The race at Laguna Seca underlines the lessons from the last race at the Sachsenring. There are currently three riders in this championship who are head and shoulders above the rest (there should be four, but the fourth one is currently handicapped by his machinery, more of which later), with virtually nothing to choose between them. Minor setup tweaks and injuries make the difference between first and third place, and the racing has been pretty good because of it.
The Sachsenring was a genuine thriller, which Laguna Seca would have had a hard time living up to, but it still threw up a pretty interesting race. Spectacular? Perhaps not, but tense, close, and balanced on a knife edge until five laps from the end. The final gaps between Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa were huge, but less than a second had covered the threesome for the first half of the race, and the gap between Stoner and Lorenzo only grew once Stoner got past the Spaniard.
Even the passes were good. There may have been only two of them - Stoner getting past first Pedrosa and then Lorenzo - but the way he did so reaped praise even from Valentino Rossi. The first pass on Pedrosa was made just before the Corkscrew, and was a little tougher than Stoner had planned. The Australian had worked out he could pass his Repsol Honda teammate there on the previous lap, but when he came to try the pass, he found Pedrosa braking later than he expected. Forced to release the brakes to show Pedrosa he was ahead, he forced his way through before they plunged down the hill.
The pass on Lorenzo was even better, but Stoner had some help from the reigning World Champion. Lorenzo was forced to short shift coming out of Turn 11 and onto the front straight, to counter a little too much wheelie, and Stoner found some extra drive to take him past. The Australian could only do so at the fastest, scariest part of the track, though: outside on the rumblestrip as they howled around the 260 km/h Turn 1. That was the pass that most impressed him, Valentino Rossi said. "Very close, high speed. Something you have to be brave to do. This is motorcycle racing," the Italian added.
Stoner's victory came as something as a surprise, given the problems that the Australian had struggled with all weekend. But overnight, his crew had come up with a solution - Stoner was typically coy about the exact change made to the bike, saying only that it had solved the front chatter, and the problems with turning and corner exit that had plagued them all weekend. The bike was still difficult with a full tank of fuel, but as the race went on, the bike got better and easier to turn.
Stoner was helped in part by the injuries of Pedrosa and Lorenzo. Pedrosa lost strength in his arms halfway through the race, a consequence of still not being back to full fitness after all the recent surgery to his collarbones. Lorenzo held on longer, but once he saw Stoner get by, he concentrated on getting home in one piece and restricting the damage. But even a fully-fit Lorenzo - one who had not been severely banged-up in a huge highside at the end of free practice on Saturday - would have struggled with the Stoner he faced on Sunday at Laguna Seca.
Ben Spies was a little frustrated at the end of the race, after a wrong choice in the launch control setting meant he got swamped as the riders headed up the hill through Turn One. Once he got underway, though, his pace was strong, despite going with the soft tire while the rest of the two front rows had chosen to race the harder rear. The soft was clearly consistent enough to race: Spies' times stayed metronomic, and once he worked his way past Valentino Rossi, he was off chasing the Honda riders ahead of him. He caught Dovizioso on lap 27, and a couple of laps later he was past. A fourth place finish was good for Spies, but not where he had planned on being.
Which brings me to Marco Simoncelli. Spies' charge forwards was aided in no small part by the San Carlo Gresini Honda rider sliding out of contention. Another race crash for Simoncelli - his 5th of the year - will have done the Italian's prospects for next season no good. A simple front-end loss - pushing too hard on lap 7 - saw Simoncelli end with another DNF. The Italian now sits in 10th in the championship, three points behind his teammate Hiroshi Aoyama on a satellite spec Honda. Simoncelli is on a factory RC212V, but is 50 points behind 4th-place man Pedrosa, who missed three races and has a DNF at Le Mans, and 93 points behind Andrea Dovizioso, the man he will be fighting for a seat with next season. With each race crash, Simoncelli loses that contest.
And then there's the Ducatis. Nicky Hayden was mildly miffed not to have got past Valentino Rossi after the pair of the factory Ducatis spent all race close together fighting over 6th. At the end of the race, Hayden joked with Rossi that Rossi should have let him past at his home race, and that the Italian owed him one at Indianapolis. Rossi was not going to let Hayden by that easily, though, after working hard to keep him behind.
But the real problem is that both the new bike and the old bike finished within a second of one another. Rossi on the GP11.1 may have finished ahead of Hayden on the GP11, but the margin was as fairly negligible. Rossi was keen to point out that they were still working out how to get the best out of the new bike, while Hayden had stuck with the old bike because it gave him the best chance of a good result. So the comparison was not entirely fair, but the problems remain the same.
The new bike is more stable and doesn't move so much at the rear, Rossi explained, but he had lost some rear grip. Ducati would be bringing a revised electronics package to Brno to help deal with this, the Italian said, but the problem with a lack of grip at the front remained. The problem was especially bad at extreme lean angles, and given the way that an 800cc MotoGP bike needs to be ridden - at high lean angles carrying as much corner speed as possible - this is a giant problem for the Bologna factory.
With rumors of Ducati working on a conventional chassis doing the rounds of the paddock, Rossi denied once again he knew anything about it. "I don't know," Rossi said, "because I am a rider." He hoped that Filippo Preziosi had an answer, though: "One answer. One is enough!" But to be forced to persevere with the current situation meant that he had revised his objectives much earlier on in the season. Even though he had won a race in every season since 1996, he conceded that this could be the first season he might fail to do so. "If it doesn't snow, it will be difficult!" he joked.
Nicky Hayden found it a little harder to laugh, the lack of competitiveness starting to wear thin for the American. Finishing 30 seconds off the pace after racing so hard was frustrating, more than just the position which he had finished in. "Sometimes, you just take it on the chin," Hayden said philosophically. Both Hayden and Rossi are likely to be taking it on the chin for some time to come.