Crash.net is reporting that Honda will wait until after the Japanse at Motegi to test its 800 cc prototype of next year's bike. Several manufacturers are rumored to have their new 800cc prototypes sitting in their garages waiting to be tested after this weekend' race at Brno, and Honda's decision not to test could be seen as a sign that they want to focus on the 2006 championship, rather than the 2007 championship.
After three weeks of enforced idleness after the thrills of Laguna Seca, the MotoGP circus goes back to work this weekend at Brno in the Czech Republic, refreshed and relaxed from their mid-season break. At least, that's the official story. Unofficially, the MotoGP circus goes back to work frazzled and frayed from three weeks of intense negotiation, speculation, contemplation and insinuation. Mobile phone bills are astronomical, keypads are worn down to the bare metal from frantic dialing, and Dr Costa's Clinica Mobile is awash with irritated ears, inflamed thumbs and chronic hoarseness, as the 2007 MotoGP season commences.
For the summer break is traditionally the start of what journalists tend to call the silly season, but if you're a rider, team owner, sponsor, mechanic, PR guru or even catering kitchen staff, it's deadly serious. With no races to interrupt, and everyone away from their teams, negotiations about who wants to be where, or even just somewhere next season are in full swing. And this year's round of rumors and speculation is just as wild and surprising as the season's races have been.
Much of the speculation has been on this year's most conspicuous absentee. In a stroke of public relations genius, Max Biaggi has been linked variously with the Ilmor / Suter project, a Ducati satellite bike in MotoGP, a works Ducati in World Superbike, and Alstare Corona Suzuki in World Superbike. The Roman Emperor has been much missed this season, as his abrupt departure left MotoGP fans without an obvious villain. Sete Gibernau has occasionally tried to step up to the plate, but has not usually progressed much beyond looking moody. Colin Edwards has been his usual colorful self, but his comments about Nicky Hayden after the race at Assen were too entertaining to turn him into Public Enemy No.1. So the return of The Man They Love To Hate would add a bit of contrast to an otherwise friendly cast of characters in the MotoGP paddock. But Max's biggest challenge is that, despite his huge following and generous personal sponsors, he has trodden on too many toes, and insulted too many manufacturers to get a shot at decent machinery. Persona non grata at Honda, and unbeloved by Michelin, his options are few, and his high profile comes with a high risk. It's too early to write him off for next year, but I wouldn't put my life savings on him making a return just yet.
There are many more riders who fear suffering the same fate as Biaggi at the end of the season. The most obvious looking candidate is Jose Luis Cardoso, who has been utterly unconvincing on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati this season. Ironically, however, he may turn out to be one of the riders who get to stay, as he reportedly pays a lot of money for his ride, money that Luis d'Antin badly needs to keep his team afloat.
Makoto Tamada, on the other hand, is unlikely to keep his ride at Konica Minolta JIR, unless he can pull off a miracle. Yet, if anyone had been brave enough to predict this at the end of 2004, they would have been laughed off the stage. That year, Tamada finished 6th in the championship, with two wins and a second place to his name, and the Japanese rider was widely predicted to be the next big threat. But in 2005, his team switched tires, from Tamada's beloved Bridgestones to Michelins, and he has never regained his form, citing a lack of confidence in the front end. He will need to turn the brilliant aberration of his Sachsenring performance into a regular spectacle if wishes to secure his future in MotoGP. Otherwise, his 2007 season could be history before it even begins.
Another rider looking to secure his MotoGP future is Tech 3 Yamaha's James Ellison. The young British rider has had a tough year, his performance constantly overshadowed by his teammate Carlos Checa, who is having a remarkably successful year, all things considered. While Checa shines on the Dunlop-shod M1, Ellison has struggled, the last rider to be still using the chatter-ridden chassis that the works Yamaha team abandoned after Shanghai. Such were his woes that his crew were reduced to cutting sections out of Ellison's chassis in an attempt to take some of the stiffness out that was thought to be the main culprit. Yet, examine Ellison's times and race after race he has ridden faster during the race than in qualifying, often putting in times on race day 1 or 2 seconds faster than the first practice session. Ellison, like Hofmann, has Dorna on his side, who are keen to see representatives from important TV markets on the grid, but this may not be enough to secure either the Englishman's or the German's future in MotoGP.
Perhaps the biggest name to be concerned about his future is Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado has run conspicuously midfield this season, a very long way from where a works Yamaha rider is expected to finish, especially one in his second season, on the same bike as the current World Champion. On the rare occasion when Edwards ran at the front, his desperation got the better of him, and he ended up running off into the gravel at the last corner. Works teams do not take kindly to that kind of rookie mistake, especially not from a former world champion in his thirties, and so the Tornado could be looking for another employer come October. Having already had a shot on the Honda, and with a tide of talent looking to sweep into the premier class from the 250s, Colin's chances are not looking good. He may find himself being whisked back into World Superbike, which, with the coming of last year's MotoGP dropouts Barros and Bayliss, is turning into a MotoGP retirement class.
2004's Golden Boy Sete Gibernau has fallen quite a way since the season he came close to beating Rossi. After last year's disastrous season, which started in the gravel pit of the last corner at Jerez, 2006 hasn't been much kinder too him. After a reasonably encouraging start, Sete's run of bad luck got a lot worse after being flung off his bike during the first-corner chaos at Catalunya, fracturing the collarbone he already had a titanium pin in, and keeping him out of contention for two races. And now it's been announced that he won't be racing at Brno, as his shoulder is still too weak after undergoing surgery for the second time after Laguna Seca. Sete is in a difficult situation, and his future is anything but clear.
In fact, the situation at Ducati is pretty vague all round. Although Loris Capirossi is still the darling of the Italian factory, age and injury are starting to take their toll. The courageous, almost foolhardy, performances he put in at Assen and Donington after the Catalunyan catastrophe, where he battled manfully for a handful of points, have robbed Capirex of some of the joy he used to have in racing. If wants to stay, Ducati would undoubtedly give him a contract for another year, but the tiniest filaments of doubt are starting to arise about the Italian imp's motivation.
So potentially, Ducati could be without a rider next year. So who would they turn to? The answer to that (apart, that is, from Max Biaggi, whose name is automatically mentioned for every vacancy which arises) is likely to be found among the massed ranks of 250 riders. The prime candidate is surely Casey Stoner. The young Australian has caused quite a stir so far this season, coming in and taking a pole and podium on a satellite spec Honda. Stoner is very obviously a solid chunk of talent, but he has still has plenty of raw edges: so far Stoner has crashed out of 3 of the 11 races this season, all of them due to pushing too hard. The other thing that makes Stoner a less attractive proposition is his free and frank style of communication. If he is unhappy about anything, he tells people. Loudly, and in the very bluntest of terms. Sponsors, and teams, don't always appreciate that kind of frankness, and so signing the young Aussie is always going to be a risk.
But Ducati aren't alone in their courting of Casey. Camel Yamaha are also rumored to be talking to Stoner's manager, and there is no doubting that Rossi and Stoner would make a high profile pairing. What's more, with Valentino widely expected to retire at the end of 2007, Stoner at Yamaha would make a lot of sense, for several reasons. Firstly, he should find it easy to work with Rossi's crew chief, MotoGP genius and fellow Australian Jeremy Burgess. Secondly, with Dani Pedrosa very obviously being groomed as the future of HRC, having Stoner battle his arch-rival on HRC's arch-rival would make great PR sense as well. We writers would never have to search around for an angle ever again.
Among the other candidates from the smaller classes are Andrea Dovizioso and Alex de Angelis. Both are having great seasons, with Dovizioso currently the only man seemingly capable of snatching the 250 crown from Jorge Lorenzo's hands. Lorenzo looks certain to stay put in 250s for another year, despite being groomed to be MotoGP Champion from the age of 6 by his father. As both Dovizioso and de Angelis are Italians, they would be a natural choice for Ducati, and finishing so far up the 250 tables gives them a shot at the top-flight rides.
The flow from the other feeder class for MotoGP seems to have been reversed, with talent now leaving the 990s to go to World Superbikes. Just 4 years ago, everyone was assuming that, after the switch to four-stokes, Superbikes were the only logical entry point for the top class, as they key to being fast was sliding the rear. But traction control and the astonishing advances in tire technology have revolutionized MotoGP riding, and now corner speed, the touchstone of the 250s, is seen as key. And yet one name from World Superbike keeps being mentioned: the young British rider, and former world champion James Toseland's name is always in the air whenever spare seats at Honda are under discussion. He could take Tamada's ride, or possibly even Toni Elias' place at Fortuna Honda, as the Spaniard has failed to make the transition from the Yamaha to the Honda.
Chris Vermeulen's outstanding rookie year on what is generally agreed to be an underpowered bike has surely paved the way for Toseland. Vermeulen's gamble to take a factory ride, rather than a satellite Honda, seems to have paid off, with lots of teams testing the waters, despite Vermeulen's two year contract at Suzuki, which guarantees him a seat next year. Time will tell whether Vermeulen's success is down to talent, or a miscalculation by team managers about how difficult the switch actually is.
But the biggest question mark of all hangs over the head of the likely world champion, Nicky Hayden. You would think that HRC would do their utmost to hang on to the man who might manage to take back the crown which Honda feels is rightfully theirs, from the man who abandoned them. And yet throughout the year, HRC has made it abundantly clear that the future of HRC is a tiny Spaniard called Dani Pedrosa. Honda, after all, has a history of treating riders like cogs in a machine, rather than the individual artists they more closely resemble. One of the main reasons Valentino Rossi left HRC to go to Yamaha was the emphasis Honda placed on the machine, with press releases constantly praising how well the bike worked, and barely mentioning the rider.
Now Hayden is also showing signs of irritation. The Kentucky Kid has always been the consummate professional, thanked Honda kindly at every press conference, and has managed to say positive things about the bike, even after being given new, unproven parts to test while doing his best to defend his championship lead. But despite his long history with Honda, his commitment to them is starting to slip. Strong rumors emerged that Ducati is talking to Hayden about the 2007 season after the Laguna Seca GP, but doubts remain whether Hayden believes the Ducati is competitive enough for him to defend a title on.
However, the obvious move for Nicky Hayden would be a switch to Yamaha. This would benefit all parties to a huge degree. For Yamaha, it would give them an excellent basis for keeping in the race after Valentino Rossi's expected departure at the end of 2007, by having a proven winner in the pits. It would greatly increase Yamaha's chances of winning a title in 2007, with both Rossi and Hayden title contenders. And most importantly of all, it would upset Honda, especially if Hayden takes the title this year, by taking the #1 plate which Honda has just won and putting it on a Yamaha. For Hayden himself, it would give him the chance of having the team focused around him, instead of working on a bike for his team mate, HRC's intended 2007 champion.
But this remains speculation, with Hayden remaining tight-lipped about his future. Hayden has been very loyal to Honda, as Honda has given him the opportunity of racing at the very highest level, and given him a championship-winning machine. But HRC's weakness, its focus on the corporate, may yet come back to haunt it. Honda has not shown any signs of learning a lesson from Rossi's departure to Yamaha, and it may just be due for a remedial lesson.
What the future will bring is up in the air this stage in the season, and the future of many riders is in doubt. But in a few short weeks, the shape of 2007 should start to become clear. We wait with bated breath.
In yet another blow for the troubled Sete Gibernau, the Spaniard will have to miss out on this weekend's Brno Grand Prix, after a scan of his collarbone showed it was still not strong enough to hold up to the strains of racing. This will be the third race the corner incident at Catalunya has caused the luckless Spaniard to miss, as previous surgery kept him away from the Assen and Donington rounds. The only bright point for Gibernau is that he has another three weeks to recover, as the race after Brno is at Sepang in Malaysia on September 10th.
Pramac d'Antin Ducati rider Alex Hofmann will once again replace Gibernau at Brno. Crash.net has more details of the story.
The Spanish motorcycle magazine is reporting that Nicky Hayden is to star in his own TV show on MTV. The magazine claims that Hayden was due to make a pilot of the show for the global music channel, but that they decided to go straight to production after the Kentucky Kid won the Laguna Seca US Grand Prix last month. Negotiations are currently underway between International Racers and MTV about the show. Dorna will also be involved in the project.
The online version of the Spanish sports newspaper AS.com is reporting that Max Biaggi is negotiating with Ducati for a MotoGP ride in 2007. His contract with Suzuki for the World Superbike ride which never happened is said to have finished as of July 31st, leaving him clear to negotiate with other teams as of now. Biaggi is said to be talking to Ducati, and is believed to be bringing a sponsor, which would get him a ride on a satellite Ducati team. The current satellite Ducati team is Pramac d'Antin. And as Pramac is an Italian company, Biaggi would be a good fit. However, as the Pramac d'Antin team is languishing at the bottom of the result sheet at every race, the question remains as to how attractive a prospect this is for Biaggi.
Just to cloud matters further, AS.com is claiming the Spanish motorcycle weekly Solo Moto as its source for the story.
Superbikeplanet.com (or Soup, as it is known in the vernacular) has a great set of comparison images of the Michelin tires at the end of the Laguna Seca race. What is really obvious is that the Yamaha uses its rear a lot harder than the Honda does. Either they have traction control working better, or they have a smoother torque curve. Well worth a look.
You can find the images here.
The official Ducati Racing website is reporting that Sete Gibernau is to undergo more surgery on his collarbone. He found he was having problems with the titanium plate put in after his monster pile up at the first corner at Catalunya, as his shoulder was weaker than it should have been, though he felt little or no pain. X-rays taken after returning home from Laguna Seca revealed the titanium plate had weakened, causing complications for the Spanish rider. The doctors treating Sete will strengthen the screw holding the plate in and administer bone growth injections, to speed up the growth of bone around the plate.
Ducati say that Gibernau is "probable, but not certain" to race at Brno on August 20th.
Over on Superbikeplanet.com, there's a great picture of Rossi's ruined rear tire, which caused him to slow and, Yamaha claims, caused his bike to overheat and blow coolant all over the track. I can't post it here because of copyright reasons, but here's a link to it:
If you look at the left-hand side of the tire, you can see a large strip where the rubber has let go. The interesting part about it is that the line of damage seems to be more or less along the line where the two different compounds in the dual-compound tires are joined. After Rossi's front tire delaminated (or to put it in layperson's terms, blew a chunk of rubber from one of the layers) in Shanghai, there was some speculation that the Michelins are not well suited to the Yamaha's power and handling characteristics this year, especially as the Honda riders have not had anywhere near as many tire problems so far this season.
Now, the following is all idle speculation, but I hope you'll bear with me, as it could be interesting speculation: I'm sure you will all remember Max Biaggi's performance on the main factory Repsol Honda last year. He spent almost the entire season complaining of chatter, and his complaining probably cost him not just his ride at Repsol, but any other possible ride on a Honda for 2006. Put in a rather oversimplified way, chatter is caused by tires generating more grip than the chassis can handle comfortably. During the 2005 season, virtually no complaints were heard from Yamaha riders about chatter. It seems logical that Michelin would choose to focus the larger portion of their development efforts over the winter on building a tire which would suit the Honda, especially when you consider there are 6 Honda RC211Vs (plus the Team KR KR211V bike) running on Michelins in the MotoGP class. It is quite possible that all this development work turned out much better tires, but tires which suited the Honda better than the Yamaha.
You may argue that Michelin loses out by not providing their current world champion, Valentino Rossi, with the best possible tires. This overlooks the fact that all of the candidates to take Rossi's title from him are on Michelin-shod Hondas. Either way, Michelin will be able to claim its tires are used by the MotoGP World Champion.
Another noteworthy item is that all of the photos and publicity released about Michelin's test rider Jurgen van den Goorbergh (though, frankly, this has been very, very little) have shown him riding a Yamaha M1. The tests are focused entirely on developing the tires, rather than the bikes, as van den Goorbergh is under contract to Michelin, but it's certainly interesting that so far, as far as we know, the tires have been tested on the Yamaha, rather than the Honda. Nicky Hayden's 51 point lead in the championship race is, of course, eloquent proof that the Michelins work just fine on the Honda.
The British motorcycle weekly has a video of what it believes to be the Ilmor 800cc V4 MotoGP bike, which is currently being developed by Formula 1 car builders Ilmor Engineering and Eskil Suter, the man behind MZ's former 500 cc GP bike, and who designed the chassis for the current Kawasaki MotoGP bike. The video was filmed by accident by someone attending a track day. How much credence we should attach to this is hard to say, but it's a public secret that the bike is currently under development. Persistent rumors link Max Biaggi with the project.
More background information on the ITV F1 page.
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.