Laguna Seca, on California's Monterey coast, is a fantastic circuit. It has everything a racer could wish for, with a mix of fast, slow, left and right turns, plenty of gradient changes, lots of good overtaking spots and massively improved safety. It's fabulous for spectators, thogh the California sun can be a little unforgiving and there's not as much shade as there might be. But you can get close to the action, and there is always action. Everywhere.
Practice didn't throw up any major surprises. Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo shared the spoils at the top of the leaderboard for the free sessions, with Stoner , Pedrosa and Elias in close contention. Though obviously there were a few excursions to the gravel trap in these free sessions, nothing was serious enough to be noted. Or, indeed, to prepare us for what was to come later.
Qualifying was a real nail-biter. After five minutes of constant changing at the top, Casey Stoner raised the bar, going a full second and a half faster than previous pole sitter Lorenzo. Who proceeded to take half a second off the Ducati rider's time the next lap. Stoner returned the complement a lap later, staying on top for several minutes before Pedrosa took the lead and then beat himself on the next lap. Two minutes later and Lorenzo was back on top, beaten twice more by Stoner in consecutive laps before getting it back and repeating the process. So with around ten minutes to go, Lorenzo was on provisional pole, with Rossi and Stoner pushing hard. The Spanish Yamaha rider chose to come in for new rubber and go for one last push, as did Stoner. While this was going on, Rossi elevated himself to second, just a few hundredths behind Lorenzo.
Then, in quick succession, both Lorenzo and Stoner suffered massive highsides on some of the fastest sections of the track. Stoner beat himself up fairly thoroughly but didn't do any real damage. Lorenzo wasn't so lucky. Landing hard on his right hand side, the Spaniard broke a couple of the bones in his right foot. But worse, he dislocated his right collarbone. Like a break but, bizarrely, more painful and ultimately impossible to fix. Long term it's not a problem but having done it myself I can vouch for the fact that riding a bike properly like that is very very hard. So as the session finished, two of the fastest three on the grid were looking doubtful for a start. Pending medical reports, we had Lorenzo, Rossi and Stoner on the front row, with Pedrosa, Dovizioso and Elias making an all Honda row two. Edwards and Hayden headed Vermeulen on row three, while the top ten was completed by Capirossi. Toseland messed up the settings on his Yamaha and ended up fifteenth in what was to be the start of a pretty poor weekend for the Englishman, looking ever more likely to be back in SBK next year and probably not too disappointed by the prospect.
Sunday and the California sun was still blazing. Stoner and Lorenzo dragged themselves to the medical centre and both were somehow signed off as fit to ride. Stoner's bruises were no doubt not helped by the mystery virus that has been dogging him for the last few meets, leaving him weak and nauseous by the end of each race. But to show his intentions, Stoner was fastest in warmup from Rossi, Pedrosa and Edwards, with Lorenzo in fifth and obviously in a lot of pain.
A few hours passed and everyone lined up on the grid. The sun was high, trackside temperatures were in the mid twenties, putting the actual track in the low forties and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The stage, as they say, was set.
Lights out and Dani Pedrosa got a fantastic start to slice through from the second row into the lead before the frantic braking for the first corner. Further back, James Toseland got a good start too. Just a little too good, though, as he was judged to have jumped the gun and awarded a ride through. Up at the front, Pedrosa was making the most of his early lead while Stoner and Rossi scrapped for second. Dovizioso got the better of Lorenzo to slot into fourth, while Nicky Hayden and Loris Capirossi both made up a couple of places to the detriment of Colin Edwards.
Three laps in and we saw the unscheduled departure of both Gabor Talmaci who went to play in the gravel and Loris Capirossi, whose Suzuki called it a day. A few laps later on there was a comic book style question mark in the air over Dovizioso as he lost the front with no warning at all and slid out. And on the same lap we lost Sete Gibernau in a seperate incident. Neither rider was hurt, but their races were definitely run. Toseland, meanwhile, had either failed to notice (he says) his pit board telling him to take a ride through or elected to ignore them, and was black flagged on lap eleven while running in eleventh place. Ironically, had he taken the penalty and finished dead last he would still have picked up three points. He could easily have got more because his pace was good, but we'll never know.
Up at the front, Pedrosa had his head down and was making space between himself and second placed Casey Stoner. Rossi was alternately all over the back of the Ducati and a few lengths back as he regrouped, but when Dovizioso fell and promoted Lorenzo to fourth it was the spur that the champion needed and he blasted past Stoner a few laps later, setting off after the diminutive leader. But every time Rossi pushed, Pedrosa was able to respond. The Italian's slightly nervous start had cost him dearly as the lengthy scrap with Stoner must have taken the edge off his tyres as well as being physically tiring. Stoner suffered more still, suddenly dropping right off the boil and being easily passed by Lorenzo, who presumably was running on neat adrenaline at this stage. Because the battered young Yamaha rider was suddenly catching Rossi! Indeed, withfive laps to go Lorenzo was able to make an Herculean lunge on the brakes at the notorious last turn, where riders are pulling over 1.4G to try and lose in excess of a hundred and twenty miles per hour in a few hundred feet. For a moment it looked as though the lunge would pay off. In fact technically it did. For a moment. Lorenzo sailed through into second place before locking the front and working miracles to save it. Rossi slipped back through on the inside and immediately opened a gap of nealry a second while Lorenzo got his act together. With Pedrosa long gone, the results seemed to be set. Yet Rossi was taking vast chunks out of Pedrosa's lead. Was there a problem with the Spaniard's Honda? Or had The Doctor kept something special in reserve? On the final lap, Rossi was gobbling up the gap between the pair of bikes, and on the approach to that same last corner he was in position to take the gamble and steal the win. But he chose not to. After thirty two tough laps, he tucked in close, got on the throttle really early and just lost out on the drag to the line to lose the race by just three tenths of a second, with Lorenzo a further second and a half behind and Stoner a massive ten seconds back from Lorenzo. Nicky Hayden had his most successful race since joining Ducati, finishing a strong fifth ahead of factory Honda riding Toni Elias and Colin Edwards.
So Dani Pedrosa put a Honda on the top step of the podium for the first time in thirteen months. That might be the mighty HRC's longest ever drought. Next round is Sachsenring, where it all went wrong for Pedrosa last year, starting his appalling run. Hopefully he can exorcise a few ghosts and bring a bit of variety to the front of the field. Who knows, in a few races time we could have a four way scrap at the front instead of the current three. As it is, Rossi has opened a nine point gap over Lorenzo, with Stoner a further seven points back. Pedrosa has his work cut out, needing forty nine points to catch Rossi, but it's impossible. Just very unlikely.
Laguna Seca MotoGP Results
1. Dani Pedrosa (Honda)
2. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
3. Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
4. Casey Stoner (Ducati)
5. Nicky Hayden (Ducati)
6. Toni Elias (Honda)
7. Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
8. Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki)
9. Randy de Puniet (Honda)
10.Macro Melandri (Kawasaki)
MotoGP standings (after eight rounds)
1. Valentino Rossi 151
2. Jorgo Lorenzo 142
3. Casey Stoner 135
4. Dani Pedrosa 92
5. Colin Edwards 76
6. Andrea Dovizioso 69
7. Marco Melandri 61
8. Chris Vermeulen 61
9. Randy de Puniet 58
10. Loris Capirossi 56