Nicky Hayden.
The two satellite Honda riders defended their seats in the most forceful way possible on Saturday. Bautista had been quick all weekend, his best laps keeping him just out of the headlines, but running a consistent pace in the low 1'22s which should be good enough to run at the very front during the race. Bradl took the honor of being the first ever German to secure a pole position, writing his name in the history books alongside his former Moto2 rival Marc Marquez.
When Yamaha announced they would be leasing their M1 engines to ex-CRT teams for 2014, the first wave of reaction was overwhelmingly positive. With 24 liters of fuel allowed, and 12 engines instead of 5, the Yamaha engine package looked like being the best thing on offer to the so-called non-MSMA teams, as CRT is to be called from next year1.
Then doubt set in. Looking at the Yamaha M1 package, what you'd want from Yamaha was the chassis rather than the motor. The engine is the least powerful of the MotoGP prototypes, but its chassis was by far the best of the bunch. Both the Honda and the Yamaha non-MSMA packages appeared to be offering the worst part of each bike: Honda offering their chassis (good, but not great) and a dumbed-down version of their superlative engine; Yamaha offering a full-fat engine (the weakest of the bunch), for teams to have someone build a chassis around without Yamaha's 20+ years of experience building Deltabox frames. Perhaps the Yamaha M1 lease package - a lot of money, just for some engines - was not the bargain it at first appeared.
Laguna Seca is a peculiar track. It is short, tight, dusty, and not really suited to MotoGP, either in terms of facilities or, if we are brutally honest, in terms of safety, despite its FIM approval. It is foggy and cold in the morning, when the sea fog rolls in from Monterey Bay, and hot and dusty in the afternoon, with nowhere for the fans to escape the heat, except for a few solitary oaks scattered around the track. It is only really on the calendar because of its location, in the very heart of California's motorcycling community (though there are many, many people in Southern California who would heartily disagree with that statement.
Despite that, it is still a magnificent venue. If you asked everyone in the paddock which was their favorite event, Laguna Seca would be right up there vying with Mugello. The atmosphere, the location, the surrounding countryside, MotoGP people love the place, so much so that they often stay on afterwards to enjoy the area with a little more time to spare.
The track may be short and tight, but it still seems to generate some great racing. The epic clash between Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi in 2008 may be the high point, but Stoner's battle with Jorge Lorenzo in 2011, Nicky Hayden's first win when the series returned to the track in 2005, the tight battle between Dani Pedrosa and Rossi in '09. There is something about the track which can bring out the magic.
Just when it looked like the MotoGP silly season was getting ready to wrap up, a few new developments threw a spanner or two in the works. A week ago, most MotoGP pundits were convinced that Cal Crutchlow would be going to Ducati, Scott Redding would be moving up with his Marc VDS Racing team, and there was next to no interest in Yamaha's leased engines. At the Sachsenring, many things changed, in part at the instigation of Honda, and in part because of Yamaha.
Honda has made the biggest move in the market. At the Sachsenring, credible rumors emerged of Honda attempting to secure both Redding and Crutchlow, in two different moves. HRC's approach to Crutchlow could cause the biggest upset. The Japanese factory is known to be very impressed by Crutchlow, but their dilemma is that all four Honda prototype seats are ostensibly taken for 2014. While both Marquez and Pedrosa have contracts for next year, and Bautista is locked in at Gresini for 2014, Stefan Bradl's seat at LCR Honda could possibly be available. While Bradl is locked in to a two-year deal with HRC, Honda hold the option to decide not to take the second year, potentially freeing up Bradl's bike, and that seat could then be taken by Cal Crutchlow.
The Sachsenring is a key point on the MotoGP calendar. For the Moto2 and Moto3 riders, it is the last race before the summer break, while the MotoGP men have one more race, at Laguna Seca, before heading off for an all too brief summer hiatus. A good result in Moto2 and Moto3 is crucial, as it determines the momentum you carry into the summer: you either spend the next five weeks brooding over what could have been, or on a high and wishing the next race was the next weekend. Momentum is not quite such an issue for the MotoGP riders, but a bad result puts them on the back foot ahead of Laguna Seca, and their own summer break. As it is often also contract time, especially in MotoGP, the pressure is on to perform and secure a seat for next season. Good results and championship points are vital, as this race can help determine the course of the remainder of the season.
The significance of the Sachsenring was visible in all three races on Sunday, for wildly different reasons and with wildly differing outcomes. In Moto3, the top 3 riders merely underline once again that they are a cut above the rest - or at least the rest of those who are also riding a KTM. In Moto2, Pol Espargaro gained important momentum in his title challenge, but failed to drive home his advantage, swinging the balance of power slowly back his way, but not as fast or as powerfully as he had hoped, while Scott Redding struggled badly, salvaging points only thanks to Espargaro's finish. As for MotoGP, the absence of the two championship leaders has blown the title race wide open again, allowing Marc Marquez to take the lead, and both Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi got closer to being back in contention again.
How quickly things change. Yesterday, it looked like Jorge Lorenzo had handed the 2013 MotoGP championship to Dani Pedrosa on a plate, by crashing unnecessarily at Turn 10, and bending the titanium plate he had fitted to his collarbone after breaking it at Assen. Today, Pedrosa did his best to level the playing field again, by pushing a little too hard on a cold tire at Turn 1, and being catapulted out of the saddle in a cold tire, closed throttle highside. He flew a long way, and hit the ground hard, coming up rubbing his collarbone much as Jorge Lorenzo had done. He was forced to miss qualifying, and for most of the afternoon, it looked like he too could be forced to miss the Sachsenring race, and possibly also Laguna Seca.
At the end of the afternoon, the medical intervention team - a group of experienced Spanish emergency doctors who spend their free weekends hooning around race tracks in hotrodded BMW M550d medical cars - gave a press conference to explain Pedrosa's medical situation, and what had happened that afternoon. Dr Charte and Dr Caceres told the media that Pedrosa had had a huge crash, walked away feeling dizzy, and been rushed to the medical center. There, he had one X-ray on his collarbone, but just as he was about to have a second X-ray, his blood pressure dropped dramatically. The second X-ray was immediately aborted as the medical staff intervened to stabilize Pedrosa.
There's an expression in the Dutch language, "een ongeluk zit in een klein hoekje," which translates literally as "accidents hide in small corners." It seems particularly relevant at the Sachsenring on Friday, as while there were crashes galore at Turn 11, the fast corner at the top of the long downhill run to the two final left handers, Jorge Lorenzo crashed at Turn 10, the uphill left which precedes Turn 11. It is not much of a corner, just the last of the long sequence of left handers which proceed from the Omegakurve towards the top of the hill, and the plunge down the waterfall. But it was enough to bend the titanium plate holding Jorge Lorenzo's collarbone together, and put him out of the German Grand Prix, and maybe Laguna Seca as well. That relatively minor corner may have ended Jorge Lorenzo's championship hopes.
What happened? It's hard to say exactly, but buoyed by the fact he topped the timesheets in FP1, and was consistently fast, Lorenzo came out in FP2 in attack mode. He pushed aggressively for the first two laps, setting a time that would put him in 4th on just his second full lap out of the pits. He was faster still round the first two sectors of the track, and then Turn 10 happened. The factory Yamaha man was thrown off his bike and into the air, landing having on his shoulder and back. The impact was violent enough to bend the titanium plate, and Lorenzo immediately knew something was wrong. He got up, zipped open his leathers and started gingerly feeling his collarbone.
2013 Sachsenring MotoGP Thursday Round Up: On Rossi's Return, Pedrosa's Invincibility, And Riding Injured
The big question, of course, is can he do it again? After taking his first win two-and-a-half years and 45 races (after Assen, there were a lot of tortuous calculations being made trying to squeeze the number '46' in somewhere) after his previous one, the question is, was it just a one-off or is Valentino Rossi capable of fighting for the win every weekend from now on?
It's a tough call to make, but on the evidence so far, things are looking good for the Italian. Rossi's braking problem appears to have been solved, allowing him to ride in the way he wants to. The front end tweaks which his crew chief Jeremy Burgess found at Aragon seem to have worked, and given Rossi confidence in braking again.
Just what those changes were? Matt Birt, writing over on the MCN website, has a full explanation of the changes made by Burgess, but the short version is that they found a solution to cope with the softer construction front Bridgestone tires introduced last year. Revised fork innards, including changed shims, has made the first part of the fork travel a stiff enough to compensate for the softer tire construction, allowing him to brake harder, yet still turn the bike. Now able to enter corners as he wishes, he should be able to at least fight with the front runners from the start.
With the start of the summer break coming up in ten days time, contract negotiations are starting to hot up for the 2013 MotoGP rider market. The two race weekends at the Sachsenring and then Laguna Seca will see a frenzy of meetings, horse trading and secret talks as the few open MotoGP seats for 2014 get closer to be being filled.
The biggest problem facing riders looking to upgrade their seat is the scarcity of good seats available, both for 2014 and beyond. The Repsol Honda and Factory Yamaha teams are fully booked through the 2014 season, and even after that, it is hard to see them changing personnel. Jorge Lorenzo has shown he has the potential to win multiple championships for Yamaha, and Marc Marquez looks like doing much the same at Honda. Neither man is showing any intention of going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
Dani Pedrosa is looking stronger than ever, and has to be getting closer to his first ever MotoGP title. Though he considered retiring early after a couple of difficult years with injury, the Spaniard has rediscovered his passion for racing, and is also likely to extend his contract with Honda again once it comes up for renewal at the end of next year.
After the initial disappointment at the death of the 250cc two strokes, the advent of the Moto2 class raised hopes that Grand Prix racing would enter a new era of chassis innovation, as the teams spent the money saved on engine development on exploring novel solutions to the problem of hustling a motorcycle around a circuit is the shortest time possible. The first set of designs unveiled did little to feed that hope, with most bikes being of the aluminium twin beam variety which is standard in most sports and racing machinery, with a couple of tubular trellis frames thrown in for good measure.
Even that variety did not last. The trellis frames were the first to go - mostly as a result of the extra weight the design created - and the number of chassis manufacturers dropped from 13 in the first year to 6 in 2013. Even that figure gives an inflated picture of the variety in the paddock: 28 out of the 32 permanent entries form Moto2 this year use either the Kalex, Suter or Speed Up chassis. The bikes vary in stiffness, in aerodynamic detail and in aesthetics, but other than that, they are virtually identical.