At heart, every motorcycle race starts fundamentally the same: A group of riders of similar talent on similar equipment line up on the grid with the intention of crossing the line ahead of their rivals at the end of the race. Yet despite its simplicity of concept, once the flag drops, each race develops in a unique direction, taking on a distinctive character all of its own.
That character is often dictated in large part by the nature of the class: in recent years, MotoGP races have tended to resemble a high-speed version of chess, each move carefully considered and rehearsed and several laps in the preparation. World Superbike races, on the other hand, often look more like a bar room brawl than a motor race, with riders wading in wildly more in hope than in expectation, and emerging surprisingly unscathed. And more often than not, races in the 125cc class turn into the nearest thing to a pack of hyenas fighting over a bone, bikes and bodies shooting in every direction, with no order or decorum, and even less chance of making any sense of the fight.
Sometimes, though, a motorcycle race can transcend the ordinary limitations of the class imposed by the nature of the bikes involved, and take on a uniqueness of character that leaves it burned into the collective memory of race fans for many, many years to come. The 2008 Red Bull US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca was just such a race. No high-speed chess here, no careful premeditation or long-rehearsed moves, the race between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner was a fight to the death, mortal combat between two highly-trained assassins using any and every means at their disposal to inflict a fatal blow on their opponent.
Stone Cold Killers
Their combat was assisted, perhaps even encouraged, by the nature of the Laguna Seca track itself. For the first 24 laps of the race, both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi used every inch of the track to gain an advantage over the other. Along Laguna's short front straight, it was Stoner's Ducati that had the edge, its better drive and horsepower allowing Stoner to catch Rossi.
But too often, it was not quite enough to get past Rossi before heeling over for the most terrifying corner on the track, the 170mph left kink of Turn 1. Rossi got caught out there a couple of times, but on most laps, as they rolled the bikes left over the crest of the hill, The Doctor held the perfect line, in the middle of the track and drifting right. Rossi was leaving the door open for Stoner, but the route it led to was the hardest route of all, the outside line over the rumblestrip, as dangerous as the North Face of the Eiger. Brave as a mountaineer, Stoner accepted the challenge, even passing there on lap 24.
Through Turn 2, the Andretti Hairpin, both men were equal, trying passes through the tight left hander, but both giving up on the exit what they gained on the entry. Turns 3 and 4, the flat right handers, saw passes by both men, as well as the most extraordinary piece of defensive riding, with Rossi holding the outside line while Stoner tried up the inside. On the exit, Stoner found Rossi in his path, and was left with nowhere to go that would not mean running into the Italian and taking both himself and Rossi off into the gravel.
From there, the track starts to wind its way up the hill, first ascending the tighter left of Turn 5, then the scarier, faster left of Turn 6, the exit onto the ridge leaving little room for run off, even less for mistakes. Then all the way up the hill to the often overlooked right-hand kink of Turn 7, before falling off the edge of the world at The Corkscrew.
Much has been written about that hallowed corner, and Rossi's legendary pass on Stoner, riding through the dirt on the inside of the turn on lap 4, miraculously staying upright and almost physically slamming into Stoner on the way out, but Turn 7 is a part of what makes The Corkscrew - Turn 8a and Turn 8b - such a magical corner. That brief kink narrows the entrance into the Corkscrew, requiring a subtle adjustment for the ideal line. But that adjustment leaves the door momentarily open for attack, and if you trust your ability on the brakes, and are not fazed by the drop off in the braking area and the complete lack of visual clues about where the line is, then just as Valentino Rossi did on two separate occasions, you can dive through on the brakes and grab the lead into the downhill esses that make up The Corkscrew.
Just being ahead isn't enough. After the drama of The Corkscrew comes the banked Rainey left hander, and the run though 10 before the final turn onto the back straight. Turn 11 is fairly straightforward, but in all its simplicity, it is crucial to the lap. Get drive out of 11, and the straight is just long enough to nip ahead before the terror of Turn 1. But only just long enough - get balked through 11, or don't get on the gas early enough, and you are left with the North Face route past at Turn 1.
This is where Valentino Rossi won the 2008 US GP at Laguna; not with the legendary gravel pass at The Corkscrew; not with his extraordinary ability on the brakes going into Turn 2, or into Turn 7; not even with his bravery at Turn 4, refusing to give ground despite the obvious danger to himself. But at Turn 11, lap after lap, Rossi altered his line subtly, changed his braking points, his turn-in points, leaving Casey Stoner guessing on where he should be braking if he was to get the drag out of the final corner and on to the straight.
In the end, it cost Stoner dearly, as frustration saw him too close going into Turn 11 on lap 24, and forced to run wide to avoid running into the back of Valentino Rossi, taking a trip through the gravel. For Laguna Seca has one final peril on the exit of Turn 11: beyond the thin strip of hard-packed gravel at the racetrack's edge, there is a softer, deeper pit, luring the unwary in and tipping them over. At the end of lap 24 Stoner went down, and one of the most enthralling races of the MotoGP era was effectively at an end.
The chances of a repeat are sadly rather slim. There is nowhere to hide at Laguna, the short front straight giving you five quick breaths to recover before it is back to the physically punishing labor of working your way round this track, and you have to be in the peak of physical fitness to stand a chance of winning. In the last two races, Casey Stoner has shown to be a long way from that peak, the Australian suffering from a mystery virus which has left him drained and completely exhausted after both the Catalunya and Assen MotoGP races, and incapable of following the pace set by Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo.
Though Stoner is unlikely to be fully recovered just 8 days after the previous round at Assen, Valentino Rossi has a new threat to deal with. Jorge Lorenzo has been the revelation of the 2009 season, exceeding the already high expectations both fans and paddock insiders had for the Spaniard. At Barcelona, Lorenzo proved that he was almost a match for the immense talent of Rossi, being beaten only by his own overconfidence in the final corner at the Spanish track.
At Assen, Lorenzo's inexperience worked against him. Rossi beat the Spaniard by pushing in the most frightening part of the track, the very high speed right-left transit of Hoge Heide, but Lorenzo is an eager student and will be expecting a similar trick from his Fiat Yamaha team mate. At Laguna Seca, Lorenzo will also have inexperience against him, as he only managed 5 corners before a huge highside - his trademark last year - saw him out of the race and damaging his ankles once again. If Lorenzo can stay in the saddle and follow his team mate, we could yet see another nail-biter at the Dry Lake.
The biggest question mark at Laguna will be the health of Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard has had a nightmare year with injuries so far, and is slowly recovering from his fractured femur sustained at Mugello. Pedrosa was fast at Assen, staying with the front group until he lost the front at Turn 1 just a few laps in, but the question is how long Pedrosa can sustain that kind of pace at an intensely physical track like Laguna. Pedrosa hasn't been able to train for a long time, and he may not last the distance if he gets involved in a dogfight.
There will be more than just the usual suspects fighting for a podium at Laguna Seca, however. Chris Vermeulen - not a name which has set the series on fire so far this year - has to be odds on for the podium, for the Australian has been on the box for the past two years, and would have been on the year before if it hadn't been for the seriously overheated engine in his Rizla Suzuki. Laguna is a track which sees Vermeulen elevate himself from mid-pack obscurity to potential winner, for no reason other than that he loves the track. Vermeulen will be a factor at Laguna, the only question is whether he can take one more step forwards and match the pace of Rossi, Lorenzo, Stoner and Pedrosa.
Vermeulen will have an American hot on his heels. Colin Edwards is having another excellent season on the Tech 3 Yamaha, and Yamaha's M1 is turning out to be the bike of the series, especially after James Toseland made it four Yamahas in the top six at Assen last time out. Edwards has been edging ever closer to a podium this year and would love to get on the box in front of his home crowd. If there is one rider who will take unnecessary risks at Laguna Seca, it is probably Colin Edwards this year.
His fellow American will be looking just to survive. Nicky Hayden's season so far on the Ducati has borne a worrying resemblance to Marco Melandri's 2008 Ducati season. Yet the first green shoots of hope are beginning to poke out of the Desmosedici GP9's fairing. Hayden had one good day at Barcelona, then had his first decent race at Assen, spending the race caught up in the gigantic tussle for 6th and finishing in 8th after having to deal with a loose clip-on. A repeat of the victory Hayden has tasted here twice before is unlikely, and even a podium is well beyond the bounds of the probable, but if Hayden can be involved in the top 10 battle again and build his confidence with the bike, then he'll at least be heading in the right direction once again.
The man who took his place in the Repsol Honda team will be looking to break his streak of 4th place finishes. Since electing to run the #4 plate (his favored #34 having been retired in honor of Kevin Schwantz), Andrea Dovizioso has found himself all to often in 4th position, and just out of reach of the podium. Dovi made a strong debut at Laguna Seca last year, finishing - you guessed it - in 4th. If he hadn't crashed out at Assen, then the Italian would have been another candidate for risking it all to get on the podium. But with another race on the new RC212V chassis, he may not need to risk it to get that far forward.
James Toseland is another rider who has gone well here in the past, though that was in another series and on another bike. Like Hayden, Toseland has had a nightmare season, struggling to get used to the feel of the Bridgestone tires on the Yamaha M1. But after receiving help from Yamaha MotoGP boss Masahiko Nakajima in getting the bike set up at Assen, Toseland appears to have made a remarkable return to form.
The British rider badly needs it. Toseland is hotly tipped to be shown the door at the end of the season, and is believed to be close to a deal with the Ten Kate Honda team in World Superbikes. But if Toseland has found the key to performing on the Tech 3 Yamaha, then he might finally break into the top 5, and if he starts doing that regularly, there may be a place for him in MotoGP yet.
One man whose future seems secure in MotoGP is Loris Capirossi. Despite his age, Capirex looks set to continue at Rizla Suzuki again next year, the veteran Italian getting more consistent results out of the bike than his team mate. Not at Laguna, though, as this is the track where Vermeulen shines. Capirossi is more likely to be involved in the increasingly common and increasingly entertaining mid-pack dust-up.
Randy de Puniet has matured this season from MotoGP Joker to MotoGP Jack of Hearts. The Frenchman has stopped crashing inexplicably, and has grown faster and more reliable from race to race. De Puniet had a strong finish here last year, coming in 6th, and his form so far says the LCR Honda man must be capable of more on Sunday.
More In Hope
If there is one track where Marco Melandri might be able to overcome the lack of performance of his Kawasaki, then it is Laguna Seca. Melandri has been on the podium here before, badly beaten up after a crash in practice on the Gresini Honda in 2007. After initially hating the track when the series first returned to Laguna Seca in 2005, Melandri has come to appreciate the place, despite the remaining dangers. Melandri should be able to at least hang on to the mid-pack melee once again at Laguna, and might even come out on top.
Where once a Gresini Honda was a guarantee of competitiveness, nowadays it is no such thing. Since the switch to the spec tire, Toni Elias has struggled with a lack of grip. At Assen, the team found the start of a solution, and Elias found himself in the bunch fighting for 6th once again, though a wild move saw him penalized and pushed down to 12th, despite crossing the line in 8th place. Elias will be out of the Gresini squad next year, but he may yet be able to salvage a ride in MotoGP.
That task is a great deal more difficult for Alex de Angelis. The man from San Marino was criticized for being erratic last year, scoring well one week and poorly the next. De Angelis is no longer erratic, sadly, he is reliably to be found scrapping for the final points and his days in MotoGP are almost certainly numbered. A future in World Superbikes beckons, though he may do better moving down to the Moto2 class.
The fight for the last place could be surprisingly interesting. Gabor Talmacsi, the man who entered the series just two races ago, has showed solid progress in the little time he's had aboard the Scot Honda, and is now ready to start making the next step, by matching the backmarkers and avoiding last place. Laguna is a tough place to pull that trick off, as it is such a difficult circuit, and one that Talmacsi has never seen before, but the Hungarian shouldn't be far off.
At least the man that Talmacsi has to beat is also new to Laguna Seca. Niccolo Canepa has been a disappointment since making the transition from test rider to MotoGP racer, his size at least one of the factors that has worked against him. Canepa will be working hard to avoid the humiliation of defeat by Talmacsi, but that is a fate that he can avoid for only so long.
The final candidate for the final spot is Sete Gibernau. The Spanish veteran once fought for championships, but it is merely his empty shell that now haunts the paddock, not the once-brilliant title contender. Injury continues to plague him, and Gibernau must by now be having doubts about the wisdom of his return to racing at the highest level.
The Numbers Game
After two races with a fuller grid, the MotoGP class will line up in depleted numbers again at Laguna. Mika Kallio is out after a crash in the penultimate corner at Assen, which saw him trap his hand under the bike, grinding his finger and damaging it too badly for him to ride at Laguna Seca. Kallio is expected to be back at the next race at the Sachsenring in Germany.
Yuki Takahashi, on the other hand, will not. The Japanese rider has succumbed to the inevitable, being forced out to make way for Gabor Talmacsi, arguably more talented and undeniably better funded. At first, Team Scot protested that they would be trying to find a way to field both Takahashi and Talmacsi for the rest of the season, and asking Honda for more support and extra bikes. But exactly as expected, neither was forthcoming, and given the impossibility of running a flag-to-flag race with just one bike for each rider, and badly needing the money which Talmacsi brought in from the Hungarian oil company Mol, Takahashi was cast aside.
Takahashi's departure leaves the series without full-time Japanese rider for the first time since 1992. For Japan - and indeed for MotoGP - that is a tragedy. But the bigger tragedy is that Japan has been unable to produce a competitive MotoGP rider for several years now, and their prospects are getting fewer all the time.
Celebration Of Hope
With the memory of last year's Laguna race still fresh in the memory, fans and followers have great hopes for the Red Bull US GP at Laguna Seca. There is indeed every reason to expect a great race, the track makes it possible for riders to hold up someone faster for long enough to take victory, and there are a host of candidates to take advantage of those possibilities. But the memory of the 2008 race is rather too much to live up to, and that level of excitement seems improbable. However, good planning by Dorna means that the US GP falls on the July 4th weekend, meaning that whatever the outcome of the race, the partying and celebrations will go on regardless. There will by something to celebrate at Laguna this weekend whatever happens.