Sunday morning's warmup threw up a few surprises at Laguna Seca. Firstly, prior to the warmup, the FIM ordered the AMA classes, which run at Laguna Seca at the same time, not to run until after the MotoGP event had finished. The next surprise was the names running at the front. After a previously dire qualifying session, Valentino Rossi lead the timesheets for a good deal of the session, with a very fast 1:23.494, nearly half a second quicker than the race record set last year.
Laguna Seca has thrown up a host of surprises during Saturday's Qualifiying Practice session. Many observers were expecting to see Nicky Hayden attempt to repeat last year's performance, taking pole position in an attempt to lead the race from the off, but that plan fell through. Early in qualifying, it was Casey Stoner who topped the timesheets, setting the fastest time 10 minutes into the session, then improving on the time 8 minutes later, cracking the 1:23 barrier and setting a time that was to stand for nearly two thirds of the session.
Kenny Roberts Jr leads the timesheets at the end of the first day of practice at the US GP at Laguna Seca. The rider who did so poorly at last year's grand prix is really making an impression at his home GP this year. Behind him, last year's winner Nicky Hayden had a good run in the second session, after a disappointing display in the morning session. Hayden's team mate Dani Pedrosa is the big surprise of the day, taking third spot on his first visit to the track, an extraordinary achievement at a track which is difficult to learn, thanks to so many blind turns.
A Festival Of Racing
Last year's US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca was a festival of racing. But more especially, it was a festival of American racing, for many reasons. First and foremost, it saw the return of premier class motorcycle racing to US soil after 11 years. Secondly, because it saw an American winner, and an American runner-up. Thirdly, because it saw visits from the cream of Hollywood, truly the American Dream. But what made it an especially American occasion was the fact that the Europeans hated it.
Looked at in isolation, Laguna Seca is a spectacular track. The blind drop over the crest and into the Corkscrew is one of the most breathtaking sections in racing. But sadly, the track doesn't exist in isolation: it exists surrounded by hard concrete walls just feet from the track. Marco Melandri compared turn 6 to "the entrance to the Autopista in Milan". His distaste for the track was only reinforced by the three hard falls he took during the weekend, the third after less than a lap of the race, finally burying any ambitions he may have had for the world title. The only exceptions were the former Superbike riders Xaus and Bayliss, who had raced here during World Superbike rounds, and long-time veterans such as Barros, Biaggi and Checa. Bayliss and Biaggi even went on to put in decent finishes, in the face of stiff home competition.
Some reputations are undeserved. The Sachsenring has a reputation for being a short, tight track with very few possibilities for passing, where a good position on the grid is vital. Sunday's MotoGP race was a demonstration both that passing is possible for any rider with the necessary skill and determination, and that if you can get a clean start, anything can happen.
I'm off for brief, if poorly timed, vacation to Northern Italy, to do what I write about: ride motorcycles. I'll be doing it more slowly than the heroes I write about, and I'll be enjoying the scenery. This means I will be absent for the Sachsenring GP, but will write a report once I return, which will be Monday or Tuesday after the race. My apologies for any convenience caused.
Whenever riders or followers of MotoGP refer to a "Mickey Mouse racetrack", the example which always gets cited is the Sachsenring. This is a rather cruel jibe for a track so steeped in history. Racing has taken place in the area since 1927 over public roads, like Assen, until a new circuit was built here in the 1990s, after German reunification. The track is short, and just under 2.3 miles, so speeds are not high, but the track is situated among the rolling German hills, surrounded by woods.
The Once And Future King
At the beginning of the season, motorcycle racing followers all over the world viewed the arrival of Dani Pedrosa with great anticipation, but also some regret. Finally, it was felt, here was a rider who could challenge the dominance of the MotoGP class by Valentino Rossi. Pedrosa's record in the 125 and 250 classes was superlative, better than Rossi's, winning the 250 championship at the first go, where Rossi took a year to learn. And yet it was feared that we would be robbed of the epic battles which must surely ensue between these two champions, as it would take Pedrosa at least a year to master riding a MotoGP bike, by which time, Rossi would be firmly ensconced in the seat of a Ferrari F1 car.
Dani Pedrosa confirmed his dominance at Donington after qualifying on pole for Sunday's race. Pedrosa's name was near the top of the standings for over half of the qualifying session, first behind fellow 250 rookie Casey Stoner, before taking over the lead with 15 minutes to go. With just over a minute to go of qualifying, the diminutive Spaniard then smashed Valentino Rossi's lap record by over 2/10ths of a second.
Michel Fabrizio, replacement rider for Toni Elias at Fortuna Honda, has broken his collarbone during the third Free Practice session at Donington, meaning he won't be able to take place in the race. Fabrizio was to partner the already injury-plagued Marco Melandri. The team may need another replacement rider for the German GP at the Sachsenring in 2 weeks time.
The two MotoGP rookies led the timesheets again on Saturday morning. Casey Stoner quickest , ahead of Dani Pedrosa, who lead yesterday's practice sessions. Times are extremely fast, in the low 1:28 seconds bracket, but what is more impressive is that Pedrosa's 1:28.478 was set in the middle of an 11 lap run, which included 7 sub 1:29 second laps.
Dani Pedrosa dominated both of Friday's free practice sessions at Donington. His last run during FP2 was particulary impressive, going out for ten laps and setting consistent low 1:29s. The only person to be able to match that kind of consistency was his former 250 rival Casey Stoner.
In injury news, Marco Melandri seems to have staged a near full recovery, as his times were also consistently fast, while Valentino Rossi is obviously a lot more comfortable than last week, but is still suffering a little, and may find it hard to ride a full race. Loris Capirossi went out during the morning session, but did not appear during the afternoon's session, as he was experiencing too much pain from the internal injuries sustained at Catalunya.
As for times, Pedrosa dominated, John Hopkins put in a couple of good laps to come second, with Stoner third. Checa put in a surprising display, setting the 11th time on the Dunlops which have been so poor so far this season. The times are also pretty close, as the top 12 are covered by less than a second.
In another stroke of synchronicity, in the weekend that former WCM rider Michel Fabrizio is to return to MotoGP for a race, his former team, WCM, have announced that they will once again return to MotoGP in 2007, with a two bike team. For more details, see the BBC news item. No news on what bikes they will be riding, but with a possible shortage of bikes on the grid as a result of the move to 800 cc next year, this can only be good news for MotoGP.
An English Summer Afternoon
DFX Honda World Superbike rider Michel Fabrizio is to replace Toni Elias, who was injured in a fall at Assen last week, on the Fortuna Honda for this weekend's Donington Grand Prix. Fabrizio is no stranger to MotoGP, having run last year on the WCM Harris bike as team mate to James Ellison. The Honda RC 211V is a different proposition to last year's WCM bike, which was loosely based on a Yamaha R1 engine, before being totally rebuilt under pressure from the MSMA. Fabrizio's ride will only be for one Grand Prix, as Elias is expected to return for the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring on July 16th.