The life of a MotoGP rider can seem utterly sublime to outsiders. Flying around the globe to ride the most advanced motorcycles on the planet at some of the best tracks in the world sounds like a pretty idyllic existence. Combine this with a very generous salary, a three-day work week and continuous VIP treatment - including a fresh supply of attractive young companions - and for anyone who loves motorcycles, it is hard to imagine a better life.
Like all idealized depictions - whether it be of glitzy Hollywood fame or the serenity of an Italian hilltop village - it glosses over the less attractive parts of reality. No one ever mentions the long hours of training to achieve the necessary level of fitness to be competitive, the self-denial to ensure that your weight is kept to an absolute minimum, the endless hours of boredom either attending, or waiting to attend, the PR events which your sponsors demand.
Nor does anyone talk about the fact that you are in some degree of pain for much of the season, either recovering from a crash at previous races or from freshly received injuries at the current event. Nor do you hear about the chronic exhaustion as you chase around from one end of Europe to another, or even worse, from one continent to the next, to attend the next race, or to do some testing, or to launch a new motorcycle for your manufacturer. Look beyond the superficial glamor and the life of a MotoGP rider is a pretty tough existence.
Busy Busy Busy
The US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca is a case in point. The last of a series of back-to-back race weekends, in which the riders have competed in 6 races in 8 weekends, Laguna Seca marks the end of the grueling first half of the MotoGP season. The MotoGP paddock arrives at Laguna Seca after a 12 hour flight from Germany - if they've been lucky enough to get a direct flight, that is - to cross a 9 hour time difference, to get ready for a race which comes just 7 days after the German Grand Prix. Most of the paddock are carrying some kind of injury or illness or infection picked up during the hard slog of the season, and are longing for a break.
Instead, in one of the most important markets for the motorcycle manufacturers (despite a sliding dollar and slumping housing market), the first thing that exhausted MotoGP stars get to do once they land on US soil is roll up for a series of PR and publicity engagements, still carrying around that dazed, jet-lagged, grubby feeling that only international air travel can bestow. Their diaries are full from dawn till deep in the night from the moment they land to the minute they roll out on the track for the first practice.
Adding insult to injury, the track they roll out onto is another tight, twisty track with no straights to speak of, and a couple of the most difficult turns on the calendar. With even the front straight containing a high-speed kink, and the turns leading into each other to such an extent that a mistake in one corner can cost you time through the next four or five turns, there is nowhere that the riders can relax and catch their breath. It's a place that requires utter concentration every inch of the way, for all 32 laps of the race.
Close Your Eyes And Pray
The track starts very much as it means to go on. Turn 1 at Laguna Seca may not be much to look at on a track map, just a left kink before you line up for the Andretti Hairpin, but in the flesh, it's one of the scariest turns on the calendar. Taken wide open in top gear, the turn sits atop the crest of a hill, before dropping away as you start braking hard for the hairpin. The combination of speed and the crest means the bike is hanging onto the track more by rider will power than the comfortingly sticky combination of rubber and asphalt.
After the hairpin, you get a couple of pretty straightforward, flat turns at 3 and 4 where you can almost relax, were it not for the danger of overestimating the grip you have, used as you are to the extra grip from the banked turns elsewhere around the circuit.
Once through the flat area around the dry lake that gave the track its name, and having negotiated the hard braking zone for the Turn 5 left hander without getting passed by anyone sitting behind you, it's time to climb the hill up to the most famous part of the circuit, and some of the most daunting sections of track on the calendar. Hard on the power up into Turn 6, which is blind, fast, and absolutely crucial to the rest of your lap. Get this left hander wrong, and people will be flying past through the kink of Turn 7 on their way into The Corkscrew.
The Corkscrew. One of the few officially schizophrenic corners in the world. Anywhere else, it would be called a chicane, but at Laguna, this is a corner which consists of Turn 8 (the first part, going left) and Turn 8A (the second part, going back right). To some extent, the Corkscrew's unique identification is justified. It is blind drop down a steep hill, flicking left and right, where the bikes almost get some air before lining up for Turn 9. The danger is that you're left hanging in midair, like Wile E Coyote, before hitting the bottom of the turn with a bang. Momentum is key, and if you can maintain that, you can launch yourself through the second part of the turn and be off into Rainey.
Turn 9, named after the former World 500cc Champion, is all about speed. Banked and downhill, you fly through here and then through Turn 10, getting ready for your last chance at passing the rider ahead, or working as hard as possible to defend against attacks from behind, heading into the hard braking zone for Turn 11. If you make it through here in one piece, it's back on the gas and changing up through the gears, bracing yourself once again to face the fearsome Turn 1. You've barely had time to draw breath, and you're already getting ready to work your way around the track once again.
My Beautiful Life
If any illustration was needed of the dark side of being a MotoGP star, then you only need to look at the predicament of Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man suffered a nasty high-speed crash while leading the race at the Sachsenring, cracking bones in his ankle and left hand. More importantly, he went from leading the championship to trailing Valentino Rossi by 16 points, with Casey Stoner breathing down his neck. And so, after treatment by Dr Costa at the track in Germany, he flew back to Barcelona to be examined by Dr Mir of the Dexeus Institute where he stayed under observation for 32 hours. Then, on Wednesday morning, he started his flight to San Francisco, where he will attempt to race at Laguna Seca.
Pedrosa will arrive at the track in pain, and most likely severely jet-lagged. He will then climb aboard a 220+ horsepower MotoGP bike and try and muscle it around one of the busiest race tracks in the world with a broken bone in his hand. The carbon brakes being used mean the bikes reach almost 2G under braking, so Pedrosa will be attempting to bear twice his - admittedly slight - body weight on one good hand and some broken bones. Most likely, the two-time 250 world champion will only manage to score a handful of points, whilst seeing his main rivals for the championship pull even further away in the standings. Throughout all this, he will be in constant, nagging pain, and is unlikely to be able to sleep well thanks to the broken bones in his hand and ankle. That's a high price to pay for the glamorous MotoGP lifestyle.
Pedrosa isn't the only man riding with an injury. Kawasaki's Ant West is riding with fractured vertebra, an incredibly painful injury at such a physically demanding track. Loris Capirossi is still in some pain from the arm injury he picked up when he crashed his Suzuki at Assen - a crash which may have been partially caused by riding with a broken hand he picked up in Barcelona. Fiat Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo may be mostly recovered from the many serious injuries he picked up early in the season, but he crashed out of the Sachsenring race, and though he was unhurt in the crash, the confidence he is slowly rebuilding will surely have taken another knock.
Crisis Of Confidence
For it's not just physical injuries which can hamper riders. A sudden dip in form can cause a rider to lose his confidence, and all of a sudden, the fans crowding his table at the poster signing sessions are fewer in number, and are asking the kind of questions that are difficult to answer. Just look at Tech 3 Yamaha's James Toseland and Alice Ducati's Toni Elias. Toseland shot into the MotoGP firmament with a front row start at his first race, but after qualifying close to last at his home Grand Prix then crashing out at the first corner, the reigning World Superbike champion suffered a crisis in form which has seen him well down the order and struggling to make progress, especially at tracks he already knows. Having ridden here in World Superbike, Toseland must fear that he will not be able to live up to the very high expectations which surround him.
The same can be said for Toni Elias. A Grand Prix winner aboard the Gresini Honda, but since switching to the satellite Ducati team, Elias has struggled to show progress. Apart from a single foray into the top 10, the man formerly lionized by the fans is now languishing near the back of the pack, his confidence shot. If there's one track where you don't want to spend your time trying to rebuild your confidence, Laguna Seca is definitely it.
Having said that, there is one man who could possibly regain some of his confidence at the dry lake. Marco Melandri's travails with the factory Ducati - the bike which his team mate is using to humiliate the competition - are well publicized, and have been discussed at length in the media. The official announcement in Germany that Melandri will not be with Ducati next year merely underlined the Italian's problems. The question remains whether Melandri will see out the season with the team, or whether Ducati will be drafting in Sete Gibernau to ride for the team after the summer break.
Before the Sachsenring race, Ducati boss Livio Suppo implied that Melandri had two races to redeem himself, as both the Sachsenring and Laguna Seca are tracks which Melandri goes really well at - despite his bitter criticism of the Californian track during his first visit here. So the US Grand Prix is Melandri's chance to stay with the team until Valencia. Whether he can tame Laguna on the Ducati as well as he did on the Honda remains to be seen, but his immediate future will depend on it.
Casey Stoner proved last year that it can be done, in emphatic fashion. The Australian ran away with the race last year, Laguna Seca proving a vital stepping stone on his way to the world title. With Stoner's current resurgent form, and with so little time between races for the other teams to respond to his improvement, it would be a foolish person who would bet against a repeat of last year's dominance. Based on the evidence of the past few races, we should know whether Stoner will be stomping all over the competition by about the 4th lap of the 1st session of free practice. At previous tracks, that's how long it's taken Stoner to be on, or over, record pace. If he's that fast on Friday, the race could effectively already be over.
The man most capable of preventing that will be under a lot of pressure at Laguna Seca. Valentino Rossi started the season slowly, but by the time he'd won his third race of the season in Mugello, it looked like he could be romping to another triumphant title. Since Barcelona, Stoner has come back with a vengeance, with Rossi so far powerless to respond and forced to settle for 2nd place. Add to this the fact that Laguna Seca is a track where The Doctor has yet to win, and has never been particularly happy at, and you start to see the scale of the challenge ahead of him. Rossi's 5 premier class titles say that this is the sort of challenge that Rossi can handle, but it makes it no less formidable.
Complicating Rossi's challenge even further is the fact that there are a bunch of riders who are incredibly fast at Laguna Seca, and who could easily contend for the podium here, robbing the Italian of crucial points. The most unpredictable of those challengers is Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen. The Australian loves this track and is superb here, having been on the podium here last year, and cruelly robbed of a podium by mechanical problems the year before. If there is one race that Vermeulen could win in dry conditions, it is surely the US GP at Laguna Seca. If it weren't for the formidable combination of Casey Stoner and Ducati, and the problems that Suzuki have had so far this year, you could provisionally pencil Vermeulen's name in for the win. Despite the Suzuki's lack of performance, Vermeulen is a very strong candidate for a podium spot, and coming off a podium in the wet race at the Sachsenring, his confidence is high.
For the American MotoGP regulars, seeing an Australian win their home Grand Prix is a very bitter pill to swallow. And after watching someone else win for the past 3 years in a row, Colin Edwards will be more determined than ever to try to put an end to that and win it himself. Edwards has been very strong this season, meshing with the Yamaha, the Tech 3 team and the Michelins perfectly all year, a fact underlined by his newly signed contract for 2009. And with right equipment under him, the Texas Tornado could well sweep across Northern California on Sunday.
Though Nicky Hayden would surely be pleased to see an American win the US Grand Prix, the American he really wants to see win on Sunday is Nicky Hayden. The Kentucky Kid won the first two times MotoGP visited Laguna Seca, but the advantage of local track knowledge is now just about gone. Hayden's fortunes have been deeply troubled since the switch to the 800 class, and the revival he has shown aboard the pneumatic valve engine - an engine which suits his riding style much better - has been hampered by teething troubles from the new power plant, and in Germany, by problems with tires. His luck has been terrible since taking the world title in Valencia in 2006, and he is due for a turnaround. A victory for the Kentuckian at Laguna Seca would a fairytale comeback, but looking at his season so far, it's likely to remain exactly that, a fairy tale.
Hayden and Edwards won't be the only Americans at Laguna Seca this weekend. Though MotoGP regular John Hopkins is out of the race with a broken leg he picked up in Assen, his seat at Kawasaki will be taken by the American veteran Jamie Hacking. Hacking is the only rider in the world capable of making a Kawasaki superbike competitive this year, and has been rewarded for his efforts with the replacement ride at Laguna Seca. At 37 years of age, Hacking is hardly a contender to make the switch to MotoGP, and only really got the ride because Roger Lee Hayden, his team mate, has been out of the running for most of the season following a big crash at Barber Motorsports Park. But the British-born Hacking was fast at tests at Autopolis in Japan, breaking the lap record there, so he should be able to score some points at Laguna. His benchmark is Rog Hayden's 10th place at Laguna Seca last year, and that's what he's aiming at.
Gizza Job, I Can Do That
Double AMA Superbike champion Ben Spies will be aiming a little higher than that. Spies' two wildcard rides aboard the Rizla Suzuki are very much an audition for a spot in the MotoGP paddock next year. Spies is incredibly strong at Laguna, having won here several times in AMA Superbike, but he will have to do well in the MotoGP race if he is to make the transition for 2009. Complicating matters is the fact that Spies also has two AMA Superbike rounds to contest, to consolidate his lead in that series. A world class performance in all three races may be a little too much to ask, even of someone as talented as Spies, so the question is, what will impress the MotoGP paddock more? Can the Texan go for a solid finish in MotoGP, concentrating on taking a double in the Superbike races? Or should he put all his cards on the MotoGP race, and risk falling short in the AMA series? It's going to be a tough weekend for Spies, and a real test of his mettle.
It's going to be a tough weekend for the rookies who haven't raced here before as well. Laguna Seca is an intimidating track, and is difficult to learn, so Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso and Alex de Angelis all have their work cut out for them. Lorenzo is still building confidence, something which de Angelis will be brimming with after falling just short of the podium at the Sachsenring. Meanwhile, with the silly season about to be propelled into top gear, as it traditionally is during the summer break, Andrea Dovizioso will be aiming at a solid result, hoping to get his hands on Nicky Hayden's Repsol Honda ride for 2009.
Indeed, with contract time rapidly approaching, everyone will be scrabbling for a decent performance. Randy de Puniet, Shinya Nakano and Sylvain Guintoli are all uncertain of their future, with Guintoli perhaps the strongest candidate to remain in the series. But a good result at Laguna Seca will remain in team managers' minds longer during the summer break than weaker showings which have preceded the US race. They have a lot of hard work to do.
Once More Unto The Breach
The US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca marks the end of a long, hard slog for the MotoGP paddock. With so many races in so short a period, there's been no time for the riders to recover from injury, to regain confidence, even to pause for reflection, and to think about ways to improve their riding. Nor have the teams had any time to do much more than just patch damaged bikes up and send them back out again, with no time to sit down, examine the data, and think about what it means and how the bikes can be improved. Riders, teams, even MotoGP journalists and followers are all longing for a break, for a chance to catch up with some sleep and sort things out away from the hectic life of the paddock.
But before they can do that, they face one last challenge. They first have to conquer the tight and twisty Laguna Seca track, and face one of the most frenetic weekends of the year. They'll be glad once it's all over. As long as the break that follows doesn't last too long.