It may be, in the colorful phrase of Jeremy Burgess, a "sh*tty little race track," but somehow Laguna Seca always manages to produce moments of magic. This year was no different, with Stefan Bradl finally getting his first podium, Marc Marquez breaking record after record, and Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa coming back after both damaging their collarbones at the Sachsenring.
As memorable as those performances were, they will all be overshadowed by one moment. Marc Marquez passed Valentino Rossi in the Corkscrew on lap 4, running through the dirt in scenes reminiscent of Rossi's iconic pass on Casey Stoner back in 2008. The incident fired the imagination of MotoGP fans for so very many different reasons: the reminder of Rossi's pass on Stoner; the even deeper line which Marquez took through the gravel in 2013; the thrill of a rider running through that corner and still managing to return and maintain his position.
Naturally, it was the talk of the press conference. When asked about the pass, Rossi turned his attention to HRC team principal (and Marc Marquez' team boss) Livio Suppo. Suppo was Casey Stoner's team boss back in 2008, and had complained bitterly of Rossi's pass at the Corkscrew. "You and Stoner break my balls for two or three years about that overtake, because I cut the kerb. So what do you say about that? Have to be disqualified hey?" Rossi asked to much laughter. Not to be outdone, Suppo replied in kind: "Thanks for the question, and thanks to Marc, because after a few years, we pay you back!"
The question is, was the pass even legal? The two protagonists were perfectly happy with the pass. "For me is a normal overtake. Nothing bad with the rules. We have to have the potential for make an overtake without having a problem with Race Direction," Rossi said. "For me, I think it is quite a special place," Marquez agreed. "You cannot do it every lap, but if you do one time in the race, why not? Also we need to be a little bit free in the mind, because in the end, the people watch to see a show. "
But Marquez did exit the track, so shouldn't he have had to give the position back? The rules governing on-track behavior are clear enough, and set out in section 1.21 of the FIM sporting code for Grand Prix roadracing. The two relevant articles appear below:
2) Riders must ride in a responsible manner which does not cause danger to other competitors or participants, either on the track or in the pit-lane. Any infringement of this rule will be penalised with one of the following penalties: penalty points - fine - change of position - ride through –time penalty – drop of any number of grid position at the rider’s next race – disqualification - withdrawal of Championship points - suspension.
3) Riders should use only the track and the pit-lane. However, if a rider accidentally leaves the track then he may rejoin it at the place indicated by the officials or at a place which does not provide an advantage to him. Any infringement of this rule during the practices or warm up will be penalised by the cancellation of the lap time concerned and during the race, by a change of position decided by the Race Direction.
Did Marquez' pass violate section 1.21.2? Marquez passed Rossi on the way up the hill, then got pushed wide by the Italian under braking for the Corkscrew. He left the track and then rejoined nowhere near Rossi, without endangering any other riders. Clearly, the pass did not violate that section of the rules.
What about exiting the track? Marquez indisputably left the track, rejoining further down the Corkscrew. Was this a violation of section 1.21.3? The crucial passage in that rule is the second sentence: "if a rider accidentally leaves the track then he may rejoin it at the place indicated by the officials or at a place which does not provide an advantage to him."
Did Marquez gain an advantage? The Repsol Honda man was already ahead of Rossi as they started to brake for the corner at the crest of the Corkscrew, but in an attempt to get the better of him, Rossi tried braking a fraction later. It turned out to be a fraction too late, the Italian running wide and forcing Marquez off the track and into the dirt. Marquez had his front wheel ahead Rossi's in the first part of 8a, before being forced to stand the bike up as Rossi trail braked and hit the outside edge of 8a. His front bike was running wide and into the Repsol Honda of Marquez, forcing the Spaniard further to the right.
As they flicked back right again through 8b, Rossi was hanging on to try to force the bike through the turn. He only just made, but even then found himself crossing the dirt, riding just inside the kerb and technically outside of the track. By this time, Marquez was well off into the hard-packed ground on inside the corner, crossing the off-track section outside of the drain. Marquez finally made it back to the track a few meters later, and joined ahead of Rossi having held on to second position.
Marquez did not gain an advantage through the turn; Rossi, by messing up his braking, ran wide, off the track, and had to back off to safely negotiate the corner. That Rossi had only just hung on to his bike and lost a lot of time attempting to defend his line was clear from the sector times. The lap before, Rossi had gone taken just 18.9 seconds to go through the third sector, which includes the Corkscrew. Forced to back off on lap 4, Rossi took a whole second longer to manage the Corkscrew without crashing. Ben Spies, commentating with the official MotoGP.com commentary team as he was not yet fit to race at Laguna Seca, called the move immediately: Rossi had overshot the corner, and left Marquez nowhere to go.
While it is that pass which will be remembered, it was the rest of Marquez' performance that ended up making history. Marquez became the first ever rookie to win a race at Laguna Seca. He became the first rookie to take a podium in eight of the first nine races. He became the youngest rider to take back-to-back wins. And he takes a commanding lead - 16 points over Dani Pedrosa, 26 points over Jorge Lorenzo - into the summer break. Marquez is on course to equal the record set by Kenny Roberts in 1978, and win the championship as a rookie. Given the odds being offered by betting companies, beating Marquez will be a tough thing to do.
The fact that Marquez won at Laguna Seca is illustrative of ability, certainly, but it says perhaps more about his attitude. He had studied video of the track before arriving, he said, and it had looked 'tricky'. The Spaniard spent Friday learning the lines, and then Saturday finding the bumps - including one during qualifying at Turn 8 which he had missed earlier - and on Sunday, he was ready to take the win. He did not appear to have taken the warnings that Laguna Seca was too difficult to learn during a single visit very seriously.
It is reminiscent of the story of the mathematician George Dantzig, who arrived late at a post-graduate statistics class, copied down the problems from the blackboard, then submitted the answers a couple of weeks later, describing solving the problems as 'a little harder than usual.' The problems Dantzig had copied down and solved were not the homework which had been set, but a couple of problems regarded as almost impossible to solve. Unaware that what he was doing was supposed to be hard, Dantzig had tackled the problem with tenacity and ingenuity, and solved them. Likewise, Marc Marquez appears to regard riding a MotoGP motorcycle at maximum speed as 'a little harder than usual', but very far from insurmountable. An open mind and a fearless attitude is paying dividends.
What will Marquez be doing over the summer break? "Try to review a little bit the first part of the season, and try to improve our mistakes." Given that so far, Marquez has made his mistakes during practice rather than the race, falling only once in the race at Mugello when he found the limit of the tires, the competition should be worried. But as Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo have so graphically demonstrated, you can damage your title hopes just as badly during practice as you can during the race.
There was more to Laguna Seca than just Marc Marquez, however, and 'that pass'. It was clear that the Hondas were stronger than the Yamahas at the US GP, as witnessed by the fact that Valentino Rossi was the only Yamaha in the top five. Stefan Bradl's outstanding weekend started with strong results during practice, taking pole on Saturday, and ended up with his first ever podium finish in MotoGP. What was even more impressive for the German was that he looked confident and comfortable all weekend, rarely flustered and consistently fast. There are those who insist that Bradl's speed was related to the delay in Honda signing the option to extend his contract for another year. The same whisperings were heard in relation to Alvaro Bautista, and the performance clause which he is believed to have in his contract.
Though it is true that there was plenty of discussion going on at Laguna Seca - Bradl was rumored to have been summoned to meet senior HRC staff after the race at Laguna, without LCR Honda staff present - the answer is somewhat simpler. The podium - and indeed the win - was easier to achieve with the two men tipped for the championship slowed by injury. Neither Jorge Lorenzo nor Dani Pedrosa were strong enough to challenge for the win, and were riding careful races aimed at maximizing their points haul. Had both men been fit, there would have been a lot more competition for the top spot.
This fact was not lost on Marc Marquez either. "You never want a bad moment for any rider," Marquez said, "but they took the risk to come here and Dani took 11 points and Jorge took 10. And even like that [with broken collarbones - MM], they finish 9 seconds and 12 seconds behind me, so they did a very good job. For that reason, I am interested in making a race with them at their 100% level, because then we will see the reality, where my level is."
In the midst of the howling Hondas, Valentino Rossi did well to stand his ground. He was the only Yamaha to be able to put up any resistance - Jorge Lorenzo was still suffering, and Cal Crutchlow had what he described as his worst qualifying and his worst race, though he admitted he had no excuses - and his battle carried him to the podium. He had no answer for Marc Marquez - few do at the moment - but he held off a charging Bautista for the last five laps or more to hold on to third.
Rossi was delighted, much more so at Laguna Seca than a week ago in Germany, he said. "This podium is a lot more important and make me a lot more happy compared to Sachsenring, because in Sachsenring I think I can have a better potential. Here we work in a better way with the team, we stay concentrated, and try as much as possible. For the race, my bike was OK. In this track , it looks like we suffer a bit compared to the Hondas, we are a bit slow."
Rossi's confidence is growing. The bike is still not exactly where he needs it to be, but his team is still making progress and finding ways to solve each problem as it arises. Though his former days of dominance may be past, the goal he set himself when he returned to Yamaha - to be able to compete with Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa (and now Marc Marquez) for podiums and wins - is within reach. "Race by race I have more feeling I can stay in front, I can enjoy and can do some good results in the races and in the championship," Rossi said. "For that I am happy."
MotoGP is now packed up, the bikes heading off to Indianapolis ready for the third of the US rounds in four weeks' time, the riders and teams back to their respective homes and a well-earned vacation. The first half of the championship has been intriguing. The second half could see some real fireworks.