For those that don't know, Laguna Seca actually resides inside a county park, and is an area of open space that sees campers, hikers, and cyclists in addition to the normal flow of rabid weekend race fans. On a normal weekday, Laguna Seca can be quite peaceful, and the track goes to great lengths to maintain a balance with the tranquility that surrounds it. Today however, this zen of motorcycle racing went right out the window, as the Laguna Seca paddock came alive with the sounds of 800cc fire breathing monsters. With MotoGP bikes finally taking to the track for the first free practice, the unmistakable sounds of prototype motorcycles roared to life, and everyone within earshot knew it.
It's hard to describe just how loud a MotoGP motorcycle sounds as it passes by you, so I'll put it this way: you don't just hear these motorcycles, you feel them. Adding to the experience is the distinct note that each model bike makes as it flies past you. You know when you've been buzzed by a Desmosedici, as opposed to a RC212V. The sounds is special, and watching these racers from one of the most famous turns in racing makes the entire moment sublime.
Contrast all this hyperbole with a more down-to-earth perspective, and you would have a very different experience. Have you ever seen a MotoGP rider drink from a fire hose? I have. Consider this fact for a moment: there are 17 riders preparing for Sunday's MotoGP race, but 5 of these riders haven't seen Laguna Seca before this week, and thought corkscrews only existed at wine and cheese parties. Watching these initiates to Seca try and learn one of the most technical courses on the MotoGP calendar, you have to remind yourself that these are the best of the very best in motorcycle racing.
Missing apexes, misjudging brake markers, and just generally being on the wrong side of the tarmac, Seca rookies found themselves off the pace from the veteran riders. With more than one person miscalculating his entry into the corkscrew, some riders found themselves on the wrong-side of the rumble strips on Turn 8B, unintentionally following the passing line Valentino Rossi made so famous two years ago. Taking its first victim, the enigma that is Laguna Seca proved to be too much for Marco Simoncelli, who crashed uneventfully early-on in the practice session. With the Italian no worse for the wear, and his Honda in seemingly good shape, Simoncelli finished the day a respectable twelfth fastest, although over two seconds behind the pace.
Setting that pace was Casey Stoner, who was within one second of setting the fastest lap at Laguna Seca and two-tenths of a second off the circuit record (for those who just raised an eyebrow on that math, circuit records can only be set during races). Casey's top time came late in the session though, which was predominantly mastered by Jorge Lorenzo. Giving all credit to Jorge Lorenzo and his abilities, the Spanish rider still pales in comparison to his teammate in regards to star power in the Untied States. For a brief period of time Valentino Rossi held the top time in FP1, and the fans along the corkscrew and Rainey turn were simply buzzing with electricity. Rossi was back.
It's perhaps too trite and obvious to talk about Rossi's superstardom, but with the constant fervor abounding about the Italian rider joining an Italian team, it's this x-factor of charisma and fan appeal that's helping Ducati reach deep into its coffers to secure Valentino. Walking down the public portion of the MotoGP pits, fans have amassed around the Fiat-Yamaha team box like worshipers, lined up to pay homage to their motorcycling god. "I saw him...I was this close!" you'll here a fan exclaim. "He's cuter in person," cries another.
Heaven forbid that the Italian actually emerge from the team tent or pit area, as just a glimpse of the nine-time World Champion sends the crowd into cheers and an uproar. Yes, Rossi is back, and according to Laguna Seca, ticket sales sky-rocketed when news he'd make the Red Bull US GP emerged. With Rossi musing about finishing his motorcycling career in World Superbike, you have to wonder how MotoGP will continue on without the iconic rider, or how Fiat-Yamaha will fare without its star.
Just as it's too soon to read into Rossi's legacy in MotoGP, only one practice session has occurred at Laguna Seca. As such, it's too early to vet the MotoGP field into "contenders" and "also-ran's". With the weather to remain constant through-out the weekend, and riders already setting blistering paces on the track, Sunday's race, at least at this juncture, is looking to be a fast one. With Ben Spies fifth quickest today, the speculation of a podium for the American has already begun for America's other MotoGP superstar.