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.
But though last year was very much an American affair, there are lots of reasons to believe that the 2006 race will be different. For a start, the track has been changed, with much more run-off around the approach to and through the Corkscrew, though the removal of the dip before entering the Corkscrew will make the turn less exciting. There are still plenty of concerns, and lots of room for improvement, but Laguna is now starting to get close to European track standards, rather than just being an American track with some safety features tacked on. With the opening of Miller Motorsports Park in Utah, a track designed with motorcycle safety in mind, these changes might just make it a little easier to keep the US GP in California. Of course, Laguna's proximity to one of the biggest motorcycle markets in the US also speaks in its favor, but it must be said that the facility is doing its best to make the track safer.
Another threat to the American domination of the US GP is the fact that most of the riders (with the exception of the class rookies) have been here before, so the advantage of home track knowledge has been lessened, if not entirely dissipated. Valentino Rossi demonstrated last year that he was a quick learner, finishing third behind two home heroes, but this time, many more riders will know their way around.
Points Mean Prizes
But the biggest difference between this year and last is the title race. Last year, Valentino Rossi headed to Laguna Seca with a 63 point lead over his nearest rival Marco Melandri, and a whopping 110 point lead over race winner Nicky Hayden. Although Hayden rode a tactically perfect race last year, getting a clean start to lead from start to finish, Rossi had no need to take risks at an unknown track to try and catch him, and, ever the master of PR, knew that an American winner of the American GP would be a hugely popular outcome. Sitting so far ahead in the standings, it was a loss he could easily afford.
This year, of course, Rossi sits 26 points behind Nicky Hayden, with 7 races left in the season. Though Hayden will be keen to repeat his victory of last year, Valentino Rossi will be a very great deal more determined to finish ahead of the Kentucky Kid, and close the points gap some more. But Rossi isn't the only threat to a Hayden repeat: Colin Edwards, John Hopkins and Kenny Roberts Jr will all be looking for a result, for a variety of reasons. Edwards needs to start booking wins if he is to hold onto his Yamaha ride for next season, rumors already rife that either Casey Stoner or even Nicky Hayden could be in the garage opposite Valentino Rossi next year. John Hopkins has been talking about Laguna for weeks now, to the extent that he virtually ignored the German GP at the Sachsenring, just trying to get through the place that hurt him so badly last year to be able to race at home. With the Suzuki showing signs of improvement, especially at a track which rewards handling rather than straight horsepower, Hopper is convinced that a podium is possible, at the very least. Then of course there is Kenny Roberts Jr. Last year, Hopkins' former team mate rode anonymously to a disappointing 14th position, on the bike he had learned to loathe. But this year, Roberts has been on the front row, on the podium, and is improving continuously. If there was one track where Roberts could win, Laguna Seca would be it.
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
But what of the others? Shinya Nakano finished just behind John Hopkins last year, and his Kawasaki handles comparably to Hopkins' Suzuki, so with a year's track knowledge, he cannot be discounted. Marco Melandri is riding more strongly this year, and is well in contention for the title, so there is a strong chance that the Italian Fortuna Honda rider will overcome his antipathy for the track and push for a result. But his history of falls at the track, and his injuries received at Catalunya, could put him into survival mode, circulating to collect points rather than charging to take the win. Loris Capirossi, though his recovery from the Barcelona crash seems to be gaining pace, is another rider with little affinity for Laguna Seca. Finishing 10th last year, and looking to go into the summer recess in decent shape, the diminutive Ducati rider is unlikely to push to the utter limit.
Of the class rookies, the rider with the best credentials must surely be Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen. The young Australian had raced here before, taking a double win during his Superbike years. So he has the knowledge, and possibly the bike, to make a go of the US race. Fellow rookies Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa will be starting from scratch, not having raced at the track before. And with so many blind corners, Laguna Seca has plenty of secrets for newcomers.
The remainder of the field offers some potential surprises. Even though Sete Gibernau is only just back from injury at Catalunya, he knows Laguna Seca and finished remarkably well last year, in a commendable 5th place. Though the Bridgestones may suit Laguna well, the Ducati is less at home, with no long straights to take advantage of its great aerodynamics and top speed. Carlos Checa also knows the track well, and with the Dunlops improving in leaps and bounds, the Spaniard could easily finish close to the front at Laguna Seca.
Then of course, there's the mystery man Makoto Tamada. After riding the first part of the season in virtual anonymity, the only column inches he earned devoted to speculation on how soon he would be sacked, the Sachsenring saw a resurrection of the double GP winner. Tamada finally seemed to find some confidence in the front Michelin of his Konica Minolta Honda, a feeling he'd been lacking since the team decided to make the switch from Bridgestones to the French Michelins over a year and a half ago. If Tamada can find that same feeling, he is surely a force to be reckoned with. If he can't, he will just as surely disappear into the anonymity from which he so briefly emerged.
Good To Go
With 7 races to go, the title race is wide open, more open than it has been for years. With so many possible champions, the racing has been closer, and more exciting than ever, and each of those potential champions will be pushing for vital points again this weekend. Valentino Rossi seems dead set on pulling off a miracle, coming back from a deficit of 46 points to reclaim his title, while Nicky Hayden can no longer afford to play it safe, and make do with a podium at each round. If Nicky wants the title, he'll have to fight for it. He's shown he can, and Laguna Seca will give him another opportunity to prove that he is willing and able to do what it takes to win a championship. One thing is for sure, however: If Hayden thought he had a tough ride last year, just wait till the flag drops on Sunday. It's going to be a thriller.