As the MotoGP circus heads for the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, it is difficult not to reflect on the curious state of affairs which surrounds American race tracks. The United States of America is the world's largest economy, a country with vast reserves of wealth, some of the world's most spectacular scenery, and large population centers full of people with plenty of money to spend on leisure activities, such as motorcycle racing. It is the home of the automobile, a nation whose very culture revolves around the combustion engine. If there is one country in the world where you would expect to find world class race tracks with world class facilities, it would be the USA.
So the surprise is all the greater when you discover that just about every racing circuit in the USA is badly lacking in one aspect or another. There are plenty of tracks with great facilities, but just about every one of these is at an oval, the result of the huge popularity of the NASCAR series, in which cars meant to resemble road-going vehicles run long distances in front of huge crowds. As ovals tend to have banked turns surrounded by high concrete walls, this makes them totally unsuitable for motorcycle racing both in terms of safety, and of the entertainment factor. Yet races are still held at such tracks, including visits by the AMA Superbike series to the Daytona International Speedway during Bike Week, and California Speedway in Fontana, California, despite safety concerns. Next year, the legendary Brickyard, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is even due to host a second MotoGP round in America, on its flat and featureless infield track.
This does not mean that the US does not have great tracks, for there are a number of magnificent circuits dotted around the country. But because these tracks do not host hugely popular events such as NASCAR or the Indy Racing League, these often spectacular circuits have their own set of problems. Barber Motorsports Park is a superb track, with lots of elevation change challenging even the most skilled of riders. But it is far too tight a place to race the world's fastest motorcycles, when even the Superbikes barely get out of 4th gear there. Miller Motorsports Park has great facilities, a fantastic layout, and is set in some of the most awe-inspiring scenery of any track in the world. Sadly, Miller is in Tooele, Utah, a place which is not exactly the back of beyond, but might rather cruelly be described as the place you have to pass through on your way to the back of beyond.
Then, there's Laguna Seca. Located close to San Francisco, probably the largest sportbike market in the US, it is a glorious, rolling track, featuring one of the most exciting sections of the season, the notorious Corkscrew, a gut-wrenching downhill left-right flick which will spit off the unwary, but allow a great rider to pass. Though the Bay area is only an easy drive away, once you've made that drive, the trouble begins. Access to the track is notoriously poor, with waits of several hours not uncommon, and traffic backing up for miles. Then, the facilities at the track are rudimentary, with little shade when the sun shines, or shelter if it rains. Even the pit garages are pretty simple, worsted only by the ramshackle affairs at Phillip Island on the MotoGP calendar.
And though the track layout has plenty of excitement, it's still a very short, tight affair, where the MotoGP bikes never make it out of 5th gear. Though the Corkscrew is the most famous part of the track, there are plenty of other great turns: The scary left flick of Turn 1, taken at well over 150 mph before getting hard on the brakes for the hairpin; the nasty left hander at Turn 6, running up the hill and along what is basically a ridge, with no runoff on either side; even Rainey Curve, the banked left turn at the bottom of the Corkscrew, which you can take much faster than you ever believed possible because of the positive camber. All of these lend Laguna plenty of character, and make it different from other tracks, a uniquely American circuit.
This year, Laguna will be more American then ever. For the regular complement of American riders will be expanded from four to six. Or rather, five, and a Canadian. Both Roger Lee Hayden, the youngest of the Hayden siblings, and Miguel Duhamel, the oldest of the AMA Superbike superstars, will be joining the MotoGP regulars as wildcards, Hayden aboard a third Kawasaki, and the Canadian Duhamel aboard the injured Toni Elias' Gresini Honda. While both have expert knowledge of the tricky Laguna Seca track gained from several years - and in the case of Duhamel, several championships - racing there, they are likely to have problems getting to grips with the vastly more complex electronics of a MotoGP bike. Roger Lee may have the advantage over Miggy in this respect, as the young Kentuckian has already tested the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-RR prior to the race. Whether he can turn this to his advantage remains to be seen.
As for the regulars, the one man you wouldn't bet against is the older of the Haydens, reigning world champion Nicky. Nicky Hayden has won both of the races held here since MotoGP returned to the US. The US GP also comes at exactly the right time for The Kentucky Kid, as he has only found a way to ride the Honda RC212V over the past couple of races. Coming off two podiums in a row, and with team mate Dani Pedrosa having taken the win at the Sachsenring last weekend, Hayden has to be a firm favorite to take a third straight victory here. For Honda built the RC212V to suit tracks like the Sachsenring and Laguna Seca perfectly: maximum maneuverability, and the ability to flick from side to side effortlessly is precisely what is needed at Laguna.
But Colin Edwards' Fiat Yamaha and John Hopkins' Rizla Suzuki also fit the bill perfectly: Both the Yamaha M1 and the Suzuki GSV-R have been designed for agility, and both men are desperate for a win. Colin Edwards is uncertain of his future, with Jorge Lorenzo rumored to be taking his seat with the factory Yamaha team next year, and will want to get his first win in MotoGP to strengthen his bargaining position, before he is demoted to inferior equipment, making getting that win all the more difficult. Edwards has already had a podium from 2005, the first year MotoGP returned to the US, and he will be hoping for at least that this weekend.
John Hopkins is also still chasing his first win in MotoGP, despite being considered one of the most promising riders in the class. In previous seasons, that promise has been concealed by sup-par machinery, but now that team mate Chris Vermeulen has got a win on the bike, and Hopper himself has got a podium, the clearly improved Suzuki is not an obstacle for Hopper any more. If there's one place you want to get a debut win, it has to be your home Grand Prix, and with Hopkins originally hailing from Ramona, in Southern California, he will be relentless in pursuit of victory.
As for Kurtis Roberts, victory must seem a very distant prospect. The younger son of Kenny Roberts Sr. has done remarkably well replacing his brother, who has withdrawn from racing because of the problems with Team KR's KR212V bike. Kurtis has already scored more points than Kenny, and Laguna Seca will be the first race where he will get to use the new chassis which the team has been working on since Mugello. If the chassis brings the improvements the team is hoping for, this could be the first race where Kurtis gets to show his true potential. There can be no question of his motivation at his home GP.
Just because we are racing in America doesn't mean that we are sure to have an American winner, though. There are plenty of other contenders in the race as well. The most obvious of these are the two title candidates, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi. Stoner ran well here last year, until he crashed out at Turn 5, so we know he can be fast at Laguna. On paper, the Laguna Seca track should not suit the Ducati, which is marginally less agile than the Japanese bikes, but that's what we said about the Sachsenring, and Stoner looked capable of taking the win all weekend, until tire problems and a rampant Dani Pedrosa took it away from him. There is one significant difference between Laguna Seca and the Sachsenring, though: The place where Stoner gained the most time in Germany was in the final section, the two sweeping lefts before heading up the hill. Laguna's uphill sections are much twistier than the straight up and down of section 4 at the Sachsenring, with less to be gained from straight horsepower.
As for Valentino Rossi, he can never be ruled out anywhere. Rossi has already had a podium here, in the first year we raced at Laguna, but last year was disastrous. After a poor qualifying session and a mediocre start, Rossi used up all his tire charging up through the field, destroying his rear tire, forcing him to slow and his engine to overheat in the searing conditions. His third DNF of the 2006 season put him a massive 51 points behind the eventual world champion Nicky Hayden. So Rossi will be back for revenge. Firstly, he will want to avenge his poor result from last year. Then there's the matter of clawing back some of the 32 points he is trailing championship leader Casey Stoner by. And finally, there's the matter of getting a win here. Laguna Seca is one of only three tracks on the calendar that Rossi hasn't won at, the other two being Istanbul Park and Misano. Rossi has a strong sense of history, and would hate to retire while he still has tracks he was winless at.
Unfortunately for Rossi and Stoner, two men look capable of ruining their, and the Americans', carefully laid plans for victory. Chris Vermeulen came very close to victory here last year, before mechanical problems dropped him out of contention. Laguna is a track where Vermeulen has taken a double-header win in World Superbikes, and he is always outstanding at the track. After a win in the wet, the Australian will be out to prove that he can win in the dry as well, and Laguna could well be the place he succeeds.
The other hot property at Laguna Seca could well be Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa is coming off a win at the Sachsenring, a track similar to Laguna, and he finished 2nd here last year, his first visit to the track. With that kind of form, Pedrosa should be the most dangerous man in Laguna Seca, and someone the rest of the MotoGP field will have to watch very carefully.
It also remains to be seen what kind of a welcome Pedrosa will get in the US, especially if he goes on to take the win. Many Americans were livid after Estoril last year, where Dani Pedrosa took out Nicky Hayden in a silly crash, seriously overcooking it into a left hander and swiping out Hayden, out of the race and seemingly taking the title out of his grasp. Only an outstanding race at Valencia and a serious mistake by Valentino Rossi saved Hayden's title, and may have helped to temper the US fans' anger at Pedrosa.
Two more names to watch at the US Grand Prix. Marco Melandri hated the track the first time MotoGP came here in 2005, but by 2006, that hatred had almost entirely dissipated. Melandri went from suffering painful crashes to getting on the podium in the space of a year. With Melandri another rider who looked strong at the Sachsenring, before his tires gave up the ghost, the Gresini Honda rider can't be dismissed.
Carlos Checa is the man most capable of producing a surprise at Laguna. Last year, on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha, the Spanish veteran finished an impressive 7th at the US Grand Prix, at that point, Dunlop's strongest dry weather showing. This was partly down to the track suiting the tires, a factor which hints at good possibilities for Makoto Tamada and Sylvain Guintoli, but a lot of it was down to Checa. On better equipment this time, and with a couple of strong outings to his name over the past few races, Checa could be a dark horse at the dry lake.
With so many riders intent on winning here, the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca should be a fantastic spectacle of motorcycle racing. But last year's experience here has made us wary: Extreme temperatures melted tires and blew up engines, and a terrible track surface made the circuit even more difficult to ride than usual. After last year's fiasco, where the AMA support races had to be postponed for fear of irreparably damaging the track for the MotoGP race, the track has been resurfaced once again, hopefully competently this time. The weather looks like it could play ball, with temperatures predicted to be balmy, rather than boiling, so nothing should stand in the way of a great weekend of racing. American Style.