Back in the spring of 2010, I was asked by Chris Jonnum, editor of the late and very much lamented motorcycle racing monthly Road Racer X to do a story on the bikes that won the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca throughout the years. The story meant I got to talk to a lot of people about a single subject, and turned up some fascinating material. One of the most interesting interviews I did was with Valentino Rossi's veteran crew chief, Jeremy Burgess about the race that Rossi won at Laguna Seca in 2008, when he beat Casey Stoner in one of the most thrilling races of recent history.
Burgess spoke to me prior to the 2010 French MotoGP round at Le Mans, while Rossi and Burgess were still with the factory Yamaha team, and talked about their strategy in taking on and beating Casey Stoner and the Ducati, what it takes to win at Laguna Seca, and the difference between Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa. Here's the interview:
MotoMatters: How did the victory at Laguna Seca in 2008 come about?
Jeremy Burgess: I'd have to say it was a pivotal point in the championship to make a statement with Casey. The bike certainly wasn't faster than Casey's bike, but with Laguna being such a unique track, where the straight has a corner on it, a long corner. So it was more of a tactical race than a bike performance race. It was a case of making sure that we were in front of Casey.
Casey had been dominant through all of the practices, and comfortably dominant. So his mindset was probably, "this is my race, I'm going to win this easy". What Casey hadn't dealt with, was the possibility of someone being in front of him. So my message to Valentino was exactly that, Casey hasn't thought about having to race anyone, he's thought only about winning the race.
Valentino either took that on board or had already worked it out for himself quite probably, because Wayne Rainey and I had discussed it after qualifying, that Casey's mind would probably only be used to being in the lead, in control. To have anything else thrown up in front of him that he hadn't seen through the course of the practices may have rattled him a little bit. So our plan was clearly that, to get ahead of Casey, which we did at the chicane, and we led if you remember every time onto the straight.
MM: I remember watching Rossi and Stoner through Turn 1. Rossi would come out of the final corner ahead, Stoner would start catching him and Rossi would slide across leaving Stoner only the outside line around Turn 1.
JB: It wasn't a case of offering him anything, that was the only place to pass, it was a case of not giving him the ideal line. So if Casey was going to pass Valentino round a corner, it was going to be the long way round, which is the only place to pass, unless you do it in the braking area.
My feeling at the time was that Casey probably only had one game plan, and having watched Casey over the years, he doesn't have a plan B. If it doesn't go his way from the outset, it's probably one of the weaknesses that he had through the youth that he had, through the lack of experience that he had. That's not a criticism of him per se, he was still only 22 at the time.
And that was it, it was clearly a tactical race. They both cleared off in the vicinity of 20 seconds ahead of Chris Vermeulen, and Casey was able to pick it up after slipping off at Turn 11 and still finish second.
MM: You found a couple of tenths in the morning, what did you do to the bike?
JB: We often do things to the bike, the more practice you get, the more analysis you have, the better the decisions you can make. Like here in Le Mans this weekend [in 2010], you can make the bike good in one section, or you can see that you're bad in one section. So you set about to improve.
In Laguna, there's a number of issues. It's a shitty little race track with low gearing and high RPM, and no rest at all, so it's quite difficult, and to be perfectly fair it's highly undesirable for the sort of motorcycles we're riding. And add to that the topography of the place, and it's something that European riders when they first go there are terrified of.
Certainly there are elevation changes where the bikes would leave the ground and do all sorts of things. I mean it's lovely to have a racetrack like that, but it's really probably not a great racetrack. It created a great race on that particular day, mind you, and everyone said there should definitely be more races like them - everybody except Casey.
But it certainly wasn't all machine. The disappointing thing about Laguna for me technically is that you can go there on Friday afternoon and do 21.9, and work on the bike all weekend and you'll still do 21.9. So it tells me that the guys are just wrestling the thing around as best they can, and there's not much in it for us to technically improve the bike.
MM: Is that why the Yamaha M1 is good around the track? It seems to be an easier bike to ride.
JB: Well, we only came second and third there last year [2009 - MM], and we've only ever won there once. And as far as Grand Prix goes, me personally, I've only ever won there once, with Valentino. As we saw with Nicky, it's a little bit of a local hero's track, the Europeans are looking for the technical edge on the bike, whereas the guys who have raced there all their lives know that they just have to wrestle it around and take the right lines. And Colin was able to beat Valentino there in 2005.
MM: Do you think that's how Rossi learned his way around the track, by following Edwards around?
JB. Well he saw where Colin passed him, and he wanted to make sure that never happened again, and he knew where he passed Casey. It's the sort of racetrack that favors the brave, but at the same time if you ran the measuring stick around the place you might not find that it doesn't quite measure up. We'd rather be racing at 5km tracks than the ones that say they're 3.5km while they're really 3.3km.
MM: It's interesting, I was asked to write a story about the bikes that have won there, but everyone I've spoken to says that it's not about the bike, it's about the rider around Laguna.
JB: Yes, I mean, it seems to have a massive ability to favor the local riders.
MM: Is that atmosphere or track knowledge? Is it like the Spanish finding something extra at the racetracks in Spain?
JB: Well, therein we show the weakness, don't we? If you can get up on that weekend, on the technical racetracks of Spain, why can't you get up on the technical racetracks likeAustralia, where the Italians do? Lorenzo is a guy who will and does. Stoner has been able to get up on tracks all over the world. Unfortunately, Dani Pedrosa's into his 6th year in MotoGP, and he's won 8 races [since Le Mans 2010, Pedrosa's total is up to 14 MotoGP victories - MM], Jorge Lorenzo's two months into his 3rd and he's won 6 [Lorenzo's current total is now 16 - MM]. It's night and day between those two, is the way I see it. Dani's an extremely fast rider, but a shockingly poor racer.
MM: Were you surprised at Jerez  when Pedrosa fought back when Lorenzo passed him?
JB: When did Dani fight back? With two laps to go, and he didn't even get close enough to try to come back. Dani has never been a fighter in races, he's a lovely kid, don't get me wrong, but you can see that Lorenzo, having Pedrosa in front of him, it was never going to be the way he was going to finish that race. He was going to finish on the ground or he was going to finish in front of Pedrosa. That's the sort of race that we want, we had that with Biaggi and Valentino, and from history with Schwantz and Rainey. All the good riders have always had somebody they have had to put the target on the back of. It was Doohan and Gardner, and Doohan won that battle hands down, and I think Jorge Lorenzo's going to win this battle [with Pedrosa] hands down.