Laguna Seca has a habit of throwing the championship a curve ball. The epic race between Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi in 2008 was a prime example, a turning point in the championship when Rossi halted what looked like the inexorable rise of Casey Stoner. Last year, too, Laguna proved to be key moment in the championship, when Stoner stopped Jorge Lorenzo's resurgence with one of the bravest passes in racing for a long time, through the ultra-fast Turn 1. With Laguna Seca the last race going into the summer break, winning or losing at the US GP can have a dramatic effect on the momentum of the championship.
Whether the same will be said of Laguna Seca in 2012 will only be clear at the end of the season. But it has all the signs of being a significant moment, for more than just the five points Casey Stoner clawed back from Jorge Lorenzo. The race, if not thrilling, was at least tense: there was little between the two men for most of the race, Stoner shadowing Lorenzo closely, snapping at his heels but not quite able to attempt a pass. The turning point came on lap 18. As the leading pair plunged down the Corkscrew, Lorenzo's sliding rear tire almost threw him out of the saddle. "I closed my eyes during the highside," the Yamaha man said afterwards, "and I was happy to still be in the seat when I opened them again."
Like a wolf scenting weakness, Stoner knew his prey was ripe for the kill. It took him a little over three laps, but as they powered out of the final corner and onto the front straight, Stoner managed the drive better, Lorenzo hesitating slightly as he fought the Yamaha's urge to wheelie along the the straight. Sliding through on the inside - a much easier pass than a year earlier, when Lorenzo had forced him to take the terrifying outside line through Turn 1 - Stoner was past, and pressed on to pull a gap. The winning margin, though not huge, was still very comfortable, large enough for Stoner to cruise across the line to seal victory.
The race had been one of tire management. Lorenzo, long with factory Yamaha teammate Ben Spies and Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa, had gone for the hard tire, the more conservative choice with the sun out and the temperatures starting to rise. But Stoner had not been able to make the hard rear tire work, struggling as they had for most of the season, and his crew took a gamble on the softer rear option. It paid off: though the Australian had to go easy on his tires in the middle of the race, to stop them from getting too much temperature in them, they gave him exactly what he needed to beat Lorenzo. While the hard tire was sliding more than expected, Stoner could exploit the extra grip he had to take the win.
The win was important to Stoner, but what he and his crew found at Laguna Seca could be even more significant. After being banned from racing the soft tire at Mugello, and fears that Bridgestone would prevent them from doing so again at Laguna, being able to race the softer of the two options opens up perspectives for the rest of the season. Now they have data for Bridgestone that shows the softer tire can be made to last without destroying itself, an issue which surfaced at Assen and has thrown Bridgestone into safety mode, the Japanese factory now being very conservative in all of its choices, issuing strong recommendations over tire choices and counseling teams to run with a little more pressure than they would like in order to keep temperatures down. If allowed a little leeway, the Stoner and his crew could be much more competitive for the rest of the season.
That still leaves him with Jorge Lorenzo to beat. The gap from Lorenzo to Stoner is 32 points, an easily achievable target with eight more races to go. But it will be very far from easy: a bad day at the office - an ordinary bad day, not one where he is being skittled into the gravel by another rider, that is - for Jorge Lorenzo merely means he finishes second rather than first. Lorenzo's results this year have been intimidating - 1 - 2 - 2 - 1 - 1 - 1 - DNF - 2 - 1 - 2 - and the Spaniard has never really looked like he was trying. The change to the capacity has brought the performance of the Yamaha much closer to the Honda, meaning that Lorenzo is no longer having to ride at the very limit every lap just to try to match Stoner. If Lorenzo was having to use the Hammer too much in 2011, this year, it's all about the Butter.
Watching the two men circulate provides a stunning contrast, and is a thing of beauty to behold. Lorenzo, at his most 'Mantequilla' is smooth as butter on a summer's day. He never looks like he is trying, riding more like he was being scored for style than racing a motorcycle at the outer limits of its performance envelope. Stoner, on the other hand, punishes the Honda RC213V beneath him as if he had been taking lessons from Torquemada. His style is wild, ragged, throwing the bike around and letting it squirm and wriggle like a captured eel. Lorenzo rounds the corners with the grand sweeping gestures of a medieval nobleman, while Stoner flings the bike into the corner, squares it off, and squirts it out like a Victorian pugilist, doing it what it takes to beat the corner into submission. Though there may not be passing on every lap, yet there is great aesthetic appeal in watching the two best motorcycle racers of the moment slug it out.
While everything is going perfectly for Jorge Lorenzo, the same cannot be said for Ben Spies. A mechanical failure could be said to vindicate Spies' earlier announcement that he would be leaving Yamaha, a collapsed swingarm leaving the Texan in the gravel. The official explanation was "a technical failure of the swingarm" - a phrase Spies needed prompting from Yamaha's press officer for - though no real details were revealed. The swingarm itself looked to be in one piece, with the failure clearly related to the shock support structure. Whether the failure was due to a bolt breaking, a linkage failing or snapping or a mount shearing, we are unlikely to find out. But what is clear is that Spies' run of bad luck is apparently endless. Two mechanical failures in a season - a cracked subframe at Qatar, and now a swingarm failure at Laguna Seca - is not acceptable at this level. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to have one mechanical failure in a season may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two....
Spies was not the only rider to suffer misfortune, Valentino Rossi crashed out late in the race. The Italian locked the front under braking for the Corkscrew, throwing his Ducati Desmosedici into the air fence. The problem Rossi has is much the same as it has always been, getting temperature into the front tire, and providing feeling and feedback from the front end. The front tire was "like new" after the crash, 30 laps in to a 32 lap race. It was an ignominious end to a difficult weekend for the Italian, and does not bode well for his future at Ducati. The Italian had a meeting with Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio at Laguna Seca, where he was presented with an offer for next season. The offer - Rossi strongly denied the rumored 17 million euro salary level, saying that it was less than the last two seasons, a reduction he said was justified by the results he has scored on the Ducati - was less important than the conditions of the deal, and the promise of improvements from the Bologna factory. Spanish magazine Solo Moto is reporting that Masao Furusawa had meetings at Borgo Panigale, suggesting that Ducati is doing everything in their power to keep the Italian.
Rossi was asked many times this weekend about what he will do, and each time he replied that he will go away for a holiday to think about what he wants to do. The choice is clear: to be immediately competitive on a Yamaha or to continue on his quest to win a title on a Ducati. The Yamaha will give him a shot at Agostini's record of wins in all classes; the Ducati offers him the opportunity to write history of his own, and be the first man to conquer a title in the premier class on three different makes of motorcycle. The temptation of that challenge is great - Rossi emphasized it again and again, especially to the Italian press - but he needs Ducati to start making progress which they simply haven't shown so far. He does not have too much longer in the class, two to three years at most, and he may not be able to hold out until the influence of new owners Audi starts to trickle through to Ducati Corse.
What will Rossi do? I really do not know, though most paddock insiders are convinced he will make a return to Yamaha - whatever the conditions imposed upon him. As far as I can tell - harder than usual, sitting in my home instead of at trackside in Laguna - I don't think Rossi has made his mind up yet, and his decision will depend on the time of day you ask him. Another week, and he will have made a decision; a couple of weeks more, and that decision will be public. Whatever his decision, the title of his autobiography is as relevant as ever: What if he had never had tried it?