Some Like It Hot
Motorcycle racing, just in case you haven't noticed, is an outdoors sport. As such, it is ever at the mercy of the elements. And the 2006 MotoGP season has been dominated by the vagaries of the weather more than any other season in recent memory. Rain was the seemingly ever present companion to the series for the first few rounds, finally letting up when we reached Barcelona. But just as the riders had gotten used to not having to deal with the complexities which rain throws into the racing mix, Laguna Seca threw them a curve ball. It didn't rain in Monterey all weekend, it was hot. And not just a little hot, it was a pavement-scorching, rubber-melting, rider-wearing heat, with temperatures of over 100 F in the shade. In fact it was so hot that both American Superbike rider Ben Bostrom and Dani Pedrosa's mentor Alberto Puig had to be taken to the medical center to be treated for heat-related problems.
Even worse, the heat forced the track temperature up above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures not seen in a race since Malaysia in 2004. With the track at Laguna Seca surrounded by scrub, there is little vegetation or other shade to absorb the heat, so when it gets really hot, the heat is all reflected back to the crowd, the riders and the track. All this heat made finding tires and settings difficult during practice, with riders constantly struggling for grip, finding a tire which would work in the morning, when track temperatures were lower, but not in the blazing afternoon sun. And while the heat proved influential during practice, when race time came, it became the dominant factor, deciding not just the result of the race, but probably also the outcome of the 2006 MotoGP world championship title.
As the riders lined up on the grid, the heat had already claimed one victim for the day: the FIM had postponed all of the AMA events, including rounds of the US Superbike series, until after the MotoGP bikes had finished, after parts of the track had started breaking up due to the heat. With the grid full of very nervous looking tire technicians and team mechanics, unsure of how the tires and bikes would last in the heat, the heat seemed sure to claim plenty more before the day was over. The morning's warm up session had already thrown up a number of surprises, with the front row men all well off the pace, the class rookies blisteringly fast, and Valentino Rossi, after struggling so badly in practice, finally in contention, with a strong 3rd fastest time. Though he would have to start from 10th position on the grid, everyone's minds were on what happened last week at the Sachsenring, where The Doctor went on to win the race after starting down in 11th, at a track reckoned to be difficult to pass at. With title rival Nicky Hayden starting from 6th, another epic battle looked in the offing.
Just Passing Through
The holeshot is important at Laguna Seca. The experts believe it's probably the hardest track to pass at that MotoGP visits all year, so getting off the line is vital. Colin Edwards knows this, and flew off the line into Turn 1, ahead of Kenny Roberts Jr and pole sitter Chris Vermeulen. But it was not the perfect start it seemed, as first Roberts then Vermeulen steamed past Edwards out of Turn 1 down towards Turn 2. Any aspirations Edwards may have had of winning were dealt a further blow as last year's winner Nicky Hayden passed him round the outside of Turn 2, with Casey Stoner slipping up the inside into Turn 3. Further down the field, Marco Melandri, who had started from 9th on the grid, moved past John Hopkins into 7th at Turn 5, having shot past Shinya Nakano shortly after the start. As the pack hounded down the Corkscrew, Vermeulen had closed to sit right on Roberts' tail. Three corners later, as they entered the final Turn 11, taking them back to cross the finish line at the end of the first lap, Vermeulen slipped up the inside of Kenny Jr to take the lead. For a track which is hard to pass at, the first lap was truly a festival of overtaking.
The most significant absentee at this passing bonanza was Valentino Rossi. Starting from 10th, by the end of lap 1, he was still where he started, down in 10th. There was still a long way left to race, but over the next few laps, it became clear that tire choice was going to be a factor for the race. Chris Vermeulen had opted to mount a medium rear, and immediately set a flurry of furiously fast laps, building a lead over the man behind him, Roberts Jr. Others, such as Yamaha men Rossi and Edwards, seemed to have opted for a harder option, which meant getting off to a slow start, in the hope of having something left at the end of the race.
The first 9 laps seemed to favor the softer choice. Vermeulen was trying to disappear, gaining a 2 second advantage on Roberts by lap 9. Behind him, Kenny Jr was starting to hold up the field, with a charging Nicky Hayden close on his tail in 3rd, followed closely by the rookie pairing of Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa was looking ever more like the main threat for the race, having shattered Colin Edwards' track record by nearly 6/10ths of a second on lap 6, after having finally disposed of Marco Melandri in a lap-long tussle. Edwards, on the other hand, continued his slow slide down the field, being passed first by Pedrosa, and then by Melandri.
Though Melandri had passed him, Edwards managed to cling on for a while, soon being joined by John Hopkins and Valentino Rossi. Rossi had managed to get past Shinya Nakano on lap 4, and by lap 9, his tires gamble was starting to look like it might pay off, as his lap times started to match the riders ahead. Though he'd left his catching up till later in the race, time seemed to be in his favor.
On lap 9, Nicky Hayden finally managed to get past Kenny Roberts into the Corkscrew, and was now able to concentrate on chasing leader Vermeulen down. For Roberts, this was the start of a slow slide down the standings for the man who had been so fast during practice, the first victim of the day's heat. By the next lap, Stoner and Pedrosa were with the American, and pushing him. Pedrosa, impatient as ever to join his team mate ahead, slid past Stoner into Turn 5, and was up inside Roberts Jr going into Turn 11. He paid dearly for this move though, the rear sliding viciously on the exit, losing the two places he'd just gained. But his deficit didn't last for long. After running a little wide exiting Turn 2, Roberts immediately found himself being sandwiched between Stoner on the outside and Pedrosa on the inside as they exited Turn 4 and headed down towards Turn 5. With Roberts relegated to 5th spot, the two rookies faced off once again for 3rd, a match-up which Stoner settled in his favor, after Pedrosa made a mistake going into the Corkscrew. Stoner's victory was short-lived, however. Pedrosa soon made good the time he'd lost, and as he closed to push Stoner for 3rd place, the young Australian made the kind of mistake seen from him too often, pushing a fraction too hard and losing the front into Turn 5, sliding off, and out of the race.
Taking Its Toll
By now, Hayden was starting to close down Vermeulen. Over the course of the next 5 laps, the Kentucky Kid narrowed Vermeulen's lead down from over 2 seconds to under a half, a repeat performance of last year looking increasingly likely. But to win, he had to get past. Getting past would not be easy, but by lap 17, the heat was starting to become a serious factor. It had already caused Shinya Nakano to retire with a dead engine, and was starting to show in the lap times, with softer tires starting to wear and harder tires starting to speed up. As Hayden sat on Vermeulen's tail, the young Suzuki rider made what seemed like an inexplicable mistake. Exiting Turn 3, Vermeulen sat up, letting Hayden power through up the inside. It later transpired that his bike was starting to cut out, particularly on corner entry, ruining Vermeulen's chance of a win, and even a podium. Vermeulen's lap times started to fluctuate, then dropped dramatically towards the end of the race.
With Nicky Hayden in the lead, and a clear track ahead of him, Valentino Rossi had his work cut out. He'd reduced his points deficit from 46 down to 26 in two races, and did not want to see all that hard work go to waste. Fortunately for Rossi, his tire gamble was starting to pay off. Lapping as fast as the Kentucky Kid, he wouldn't be able to catch Hayden, being 8 seconds down with 12 laps to go, but he was running faster than most of the riders ahead of him, so could limit his losses in the standings. On lap 19, Rossi was past Kenny Roberts Jr, and into 5th. On the next lap, he was past Melandri, and into 4th. From lap to lap, The Doctor closed on 3rd place man Pedrosa, as Pedrosa closed on Vermeulen. A podium looked possible, though 2nd spot would be a tough nut to crack.
Fate Strikes Again
But the heat was not yet done meddling with the outcome of the race. First, Vermeulen's bike suffered another glitch, allowing Pedrosa to power past into 2nd, and then, Rossi's tires started to go off. The Doctor's lap times dropped a little at first, losing just under a second a lap, but then, they collapsed entirely. On lap 24, Rossi had put in a 1:24.4. By lap 28, he was 4 seconds a lap slower. But just as Rossi struggled to salvage what he could, things went from bad to worse: forced to slow by his tires, the cooling system could no longer handle the oppressive heat. The engine started smoking, and though Valentino tried to nurse the bike home for two laps, the engine finally failed, but not before Rossi was shown the black flag for continuing to ride while possibly spewing fluids over the track. His title chances, like his Yamaha M1, were blown, as fate once again dealt him a cruel blow, one too many over this harshest of seasons for the 5 time champion.
Nicky Hayden, however, seems to have inherited Rossi's luck, and with it, quite probably the Italian's title. The young American once again rode home a brilliant home win at Laguna Seca, a much tougher victory than 2005, but no less deserved. He'd paced his race perfectly, his tires starting to fade on the last few laps of the race, chunking badly, but lasting long enough to take the top spot on the podium. Hayden's 2nd win of the season leaves him standing well clear at the head of the points table, 34 points ahead of his closest challenger, team mate Dani Pedrosa, and a massive 51 points ahead of current champion Valentino Rossi. Though you can never count Rossi out, The Doctor needs to win all 6 remaining races, and Hayden finish no better than 3rd, to still win the title. But realistically, Rossi needs at least one Hayden retirement to put him back into contention. The record so far this season shows how unlikely that is: Nicky Hayden has been Mr Consistency, being on or close to the podium nearly every race this season, while it's Rossi with three DNFs by his name.
Behind Hayden, Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa rode in a comfortable second, demonstrating that not just Hayden, but HRC had got it right at Laguna. 5 seconds behind Pedrosa, Melandri rode to another podium, keeping touch with Pedrosa in the championship race, but, at 44 points down from title leader Hayden, out of the running for the #1 plate. Kenny Roberts Jr's tire gamble also paid off, keeping consistent enough to regain most of the places lost to other riders earlier, finishing 4th in his home Grand Prix. The unlucky Chris Vermeulen finished better than could be hoped with his rough running Suzuki, holding on to 5th position ahead of team mate John Hopkins. Both riders were disappointed, but especially Vermeulen, robbed of a definite podium by the difficult conditions.
Another tire gamble that paid off was Carlos Checa's Dunlops. The Spanish veteran rode consistent lap times to finish 7th, and best Yamaha. Loris Capirossi was the first Ducati rider home in 8th, after the red bikes had struggled all weekend. Colin Edwards nursed his shot tire home to 9th, ahead of the other Ducati of Sete Gibernau. Gibernau was lucky that Alex Hofmann crashed on the last lap, as the Dunlop-shod Pramac d'Antin Ducati rider was ahead of him until that point. Makoto Tamada's revival at the Sachsenring proved to be a brief one, finishing anonymously again down in 11th, ahead of Kawasaki's sole finisher Randy de Puniet and Tech 3 Yamaha's James Ellison. Hofmann was game enough to remount and finish 14th, ahead of Melandri's Fortuna Honda team mate Toni Elias, who had run into the gravel early in the race and never really recovered. Jose Luis Cardoso completed the list of finishers with a 16th place.
The World Turned Upside Down, Again
Laguna Seca turned out to be yet another topsy turvy chapter in a topsy turvy season. The heat played havoc with the bikes, the riders, and the title race. And motorcycle racing's Mr Lucky, Valentino Rossi, suffered yet another humiliation at the hands of fate. After this emphatic home victory, Nicky Hayden now has the championship firmly in his grasp: the title is his to lose. But even if he does take the title, there will always be question marks surrounding it. Hayden is currently 51 points ahead, but Rossi's DNFs in China, France and the US robbed him of 49 points, if he had finished in the position he was in before dropping out. The old racing cliché says that to finish first, first you have to finish, but that won't silence the critics, rightly or wrongly.
Of course, all this speculation about Hayden having the title in his pocket assumes that the season will proceed without any surprises, and you'd have thought we would know better by now. Rossi has already conceded that the title is beyond his reach, but ominously for the rest of the field, has announced that his plan is now to "have a lot of fun over the remaining races and try to win as many as possible". If what we've seen so far this season has been Rossi riding conservatively, with one eye on the title, then I hesitate to think what kind of fireworks we yet have to come. Even if the title race is nominally over, there's plenty of racing left to come. And with four weeks to recover, the MotoGP field should be raring to go in Brno.