After a quick hop across the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent, the MotoGP paddock - alone, the Moto2 and 125cc classes remain at home for reasons of cost and paddock space - has reassembled at the Laguna Seca circuit for the final race before an all-too-brief break for the summer. A long transatlantic flight just a couple of days after the German MotoGP round at the Sachsenring leaves much of the paddock dazed and confused, with some complaining of jetlag while some of the European journalists complain of the difficulties they face making their newspaper deadlines due to the nine-hour time difference between the US Pacific coast and Europe.
The riders, though, seem fit and well, the fact that they are flying westward rather than eastward working to their advantage, and all of them looking forward to riding Laguna, despite it being a horribly tight and twisty circuit unsuited to a 240hp MotoGP machine. Last weekend's winner, Dani Pedrosa, has won at Laguna and arrives with his confidence up, despite still lacking strength in his right shoulder after the surgery to plate his collarbone broken at Le Mans. Like the Sachsenring last weekend, Laguna is mostly left handers, sparing his right side, but the race in Germany took a lot out of the Spaniard. Pedrosa is on a roll, but the question is how well his shoulder holds up.
The other two favorites at the circuit will be championship leader Casey Stoner and the reigning World Champion Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo, like Pedrosa, has his dander up, now that they've found a fix for the problems which beset them early in the season and the bike is competitive again - though Lorenzo would say that "competitive" is putting it a little too strongly, he is now merely able to race with Stoner by pushing to the limit of his abilities once again. After dominating the early part of the season, Stoner has sagged a little, struggling with edge grip and tire wear at the very limit of the tire, a consequence of the clutch they are using. That has kept Stoner from getting the drive out of the corners he wants and saw him drop spectacularly back into the clutches of Lorenzo at the Sachsenring, where the Yamaha man clawed back another important 4 points on the Repsol Honda man.
The bad news for Lorenzo is that Stoner believes they may have a solution to their problems. At the press conference, Stoner said that they "should be able to rectify some of our problems with the solutions we have come up with," and if they have, Stoner could put in another runaway performance. The biggest problem facing Lorenzo at Laguna Seca is turn 11, the final corner before the start of the straight. It's a slow corner, followed by a hard acceleration area, which is exactly where the Yamaha is weakest compared to the Honda. But if Lorenzo can keep Stoner behind him through Turn 11, then he may be able to fend off the superior acceleration of the Honda with the agility of his Yamaha M1. That, it seems, sounds vaguely familiar.
Over at Ducati, hopes and expectations are radically different. When asked during the pre-event press conference about 2011, Nicky Hayden joked that he was perfectly happy to talk about 2005 and 2006, the two years he won at the circuit, and was rather more circumspect about his chances for this year. Both Hayden and Marlboro Ducati teammate Valentino Rossi will be running back-to-back tests between the GP11 (the bike originally designed to be raced this season) and the GP11.1 (the destroked version of Ducati's 2012 MotoGP machine, modified to make it legal under the 2011 regulations), to see whether the GP11.1 is a real improvement over the GP11. The difference reported between the two is that the revised rear suspension layout of the GP11.1 solves the pumping the GP11 had, but it has not made the front feel any better, and has perhaps made it worse. An alteration to the weight distribution during warmup in Germany - Ducati team boss Vito Guareschi told GPOne.com that the change had been to take some load off the front, the opposite of what the team had been trying to achieve prior to that moment - had made a big difference, Rossi improving once again in the race, but that is simply too late to be competitive. With some back-to-back testing, and two riders providing data, Ducati hope to move closer to understanding the bike they have produced.
The intervening period between the Sachsenring and Laguna Seca seems also to have caused the riders to soften their stance towards the Motegi MotoGP round a little. Where both Lorenzo and Stoner were adamant they simply would not go to Motegi on Saturday in Germany, by Thursday in California, they were showing a little nuance. Lorenzo was at pains to point out that his problem was not with Japan, but with Motegi, telling Asphalt & Rubber's Jensen Beeler "I don't have a problem going to Japan, to a place that is not near the Fukushima plant." The riders' plan, he explained, was to avoid going to Motegi, not to avoid going to Japan altogether. The problem with that plan is that the only other racetrack that would be even vaguely capable of hosting a MotoGP round is Suzuka, and Formula One holds its Japanese Grand Prix there a week after the Japanese MotoGP round is scheduled. Then there's the delicate subject of Dajiro Katoh's death at Suzuka, but the riders may prefer the physical dangers of the Suzuka track to the perceived threat from the Fukushima nuclear plant some 130km from Motegi.
But there has also been a softening of the language. No longer are the riders dead set against going, but they are instead saying that they will first study the results of the study commissioned by Dorna and then decide what they are going to do. Other riders have let on that they will also go if the report comes pack positive, according to legendary journalist Dennis Noyes. One might speculate that they arrived at this decision after consultation with their team managers, which, given the position of the teams, would have involved a certain amount of pressure, and some discussions about what the riders could be doing next season if they don't go to Japan in October. So far, the factory teams have been reticent on whether they will force their riders to go, but given the history of Yamaha and Honda, a refusal will not be taken lightly. Casey Stoner would do well to study the history of Max Biaggi to see how well HRC responds to riders that do not toe the line.
Of course, there is another group in the paddock who are unwilling to go to Motegi, and that is the crew and team members themselves. The riders may be persuaded to go, and the factories may decide to go, but if a lot of the mechanics and crew from the teams - especially the satellite and 125 and Moto2 teams - decide they don't want to go, it may still turn out to be very difficult to organize the race. We shall see how they respond once the Dorna report is published. A preliminary report is expected on Sunday, with the final version to be published a week later.