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The Crucible

United States MotoGP, 23rd JUly 2006, Laguna Seca
Words by Simon Bradley

Kenny Roberts Jnr is kind enough to show young Casey Stoner how to take The CorkscrewA crucible is a dish used for heating things. And certainly that's what Laguna Seca turned out to be as the California sunshine raised temperatures even more than usual. It's in the desert anyway, so being a little warm is hardly strange. But the unrelenting heat started to degrade the track surface, wrecked tyres and put huge stress on the riders who, despite getting the advantage of a 180mph breeze are also dressed in full leathers which are never cool, no matter how many ventilation holes are put in.

Qualifying showed that Yamaha still haven't resolved all their handling issues as Valentino Rossi struggled to get a setup that worked properly for him. Colin Edwards fared a little better, possibly down to circuit knowledge as much as anything. Kenny Roberts Jnr has immense experience of the circuit, being local and all, and the KR211V is now working pretty well, both in terms of power and handling. Nicky Hayden won here last year so obviously knows his way around. It's also fairly apparent that the Honda is currently the best overall package on the track, with even Rossi's prodigious talent seemingly unable to beat it. Chris Vermeulen was the big surprise of the day, though, as he took advantage both of his experience at Laguna Seca (he did the double last time Superbikes came here in 2004) and of the fine handling Suzuki to put himself firmly on pole position. Colin Edwards managed a last minute spurt to take a respectable second place from Kenny Roberts Jnr who had been consistently quick all through practice. Dani Pedrosa, astonishingly, headed the second row on his first visit to the California circuit ahead of local boy John Hopkins on the second Suzuki and a clearly rattled Nicky Hayden. Having to pass his team-mate was certainly not in Hayden's script. The third row was lead by Casey Stoner, the young Australian having topped the timesheets for so much of the weekend, with Shinya Nakano and Marco Melandri next to him. And Valentino Rossi? Tenth in a very disappointing show, though still under a second off pole.

Chris Vermeulen makes like a rat up a drainpipe to take the lead before turn one...Race day dawned, if such a thing was possible, even hotter. The AMA races scheduled as supporting events were cancelled as the track surface was degrading so badly, and by the time the riders lined up for the off it had reached thirty nine degrees air temperature, the track surface being up at fifty eight degrees. That's a hundred and two fahrenheit air temperature and an astonishing hundred and thirty six on the track. And when the lights went out it was Chris Vermeulen who got the holeshot and went off like a scalded cat. The young Suzuki rider rode inch perfectly to open a comfortable gap by the end of the first lap and then simply kept the pressure on. Behind him, Kenny Roberts Jnr was in hot pursuit, followed by Hayden and Stoner, who made a fantastic start. Colin Edwards, sadly, couldn't make the same claim as he dropped back to fifth by the end of the first lap, being hassled by Pedrosa who also didn't get off the line very well. Melandri, Hopkins, Nakano and Rossi rounded off the top ten. A fairly static period followed, while Vermeulen extended his lead over Roberts who in turn fought to hold off the advances of Nicky Hayden. Pedrosa, Edwards and Melandri had a little tussle, finally decided in the Spaniard's favour and Rossi moved past Nakano but showed no sign of making a real break.

Nicky Hayden all on his own. Spent a lot of the race like that - it's either his aftershave or his prodigious talent...Then Hayden finally managed to get past Roberts and proceeded to close the gap between himself and Vermeulen at a respectable rate. But the real excitement was happening further back as a massive fight broke out between Stoner, Roberts and Pedrosa. Some seriously no quarter overtaking saw the lead of the group swap several times as the impetuous young guns frequently found themselves coming off second best to the wily ex champion. Stoner took the lead of the group briefly after a dazzling overtake before sliding off and out of contention as he pushed the envelope just a little too far. Which left Pedrosa chasing a distant Hayden, himself chasing Vermeulen. And further back, Valentino Rossi had started to make his move, putting in a string of fast laps that saw him climb from ninth to fourth by lap twenty. Three laps earlier, Hayden had caught and breezed past Chris Vermeulen who started to come under pressure from Pedrosa. But the young Australian is certainly game, and a real racer to boot. He dug deep and managed to keep his lap times down sufficiently to slow the Spaniard's approach. Slow, but not stop. Five laps from the end, Pedrosa was right there and managed to slip past. But not, interestingly enough, to break away. Vermeulen hung in there until just two laps from the end, when worsening mechanical problems meant he had to relax the pace. Valentino Rossi, meantime, was turning in fast lap after fast lap, getting ever more likely to get a podium, when with just five laps to go his rear tyre delaminated Nicky Hayden is quite good round  The Corkscrew, and isn't afraid to lean over a  bit either...and wrecked his corner speed. Despite the lack of grip and appalling vibration, he kept going, trying for points, and was looking at a vaguely worthwhile finish when his engine decided to add insult to injury and let go in a large clouds of white smoke sort of way.

Which left Nicky Hayden a full three and a half seconds clear at the front, with Dani Pedrosa second and Marco melandri, who crashed on the first lap here last year, taking the last podium spot from Kenny Roberts Jnr. Chris Vermeulen came in fifth after riding a brilliant race, his Suzuki misfiring badly with what appeared to be a fuel feed problem which cost him a richly deserved podium place. Behind Vermeulen, John Hopkins led Carlos Checa, Loris Capirossi and a mortified Colin Edwards home, while Sete Gibernau rounded off the top ten.

With just seven races to go and a massive lead, Nicky Hayden is going to take some beating now. But Valentino Rossi isn't the type to take adversity lying down, so I fully expect to see him come out fighting for the rest of the season. Hopefully his bad luck is now behind him and we can look forward to seeing some more vintage stuff from The Doctor. We've got a summer break now before the next race at Brno at the end of August. I'd say the riders have earned it, personally...

SBMan of the Match goes to Chris Vermeulen by a country mile. Robbed of a podium at the last ...

Results

1 N Hayden, Honda
2 D Pedrosa, Honda
3 M Melandri, Honda
4 K Roberts Jnr, KR211V
5 C Vermeulen, Suzuki
6 J Hopkins, Suzuki
7 C Checa, Yamaha
8 L Capirossi, Ducati
9 C Edwards, Yamaha
10 S Gibernau, Ducati

Championship Standing after 10 rounds

194 N Hayden
160 D Pedrosa
150
M Melandri
143 V Rossi
126 L Capirossi
91 C Stoner
84 C Edwards
79 K Roberts Jnr
74 J Hopkins
67 S Nakano

SB

 




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