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.
It certainly has a couple of very special spots around it. Say "Laguna Seca", and the first thing any race fan will mention is the Corkscrew. The steep downhill chicane - left then right, with a blind entry at the top of a long climb, followed by a treacherous flat left hander - has been the scene of some spectacular battles, and is a key to getting round the circuit quickly. But the biggest corner at Laguna is three corners later, after the riders have crossed the finish line again.
Turn 1 is a monster of a corner. Sixth gear, flat out, blind, with the wide Andretti Hairpin to follow. Though the corner has been improved by the removal of the hillside - there is runoff there now, where before there was none - it is still a fast and terrifying prospect. The track becomes very narrow at that speed, and getting it right becomes a real priority. The corner was key to the 2008 battle between Rossi and Stoner, with Rossi holding the door firmly shut at that corner all through the race, knowing that if Stoner got past there, the race would be over. It is also the place of one of the bravest passes in recent years, when Stoner ran round the outside of Jorge Lorenzo in 2011 to take the lead on the way to victory.
Clearly the circuit is one full of secrets. It is not a track which is easily mastered in just a couple of sessions, making life tough for championship leader Marc Marquez. At the Sachsenring, Valentino Rossi was not convinced the Repsol Honda prodigy would have too much trouble. "I expect this [jocular expletive] to be fast. Laguna is a strange track and very particular but I am sure Marc will be fast. For him, one weekend is enough for be competitive," Rossi told the post-race press conference in Germany. Having seen the scale of the challenge he faces, after his first encounter with the track, Marquez was impressed. "I expected less blind corners," the Spaniard said. "It looks like a very different track." Laguna's many cambered corners were cause for concern, Marquez felt, but he was relishing the challenge.
Can Marquez be competitive on his first visit to the idiosyncratic Californian track? Given the incredible speed with which Marquez has learned in his first year of MotoGP, it would be foolish to write him off. At the Sachsenring, he already had his planned worked out: "I will follow Valentino around for FP1!" he joked. Even without a tow around the circuit, he should be pretty much on the pace once it comes to Sunday.
Marc Marquez isn't the only factor making it hard to predict the outcome of the race on Sunday. Clearly, Valentino Rossi will be fast at Laguna Seca, a track which he likes a lot, and where he won one of his most important victories. Cal Crutchlow will be out for his first win, the Monster Tech 3 rider clearly on a roll. And then there's Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa …
Both men have won races here, Pedrosa in 2009 and Lorenzo in 2010. Under normal circumstances, the two Spaniards would be the favorite for the victory at Laguna Seca, but these are very far from normal circumstances. Both Lorenzo and Pedrosa managed to damage their collarbones at the last round a week ago in Germany, Lorenzo bending the plate which had been fitted to fix the bone he had broken at Assen two weeks earlier, and Pedrosa falling heavily and suffering a 60% fracture on the collarbone at the Sachsenring.
The two men are also suffering more with just the physical consequences of their injuries. Jorge Lorenzo came to the Sachsenring feeling on top of the world after his other-worldly performance at Assen, coming back to race 36 hours after surgery to fix his collarbone. His hubris was punished immediately, being flung off at Turn 10 and bending the plate in his shoulder. This surely must have given his confidence as big a knock as his shoulder, and Lorenzo will have to work his way slowly forward towards regaining his former speed.
Dani Pedrosa's long run - long for him, that is - free of injury also came to an end at the Sachsenring, crashing heavily and knocking himself silly when he fell on his head. The pain in his collarbone was bad, but not as bad as the bouts of dizziness and low blood pressure which kept him off the bike last Sunday. That dizziness seems to be gone now, leaving only the pain in his collarbone to deal with. The question remaining is, has Pedrosa's confidence suffered as a result of the fall? Pain can be dealt with, confidence takes a good deal more nurturing to return.
Then there's Stefan Bradl. The LCR Honda man is fighting for his seat, not something he was expecting to have to do. He is motivated, especially since having switched from Nissin to Brembo brakes, the Brembo's giving a marginally better feel than the Nissins did. Bradl also wants to prove a point, by showing that he deserves to keep his ride. To do that, he has to beat Cal Crutchlow fair and square, something he has only done once this season, and that was only after Crutchlow crashed out of the race. There are a few spots at Laguna that favor the Honda, but Bradl will need to be fast from the off if he is to put his bike ahead of Crutchlow this weekend.
The fly in the ointment at Laguna Seca could well be Aleix Espargaro. At the Sachsenring, a tight track like Laguna, Espargaro challenged the front-running factory prototypes for a while. The Spaniard is brimming with confidence, and the Aprilia ART only really loses out in fifth and sixth gear, according to those on factory prototypes who have ridden against it. That would only really be along the front straight at Laguna, and maybe up the hill on the Rahal Straight towards the Corkscrew. Laguna rewards a bike which is easy to handle, and the Aprilia is clearly that.
For Ducati, it will be another long weekend, the Desmosedici likely to suffer in some of the faster flat corners. For Nicky Hayden, it will be even tougher, as Hayden admitted at the press conference that he had been told by Ducati that they will not be needing his services in 2014. Hayden won the first two outings at the Laguna Seca track, in 2005 and 2006, but has suffered for a long time since then. Hayden's last Laguna Seca on a Ducati is not going to be much fun for the American.