Qualifying practice turned out to be one of the most dramatic sessions we have seen for a long time at Laguna Seca, and not in a good way. By the end of the session, two of the three men leading the championship had suffered violent highsides and been stretchered off, though both Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo are expected to race tomorrow.
It all started off much as expected, with Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo leading the way, Stoner the first into the 1'22 bracket, followed shortly after by Lorenzo. The two young championship protagonists were soon joined by Andrea Dovizioso, and as the first quarter of the session ended, the Repsol Honda man and his team mate Dani Pedrosa took charge, Pedrosa taking over pole.
The Repsol Honda resurgence would be short-lived. Within a couple of minutes, Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner were playing leapfrog with provisional pole again, Stoner getting down into the low 1'22s and then Lorenzo cracking the 1'21s with a lap of 1'21.950. Valentino Rossi, who until that point had been well down the order, soon chipped away at his best time and was soon up to 3rd, a quarter of a second off Lorenzo's pole time.
As the 20 minute approached, Jorge Lorenzo suffered the first of the two crashes he was to have during qualifying, folding the front in Turn 10 and sliding off relatively unhurt into the gravel, his main concern how to get back to the pits in time to improve his time. In the meantime, Casey Stoner took back pole, shaving hundredths off first Lorenzo's time, and then his own, with a lap of 1'21.910. Minutes later, Valentino Rossi joined Stoner and Lorenzo in the 1'21s with a lap of 1'21.958, then another of 1'21.954.
News is starting to seep in of the injuries suffered by Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, both of whom suffered nasty highsides in the final minutes of qualifying at Laguna Seca. The good news is that both men are likely to be able to race tomorrow, but the bad news is that they are both pretty banged up.
Casey Stoner escaped with the least damage. According to reports on GPOne.com, Stoner only suffered a badly bruised hip, and should be able to race without problems tomorrow. Of course, Stoner is still suffering with the mystery virus which has plagued him at the last couple of Grand Prix, though some of the color seemed to have returned to the Australian's face today, and Stoner looked a good deal better than he did yesterday.
Jorge Lorenzo came off the worst of the pair. In another huge highside, resembling all too starkly the kind of crashes Lorenzo was prone to last season, Lorenzo fell heavily on his shoulder, and banged up his knee. According to reports on both GPOne.com and Roadracing World, Lorenzo has suffered a dislocated collarbone and a badly bruised metatarsal in his right foot. Lorenzo has also been pronounced fit to ride, though by Dr. Claudio Costa, who places more faith in the riders mental resilience rather than their physical health. If Lorenzo does ride, he will be far from at full strength.
The official MotoGP.com website is reporting that no decision will be made on whether Jorge Lorenzo will race until tomorrow (Sunday).
Results of MotoGP Qualifying Practice at Laguna Seca:
Jorge Lorenzo set the fastest time of the second session of free practice on Saturday morning at Laguna Seca, with a couple of lightning laps in the final seconds of practice. Lorenzo had swapped the lead with Fiat Yamaha team mate Valentino Rossi for the first half of practice, before Casey Stoner barged his way to the top of the timesheets with 25 minutes to go, and cracking into the 1'21 bracket. The pace of practice slackened a little for a while after that, only picking up again in the final 5 minutes or so.
Lorenzo and Stoner were the only men to get into the 1'21s, less than 4/100ths of a second separating the pair. Valentino Rossi is 3rd, but nearly 4/10ths behind his team mate, and not far ahead of Toni Elias. Andrea Dovizioso is 5th quickest, fractionally ahead of his team mate, Dani Pedrosa.
On the day that the US celebrates Independence Day, the Americans had varying fortunes. Nicky Hayden started slowly, then hit a strong patch in the middle of the session, climbing up as high as 5th at one point, before dropping to end the session in 9th, still a better result than he has had since the first session at Barcelona. Colin Edwards highsided early on in the session, and spent a long time in the nether regions of the timesheet, climbing up to finish in 7th spot.
Result of MotoGP FP1:
After a dismal year in 2008, where he struggled woefully with the Ducati Desmosedici, Marco Melandri has taken last year's Kawasaki and turned in some remarkable results. MotoGPMatters.com caught up with Melandri at Laguna Seca, to ask about the year so far, and what he expects for the future.
MGPM: After your difficult year in 2007, you've exceeded everyone's expectations this season with Hayate. Do you feel you're once again showing people what Marco Melandri is capable of?
Melandri: Yes, it has been a very tough 2008, and for sure I signed up for a difficult challenge with Kawasaki. After the winter we knew we would have a very tough season, but then we had some very good races, which no one expected, including me. I expected to have some good races, actually, but not to do as well as we've done. After that we had some difficult races, and I had a small injury in Barcelona, but now that's getting better. I'm quite happy with the season so far.
In all the discussion of silly season, there are a few names which keep cropping up and are starting to form the bottleneck preventing the rider line-up from shaking itself out. One of those names, Marco Simoncelli, cleared his part of the deck by announcing he had signed for Gresini Honda for 2010. That move also cleared the way at Yamaha, as both the Gresini and the Tech 3 Yamaha rides are the most keenly sought after in the paddock.
With Simoncelli out of the way, that leaves Ben Spies and Alvaro Bautista as the other main stumbling blocks. Spies had previously told the press that he already knew where he would be going next year, but declined to share that information with the press. But the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport is now claiming to know just what Spies has signed up to.
According to a story in today's edition of the paper, Ben Spies has signed a new two-year deal with Yamaha. Under the terms of the deal, Spies will stay in World Superbikes for one more season, and will then move up to MotoGP in 2011. According to La Gazzetta, Spies has a guarantee of a ride in MotoGP for 2011, but also has an option to move up earlier, if he wins the World Superbike title this year, or if Jorge Lorenzo leaves Yamaha. The new rookie rule prevents Spies from going straight to the factory team, but the deal is said to guarantee full factory support for Spies in any satellite structure, making a mockery of the rookie rule, as has been predicted here and elsewhere.
Valentino Rossi was the fastest man on day 1 of the Red Bull US GP weekend at Laguna Seca, though he didn't secure that spot until the end of the session. As ever, it was Casey Stoner who was fastest in the early running, being the first rider into both the 1'23 and 1'22 bracket, and holding the top spot for most of FP1.
With just over 10 minutes to go, Jorge Lorenzo, who had been closing in on Stoner's time for the past 10 minutes, finally shot ahead of Stoner to take the top spot, but his lead would not stand. As the flag fell, Valentino Rossi crossed the line to set the fastest time, and the only man to crack into the 1'21s.
There is little to choose between Rossi, Lorenzo and Stoner, though. All three men were setting consistently fast times, and lapping within a few hundredths of each other. The only worry is that Stoner's health problems have not gone away: The Ducati rider looked pale and shaky as he got off his bike at the end of the session, clearly still unwell. Stoner is obviously fast enough to match the pace of Rossi and Lorenzo, but at an intensely physical track like Laguna, it is doubtful he will be able to maintain that pace for 32 grueling laps.
Dani Pedrosa is in 4th place, but over 6/10ths behind Rossi, and only just ahead of a rejuvenated Toni Elias, much preferring the 2008 chassis he now has to use on the factory-spec Honda RC212V.
Honorable mentions have to go to Marco Melandri and Gabor Talmacsi. Melandri was 7th fastest, on a bike that has not changed since the start of the season, while Gabor Talmacsi finished the session ahead of Niccolo Canepa at just his third event on a MotoGP bike. As tragic as it is to lose a Japanese rider from the MotoGP series, Yuki Takahashi having been forced out to make way for the Hungarian, Talmacsi's results are starting to back up the financial reasons behind that decision.
Results of MotoGP FP1 at Laguna:
MotoGPMatters.com is once again fortunate to have Scott Jones live at Laguna Seca, shooting some more of his superb photos. The first of his shots come from Thursday's Day of Stars Superkart challenge, where champions young and old took each other on around Laguna Seca, in anticipation of this year's Red Bull US Grand Prix.
Right helmet, wrong suit.
Fast Eddie's hat
The aim of Public Relations is to generate publicity for the brand you are representing. Some PR firms are better than others, and in motorcycle racing, Yamaha certainly seem to be gaining the upper hand. Their latest offering is a rather silly but nonetheless entertaining look at what Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Colin Edwards and James Toseland do in between races. Colin Edwards in a uniform? Who knew?
At Laguna Seca, Hayate Team Manager Andrea Dosoli confirmed what we all already knew. Kawasaki is history, and won't be back in MotoGP in 2010. According to reports in the Italian press, Dosoli said that he didn't expect Kawasaki to return next season. "I don't think that Kawasaki will be here [in MotoGP] next year: The decision to pull out was taken at a very high level, and coming back into MotoGP would be an admission that they made the wrong decision," GPOne.com reports Dosoli as saying.
Dosoli was proud of what the Hayate team has achieved with limited means: "With a budget of 25% of what it was last year, I think we've done pretty well," he said. Members of the team are doubling up - Dosoli is both team manager and crew chief to Marco Melandri, for example - and the savings even go so far as not to produce and distribute press releases. Meanwhile, the team has a mass of equipment which is surplus to requirements and up for sale, including a hospitality unit, transporters and a host of other items.
With Hayate / Kawasaki definitely out of the series for 2010, the MotoGP grid will once again be reduced to under the magic 18 rider mark. Dorna have an almost indefinite contract with the FIM to organize the series, but it is believed that one of the stipulations in that contract is that Dorna will ensure there is a minimum grid of 18 riders. Kawasaki's withdrawal would reduce the grid to 17, and question marks remain over the future of Sete Gibernau's Grupo Francisco Hernando effort. Former championship runner-up Gibernau must find it hard to remain motivated to run around at the back of the field, while the construction company that is funding the team has taken some severe financial blows from the collapse of the Spanish housing and construction market.
At heart, every motorcycle race starts fundamentally the same: A group of riders of similar talent on similar equipment line up on the grid with the intention of crossing the line ahead of their rivals at the end of the race. Yet despite its simplicity of concept, once the flag drops, each race develops in a unique direction, taking on a distinctive character all of its own.
That character is often dictated in large part by the nature of the class: in recent years, MotoGP races have tended to resemble a high-speed version of chess, each move carefully considered and rehearsed and several laps in the preparation. World Superbike races, on the other hand, often look more like a bar room brawl than a motor race, with riders wading in wildly more in hope than in expectation, and emerging surprisingly unscathed. And more often than not, races in the 125cc class turn into the nearest thing to a pack of hyenas fighting over a bone, bikes and bodies shooting in every direction, with no order or decorum, and even less chance of making any sense of the fight.
Sometimes, though, a motorcycle race can transcend the ordinary limitations of the class imposed by the nature of the bikes involved, and take on a uniqueness of character that leaves it burned into the collective memory of race fans for many, many years to come. The 2008 Red Bull US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca was just such a race. No high-speed chess here, no careful premeditation or long-rehearsed moves, the race between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner was a fight to the death, mortal combat between two highly-trained assassins using any and every means at their disposal to inflict a fatal blow on their opponent.
Stone Cold Killers
Their combat was assisted, perhaps even encouraged, by the nature of the Laguna Seca track itself. For the first 24 laps of the race, both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi used every inch of the track to gain an advantage over the other. Along Laguna's short front straight, it was Stoner's Ducati that had the edge, its better drive and horsepower allowing Stoner to catch Rossi.
But too often, it was not quite enough to get past Rossi before heeling over for the most terrifying corner on the track, the 170mph left kink of Turn 1. Rossi got caught out there a couple of times, but on most laps, as they rolled the bikes left over the crest of the hill, The Doctor held the perfect line, in the middle of the track and drifting right. Rossi was leaving the door open for Stoner, but the route it led to was the hardest route of all, the outside line over the rumblestrip, as dangerous as the North Face of the Eiger. Brave as a mountaineer, Stoner accepted the challenge, even passing there on lap 24.
Yesterday we reported that Yuki Takahashi would not be racing at Laguna Seca, today the news is even worse. In a statement issued jointly by Team Scot and Honda, the team announced that Takahashi has been dropped for the rest of the season, in favor of Gabor Talmacsi. The reasons for the decision were simple, and stated plainly: It was a matter of money. Team Scot needed the income provided by Gabor Talmacsi and their new sponsor, Hungarian oil company Mol, but couldn't afford the extra bikes needed to allow them to run both Talmacsi and Takahashi. And so Takahashi had to go, as the Japanese rider's results so far had been very disappointing.
The withdrawal of Takahashi leaves the MotoGP class without a Japanese rider for the first time since 1992, a situation the Japanese factories - and especially Honda - have struggled to avoid for many years. But the flow of talent coming out of Japan recently has dropped to just a trickle, with fewer Japanese rider entering through the 125 series and working their way up through the ranks. The question is now whether next season will see the return of a Japanese rider, with 250cc championship leader Hiroshi Aoyama the current favorite to make the step up to MotoGP.
Below is the text of the press release issued by Team Scot concerning the release of Yuki Takahashi:
Earlier, we reported on a story on usually reliable GPOne.com that Yuki Takahashi was out of Team Scot, to be replaced by Gabor Talmacsi. But after MCN reported seeing Takahashi in California at the rental car pick up desk, we contacted Team Scot to get the official story on Takahashi's future in the team.
The Team Scot press officer confirmed to MotoGPMatters.com that Takahashi will not be riding at Laguna seca, but denied that Takahashi had been dropped altogether. "Yuki has a slipped disc and his results on track are conditioned by this problem," Stefano Bedon told us. "The team would face a lot of extra costs to line up two riders but without the possibility to improve the results. The solution is to wait for his recovery and to defer a decision later."
Ever since the old North Loop at Assen was removed, emasculating the glorious old track, the scarcity of fast left hand corners have made those remain potentially lethal. So far, since the track was shortened prior to 2006, the MotoGP race at Assen has claimed at least one victim forced to miss a race every year: Toni Elias in 2006 and 2007, John Hopkins in 2008, and now Mika Kallio in 2009.
The Finn crashed on the very last lap of the race, grinding his ring finger on his left hand and suffering friction burns severe enough for him to lose the fingernail on that finger for good. As a result of his injuries, Kallio has elected to miss the Laguna Seca round this Sunday, preferring to make his return at the Sachsenring. After Donington, to be run a week after the German Grand Prix, Kallio will undergo surgery to have a skin graft placed over the affected area, but until then, the young rookie will race with artificial skin protecting the affected area. As Kallio will only be missing a single race, the Pramac team have elected not to replace him at Laguna Seca.