In theory, motorcycle racing is simple. A bunch of riders line up at the start, and the fastest rider and bike combination wins. But theory has a way of falling so disappointingly short when faced with reality, and this is no exception. After all, it isn't the fastest rider who wins, but the first rider to cross the line. Examples are legion of riders who are incredibly fast, but who have a tendency to find a way to end in the gravel, rather than the winner's circle.
And there is more than one way of ensuring you are first across the line. Every rider has their own approach, a way of leveraging their own strengths to beat the opposition, bending the race to follow the direction which will play into their hands, and away from their rivals. Their tactics and strategy are almost a signature, a little piece of racing DNA, and speaks both of their ability and of their racing heritage.
Dani Pedrosa, for example, wants to get an early lead then settle into a fast rhythm, lapping as precisely and perfectly as he can, each corner taken at the fastest speed possible. He treats each race more like a time trial than a group race, and can push the bike hard from the start of the race all the way to the end, his concentration never lapsing, his speed only flagging in the final laps as the engine management systems start leaning out the bike to conserve fuel. Ironically, Dani Pedrosa has the perfect mindset and strategy to win the Isle of Man TT, and the worst possible physical stature to deal with the rough, uneven conditions encountered when racing on public roads. But on the relatively smooth, manicured asphalt of a short circuit, Pedrosa is almost unbeatable.
Casey Stoner most resembles his fellow Australian and five-time World Champion Mick Doohan. Like Pedrosa, Stoner likes to run fast, perfect laps, but where Pedrosa lets his concentration be disrupted when battling with other riders, Stoner relishes the opposition. Just as Mick Doohan did before him, it merely increases his determination step up the pressure another notch, pushing harder still until his opponents cry mercy, and capitulate. Stoner lays his rivals out on the rack, and stretches them and stretches them until they can take no more.
Other riders require the challenge of rivals to be at their best. Kevin Schwantz was at his best in a brawl, when wile, cunning and brute force could overcome the speed of his opponents. If you went into the last lap with Schwantz on your tail, you were in real trouble, as the American racing legend would surely find a way around you before the lap was over, and steal the win you'd worked so hard to secure. Left to run on his own, however, Schwantz would let his concentration lapse, and start to sag. The measure of Schwantz' motivation was made clear after the crash that broke Wayne Rainey's spine. Without the pressure of Rainey chasing him every foot of the way, Kevin Schwantz started losing interest, and retired shortly afterwards.
Like his hero Schwantz, Valentino Rossi is another rider who prefers the challenge of competition. Rossi rides best when he has others to push him, and is forced to up his game to match their attacks. But though the Italian enjoys close battles, that isn't the way that he wins races. Valentino Rossi's tactics have much less to do with bikes, or tires, or passing, and much more to do with pressure.
Like Casey Stoner, Rossi wins by mercilessly applying pressure on his rivals until they crack. But while Stoner applies pressure by just going faster and faster until the opposition can no longer keep up, Rossi does so by finding his opponents' weak spots, and like a practiced master of martial arts, exerting just enough force to incapacitate them, waiting until they make a mistake.
But the tactics which proved to be so deadly when dealing with Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau have been useless when confronted with Casey Stoner. When Rossi raced Biaggi and Gibernau, all he needed to do was sit snapping at their heels for long enough, and at some point, distracted by the pressure from behind, both Biaggi and Gibernau could be counted upon to make a mistake and hand Rossi the win.
Neither Casey Stoner nor Dani Pedrosa are particularly susceptible to this. Stoner, especially, is oblivious to anything happening behind him, and once he gets a clear track ahead, he changes gear and takes off. However hard Rossi pushes, Casey Stoner just doesn't seem to notice, and gets on with the job of putting in lap after scorching lap until even the seven-time World Champion cries enough. Mr Perfect is not just fast, he is also impervious to pressure.
The Fast Guy
Casey Stoner had demonstrated both traits throughout the weekend. It had only taken the reigning champion 11 laps to smash the lap record, then another 3 to destroy the pole record, and that was in a foggy, cold morning session not long after the bikes rolled on to the track. Stoner looked unstoppable every time he climbed aboard his Marlboro Ducati, and the competition were already preparing their excuses.
Though Casey Stoner was managing just fine without it, the Australian, together with all the other Bridgestone runners, was being given a helping hand by Michelin. Having guessed completely wrong about weather conditions at the track, the French tire manufacturer had a container full of rubber specially crafted to handle the extreme heat of 2006. If the weather at Laguna Seca had been more like Qatar and less like Le Mans, Michelin would have been well on track to provide the winning tire.
Instead, the cool morning sessions saw Michelin-shod riders going out on full intermediate tires in an attempt to generate some kind of heat and grip, and with just two tires each which would be anywhere near soft enough to handle the conditions. Dani Pedrosa had come to Laguna Seca to try and ride with a broken hand and ankle and rescue important points for his title effort. But the Spaniard left after the first day's practice, not willing to risk further injury for just a couple of points, which is all that his broken wrist combined with worthless tires would provide.
So as the bikes sat waiting for the red lights to fade and unleash them off the line, the only question of note seemed to be how many laps it would take Casey Stoner to build a convincing lead. Of the two men who seemed capable of putting up any resistance, Valentino Rossi sat beside Stoner on the grid, while Chris Vermeulen had not been able to use his qualifiers to their full potential, and had allowed a bevy of Michelin riders to get ahead of him, the French qualifying tires not nearly as bad as their race tires. The Australian's Suzuki sat way back on the third row of the grid, and had a lot of traffic to get through.
Once the lights died, and the engine howls deepened as clutches battled with electronics to get off the line and up to the crest of Turn 1, the pack thundered towards the first corner to see what destiny had in store for them. As the bikes started to edge towards the outside of the track, ready to peel off into the Andretti Hairpin, Casey Stoner's preordained domination seemed to take shape before the eyes of the watching crowd, like cards laid on a table by some wizened fortune teller. The Australian already had clear space behind him, and the race had only just begun.
Behind Stoner, Nicky Hayden took advantage of the inside line at turn 1 which 3rd place on the grid provided, beating Valentino Rossi into the kink under the footbridge, forcing the Italian to cede his position. Rossi wouldn't be denied for long, though. Forced behind the Repsol Honda of Nicky Hayden, The Doctor stayed left, and stuffed his Yamaha M1 back inside Hayden into the hairpin, to take back 2nd place.
Activity behind Hayden and Rossi was equally frantic. James Toseland was off the line well, sneaking ahead of fellow Yamaha man Jorge Lorenzo to take 4th, while Andrea Dovizioso fired past fellow satellite Honda rider Randy de Puniet to contest 6th place with Colin Edwards and Chris Vermeulen. Everyone on the outside of that battle came out the loser, though, with Dovizioso up to 5th, and Vermeulen holding the tight line to snatch 7th out of the hairpin.
On the run up to the right hander at Turn 4, Dovizioso grabbed another spot, pushing James Toseland back down into 5th, ahead of Lorenzo, who he'd passed in the hairpin.
Up, Up, And Away
The braking zone for Turn 5 gave a hint of the preliminary balance of power. Valentino Rossi grabbed back a sizable chunk of the advantage Casey Stoner had seized off the line, while behind Hayden, Lorenzo had passed Toseland, and was attempting to dive up the inside of Dovizioso. The Spaniard succeeded at first, briefly grabbing 4th, but then it all went horribly wrong. A fraction too much throttle combined with cold tires to see Jorge Lorenzo rocketing skyward once again, his second huge highside of the year. Though not quite as stratospheric as his tumble at Shanghai, Lorenzo had plenty of air before coming down with a bang on the track, and sliding through the gravel.
The reigning 250 champion immediately grabbed his ankle, clearly in pain, and medical examination later confirmed what everyone at trackside feared: Another highside, more broken bones in his feet for the Spaniard, and another period of slowly building his confidence. If you listen to the complaints from the detractors of electronics in racing, the perpetual chorus is that modern traction control systems make it possible to just open the throttle without thinking. The epidemic of highsides this season has seen suggests that the situation is a little less black and white than the naysayers would have you believe.
On the climb up the hill towards the Corkscrew, it was clear just how much of Stoner's lead Valentino Rossi had clawed back in Turns 5 and 6. Cresting the hill at the Turn 7 kink, Rossi was level with Stoner, and later on the brakes. As Casey Stoner tipped his bike left for the first part of the Corkscrew, ready to plunge down the hill, he found his way blocked by a Fiat Yamaha. Forced to back off, he saw Rossi pass and take back the lead. Suddenly, it seemed that fortune teller wasn't laying out Tarot cards, but a hand of Texas Hold 'Em instead.
Behind the leading pair, Lorenzo's highside had shuffled the field a little. The Tech 3 Yamaha pairing of Toseland and Edwards had lost a lot of ground, allowing Vermeulen and Toni Elias to come through. Vermeulen was proving what he'd shown in practice: on race day, he was fast, just a shame about his poor qualifying. As the bikes headed down the corkscrew, the Suzuki man still had too much of a gap to Dovizioso in 4th, but he was coming hard.
At the front, Stoner seemed temporarily stunned by Rossi's pass. His surprise only lasted until the bikes rounded Turn 11 to fire back across the line, however, and by the time that Rossi crested Turn 1 and turned in for the hairpin, Stoner was right back with him. But from the hairpin up to the Corkscrew, Valentino Rossi had a clear advantage, pulling out the tiniest of gaps over Stoner. Once down the hill, and round the fast left of Rainey and the fast right at Turn 10, Stoner had the upper hand, using the drive of his Ducati to get out of the corners faster, and right back on Rossi's tail once again as they braked for Turn 11, and the run back onto the front straight.
The reigning World Champion got the drive out of the final corner, but not enough to make the difference over the line. So Stoner did the smart thing, attaching himself to Rossi's tailpipe, never more than a breath behind the Italian, turning The Doctor's usual tactics against the old master.
Flattered by such attention, Rossi returned the compliment, looking positively Stoneresque in his obliviousness to what was happening behind him. There could have been one Ducati behind him, or a thousand, Valentino Rossi seemed to be riding in blissful, and willful, ignorance of what was going on to the rear.
Rossi was copying Stoner in another aspect too. The pace at the front had been blistering, with both men under lap record pace by the time they crossed the line to finish lap 3. And this time, Stoner had been close enough out of Turn 11 to strike. As they fired up towards the crest of Turn 1, Stoner drifted left, lining his Ducati up to pass Rossi over the hill, sliding underneath and back into the lead as they braked for the hairpin.
This was not something Rossi could allow to stand. The Doctor had seen how quickly Casey Stoner had pulled back the lead Rossi had taken after the pass at the Corkscrew. He had to strike back, and he had to do so quickly. Turn 5 was the first option, Rossi using his braking ability to underneath the Australian, and snatch back the lead.
This time, Stoner was prepared. He'd seen Rossi come, and focused instead on getting drive out of 5 and carrying his speed into the already scarily fast Turn 6. As Rossi closed the door for the inside line into 6, Stoner kept on driving, riding round the outside of the Fiat Yamaha, and back into the lead. If the track temperatures had matched the temperature of this battle, Michelin's hard tire gamble would have paid off.
But the battle was only just getting started. Up the hill towards the Corkscrew, Stoner had barely a yard over The Doctor, and Rossi wasn't about to lie down and roll over. Braking at the limit once again, his M1 whipping its tail like an angry alligator, Rossi barged inside of Stoner at the left hander, cutting across the Ducati's nose as they flipped the bikes over to go right, and plummet down the hill. So hard was Rossi forced to flip his bike right, that like Edwards at Assen in 2006, the Italian hit the gravel on the inside of the turn, and slithered back onto the track, almost colliding with Stoner's Ducati, and forcing the Australian wide.
The move astounded and enraged Casey Stoner, and he channeled that rage into chasing Rossi straight back down. His anger proved devastatingly effective, for by the time the leading pair hit Turn 11, Stoner was stuck on Rossi's tail once again. And again, the World Champion got the better drive out of the final corner, and again, Stoner flew past Rossi at Turn 1, and into the hairpin, and the lead.
Pas de Deux
Once again, Rossi had no choice but to retaliate as quickly as possible. And once again, braking for Turn 5, he was underneath and past the Australian. This time, though, he was more wary, keeping wider to prevent Stoner coming back round the outside again, and this time, he left Stoner with no option but to follow. The power of the Ducati came into play as they drove back up the hill at full pelt, their movements synchronized as if performing the Black Swan, but on the plunge down the Corkscrew, Rossi broke the ties that bound them, and put space between his Yamaha and the Ducati that followed. Now he had enough space between him and the angry red bike to make it out of Turn 11 and across the line with a clear lead. But the question was, would it be enough?
Just 5 laps had passed, but the lead had already changed hands 7 times. Both men were at the limit, and sometimes poking their toes over the limit to test the air underneath. This was no careful probing, no testing of what the other man was capable of, this was brutal, bloody warfare, and anyone even daring to mention prisoners would have been laughed off the racetrack. After the processional victories over the past few races, MotoGP fans had been begging for closer racing, but with the fans holding their breath around the track, and around the world in front of a million TV screens, this was almost too much, too visceral, like watching two dogs fighting to the death.
Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch
So breathtaking was the battle at the front that it was impossible not to feel sorry for the trio that was fighting over 3rd. Nicky Hayden still clung to the final podium step, while both Andrea Dovizioso and Chris Vermeulen did their utmost to drag him off. Vermeulen went underneath Hayden into Turn 2, but Hayden was back in front through the apex. Vermeulen looked again at Turn 3, but came up short, allowing Dovizioso to draw close, and steal 4th into Turn 4. Not for long though, as Vermeulen was back again into Turn 5, and away up the hill.
But despite the brilliance of the passing, and the closeness of the race, the atmosphere was different. Vermeulen, Hayden and Dovizioso were out for places. Rossi and Stoner were out for blood.
The difference was visible in the pace. On lap 5, Rossi and Stoner were ahead of Hayden by 3.5 seconds, but on lap 6, the leading pair dipped into the 1'21s, and had pulled a gap of 5 seconds to the following trio. They were a second quicker than the rest of the field, and showed no signs of letting up. The chances of both men making to the line in one piece were looking more remote every corner.
Stoner was pushing Rossi hard, but Rossi was slowly starting to get the upper hand, though only by the width of one of Chris Vermeulen's sponsors' cigarette papers. Out of the final corner and across the line, Stoner was getting the better drive, and closing on Rossi, but each time they approached the gut-wrenching crest of Turn 1, Rossi would keep left, then drift right, leaving Stoner with nowhere to pass but the very edge of the track, on the scariest turn of the year. The pass was there, but only for someone who was prepared to boldly stride across the line from brave to foolhardy. Though Stoner is one of the bravest men on the grid, he wasn't prepared to risk that move.
But Stoner's advantage down the straight left him right on Rossi's tail. This left Rossi with a lot of work to do to hold the Ducati off from Turn 2 up to the Corkscrew: Cutting the apex short to block Stoner's drive out the corners; braking hard for Turn 5 to grab a lead for the drive up the hill, until he hit his braking marker at the top of the hill for the Corkscrew, and grabbed 10 yards of breathing space.
Rossi's breathing space would last for exactly 3 turns, as Casey Stoner charged hard through Rainey, leaving big black marks from sliding both front and rear tires, getting drive out of Rainey and Turn 10 to arrive at Turn 11 riveted to Rossi's tailpipe once again.
So Rossi adjusted his tactics to suit. Now, as well as blocking the line round the section from Turn 2, The Doctor was forced to find a way to suck Stoner's speed out of him down the straight. He found it in Turn 11, again, waiting till the Australian was right on his tail, then braking early and getting on the gas, forcing Stoner to brake harder than he wanted, and get on the gas later.
It was clear that Stoner was the quicker of the two riders, but by braking later and longer, Rossi was holding the Australian off. It was taking every ounce of his ability, but he was using it to maximum effect. Stoner was pushing harder and harder every lap, as he became more and more frustrated at not being able to get by Rossi.
On lap 14, the first signs of Stoner's frustration showed. Closing right on Rossi at Turn 11 again, he once more got the better drive down the straight, and this time, took the brave route round the outside. It was testament to his mettle that he even tried, but it tested his ability to the utmost. Stoner got past across the line, but the pass had tested his nerve so thoroughly that he braked too late, and ran wide into the hairpin, ending up wide and in the dusty, dirty part of the track on the outside of the turn.
It is a sign of Stoner's maturity that the Australian was right back in the chase, despite his mistake. Having lost nearly 3/4s of a second in the incident, the next lap around, Stoner shattered the lap record for the 4th time in the race. It was clear that Stoner was being held up by Rossi, but that the Australian just couldn't find a way around the Italian.
Once back, he was pushing, and pushing hard. Climbing all over the back of Rossi like a terrier at a rabbit warren, probing, clawing, searching for a way through. But whatever Stoner tried, there was nothing there. As they crossed the line to start lap 20, Stoner drew level at Turn 1, as always, but again, Rossi had the Australian in the most terrifying part of the track, and Stoner rolled off just a fraction, losing his advantage.
Undaunted, Stoner tried the same move again next lap, with exactly the same result. Rossi left one route past him through Turn 1, the brave route. Then, as Stoner moved in to take it, Rossi drifted right, lining up for the hairpin, slowly closing the door on Stoner. If the reigning champion wanted to pass here, he would have to be past, and long gone, by the time they crested the hill.
A couple of laps later, Stoner almost pulled it off. Past at Turn 1 and wide, ready to turn into the apex, but Rossi's heroics on the brakes saved the Italian once more. As Casey Stoner went to tip the bike into the hairpin, he again found his way blocked by a bright blue Fiat Yamaha, with a jolly yellow giant aboard. But Stoner was determined to make at least one pass stick. Holding the outside line, he cut back inside into Turn 3, and held the line against Rossi.
It was Valentino Rossi's turn to show his mettle. This time, the Italian held the outside line, pouring on the power to get to the exit of the corner before Stoner, at the edge of adhesion, then cutting across the Ducati's nose and stealing back the lead. After Stoner's audacious move round the outside of Turn 6, Rossi returned the compliment at Turn 3, keeping hold of the lead, and trying to break Stoner's spirit.
The rules had been set out as baldly as possible. If Casey Stoner wanted to win this race, he would have to dig deeper and fight harder than he had ever done in his life. Stoner saw, and understood, and did not flinch from the challenge. Stoner chased Rossi up the hill, down the Corkscrew, and through Rainey. He pushed through Turn 10, and got ready to close on Rossi once again into Turn 11, and get the drive down the straight.
Chink In The Armor
But as he closed on Rossi for the final corner, the Italian braked early, as always, to break Stoner's drive. Stoner was so fixated on his next move that he braked late, locked the front, and ran wide. Though painful enough, what happened next was a mark of how frustrated and distracted Stoner had become. Running just off the track and into the gravel, Stoner was looking in the wrong direction, and got off the hard-packed gravel and just into the softer stuff, turning the handlebars too quickly. He toppled over at about 10 mph, in something more akin to a peewee motocross mistake than a crash.
But that slip was the difference between having a chance to chase Rossi and being out of contention. Instead of losing a second or maybe two, time Stoner could easily have made up, the fall cost the reigning World Champion 13 seconds. He was lucky the bike kept running, and that Rossi and himself had a lead of well over 22 seconds. Stoner rejoined the race without a chance of the win, but well ahead of Chris Vermeulen, the man chasing in 3rd.
The race was over. Valentino Rossi could afford to back off his pace by half a second, the difference between being right on the limit and riding with a margin of safety, and still win by over 13 seconds. It was a remarkable victory in more way than one. First, a victory at Laguna Seca meant that the list of tracks Valentino Rossi has not won at was reduced by one, leaving only the new Misano and Indianapolis. But more importantly, Rossi had found the key to beating Casey Stoner, the strategy he'd been attempting to employ for over a year but had been unable to, due to a deficiency with tires or by giving away too much horsepower.
Rossi had found Stoner's weakness. The old strategy of following his rivals around until they made a mistake had worked perfectly on Gibernau and Biaggi, but Casey Stoner had just shrugged it off and got on with racing lap after lap at high speed, pulling away until he was beyond Rossi's reach. So Rossi knew that what he needed to do was disrupt the Australian's rhythm, and to do that, he had to be in front of him. Instead of sitting on his tail and waiting for the mistake, Rossi just switched ends and sat on his nose. Blocking every time Stoner tried a pass, coming straight back whenever Stoner did get by, and offering Stoner a way past, but only if he was prepared to take extreme risks, he stopped challenging Stoner on Stoner's strengths, and played to his weakness instead.
Casey Stoner is arguably the fastest rider in the world, especially in combination with the Ducati, so instead of trying to fight on Stoner's ground, he fought on his own. He didn't try to ride faster than the Australian, he made the Australian race him, forcing him to battle for every inch of the race. Along the way, he risked it all, and forced Stoner to do the same, making it perfectly clear that though Stoner might be able to take the win, he would be risking a very high price in the attempt.
War, What Is It Good For?
This was more than a race, it was a war of attrition, and only one man could walk away with this in one piece. It is to Valentino Rossi's immense credit that he was willing to risk so much to take the victory. For this was not about the race at Laguna Seca, this was about the championship, and getting Casey Stoner where he wanted him. Rossi was willing to risk crashing, taking himself out, and letting Stoner win to make his point with sufficient force. He had made some hard, almost impossible, and sometimes questionable passes along the way, but he knew he had to try to break Stoner, if he was to have a chance at regaining the title. Stoner's mistakes, when they came, proved that Rossi's gamble had paid off.
A measure of Rossi's joy came on the cool-down lap. As Rossi came down the Corkscrew, he stopped his bike, and beckoned a couple of fans over who had climbed over the fence to hold his bike. Rossi knelt, and kissed the tarmac, to show his appreciation, and as homage to a mighty corner at a mighty track.
Casey Stoner, on the other hand, was less than pleased. After remounting, he had again been the fastest man on track by a considerable margin, but it was too late. The damage had already been done, and Stoner had been suckered into the carefully laid trap prepared by Valentino Rossi. Taking 2nd here at Laguna Seca in a close fought race won which had forced Rossi to the limit is no cause for shame, but that's not how Casey Stoner saw it. The Australian crossed the line fuming, at Rossi, for some of the passes made, and at himself, for having made such a stupid and costly mistake.
In his defense, Stoner had not crumbled, and kept a remarkably cool head for most of the race, putting up a stiffer fight than either Max Biaggi or Sete Gibernau had done in the past. But in the end, he had allowed himself to be drawn into making a mistake and had suffered the consequences. Just 45 minutes earlier, everybody believed that Casey Stoner would walk away with another impressive victory, and get back 5 more vital points in the title race. Everybody except Valentino Rossi, that is.
Wet And Dry
Crossing the line for his second podium in a row as Chris Vermeulen, taking 3rd place in the dry rather than in the wet, where he is an acknowledged specialist. Vermeulen was the only man to come anywhere near the pace of Rossi and Stoner, but Vermeulen's best was still a long way short of the stratospheric heights which the two main protagonists had displayed.
But as good as it was for Vermeulen to get a good result in the dry, it was still only a podium at Laguna Seca. The Californian track does something special for Vermeulen, and he understands the track in some deep, personal way which allows him to be faster than anywhere else. As important as this podium was, Vermeulen will need podiums at other tracks as well to be certain of his ride next year.
Behind Vermeulen, Andrea Dovizioso took 4th ahead of Nicky Hayden, after a battle which lasted for most of the race. With Dovizioso looking ever more likely to replace Hayden at Repsol Honda, the race was a bitter disappointment for the American, all the more so because of the problems which the Michelin riders had suffered all weekend. This was never going to be a fair fight thanks to the tires, and that leaves the Michelin riders feeling frustrated and angry. But tire woes or not, Hayden lost to Dovizioso, a man on the same tires, and an inferior machine.
Randy de Puniet came home a creditable 6th place, never having managed to catch the pair fighting for 4th ahead of him, and fast enough to stay out of the clutches of the riders behind. It was good for de Puniet to finish a race, and finish in the top half of the field, instead of crashing out early.
Good Night And Thank You
Toni Elias saw his late charge rewarded with 7th place, stealing ahead of Ben Spies on the final lap. Elias is rumored to have just signed to ride a Suzuki in World Superbikes next year, and the deal may have given the Spaniard the confidence boost he needed. Spies was disappointed to take 8th at his favorite track, but the Texan had run well and been strong all weekend. It was not the devastating display which might have immediately clinched a MotoGP deal for him next year, but Spies put in a strong enough ride to ensure he would be taken into consideration.
Elias' charge had also demoted James Toseland, the British rookie frustrated by his Michelin tires. But 9th is a better finish than the Tech 3 Yamaha man has managed for a few races now, and Toseland seemed a little more like his competitive self.
Shinya Nakano was the first of the Gresini Honda men home, disappointed after both riders had shown well during practice. But practice and racing are two different beasts here, and 10th was all that Nakano could manage.
In 11th place came Jamie Hacking on the Kawasaki, a decent finish for the American replacement for John Hopkins. The Kawasaki never ran well at all Laguna, so to get this close to the top 10 is a respectable achievement.
Sylvain Guintoli came home in 12th place, scrapping his way forward after a disastrous start. It was nowhere near as good as his result last week, but it was still a few points under difficult conditions.
Next home was Alex de Angelis, suffering with a broken thumb picked up during qualifying. Like Nakano, de Angelis had been hoping for much more from Laguna Seca, especially after his 4th place at the Sachsenring last week, but it was not to be.
Colin Edwards came home 14th, the last of the Michelin riders, and suffering the worst. His Stars-And-Stripes livery had brought him no luck at all, only a miserable result after renewing his contract with Tech 3 Yamaha for next year.
Loris Capirossi was the first of the walking wounded home, the Rizla Suzuki rider taking the final point, still suffering from the arm injury he picked up in Assen.
He finished ahead of Marco Melandri, whose bizarre run of bad luck aboard the Ducati got worse, after he hit a pit lane marker during the race, and injured his hand.
At least Melandri finished ahead of Ant West. The Australian was riding with fractured vertebrae, and at a track with nowhere where riders can take a rest, however brief, his mission was always going to be difficult. Running off the track half way through the race was a sign that neither the bike nor West were in any shape to be contesting the race.
The only positive note for the Australian is that his temporary team mate Jamie Hacking identified exactly the same problems with the Kawasaki as both West and the injured Hopkins had been complaining about. Kawasaki have promised a radically revised version of its ZXRR bike for Brno, and it probably can't be radical enough for West.
Nowhere To Hide
This year's race at Laguna Seca was one of the most thrilling races we have seen in MotoGP in many years, but it was also one of the most significant. At the end of the race, you were reminded not so much of Welkom in 2004, when Valentino Rossi beat Max Biaggi in a race-long tussle, but of Jerez in 2005. In that race, Rossi dived up the inside of Sete Gibernau into the final corner, and Gibernau tried too late to close the door, and ended up being forced into the gravel. In parc ferme afterwards, the atmosphere was electric, with Gibernau nursing his shoulder and shooting Rossi poisonous looks, which broadcast to the world that Gibernau felt he'd been robbed.
The winner's circle at Laguna Seca saw a similar piece of theater, with Casey Stoner refusing Valentino Rossi's proffered hand. Fortunately for posterity, the entire exchange was caught by BBC TV cameras, and as Stoner started to complain about Rossi's passing, The Doctor patted him on the shoulder, and told him "this is racing, Casey." "Oh, this is racing?" Stoner replied. "We'll see."
The race also unleashed a war of words in the press, with Stoner complaining about 3 or 4 dangerous passes where Stoner had been forced to back off, or both he and Rossi would have ended up in the gravel. Though Stoner had regained much of his composure for the podium ceremony, he was clearly still turning the incidents over in his mind.
Worryingly for Casey Stoner, there were even more reasons for Valentino Rossi to be happy with the race at Laguna Seca. Not only had Rossi finally managed to put into practice the strategy he'd been trying to follow for over a year and a half, he had seen that strategy succeed. Even better for Rossi, it had produced exactly the kind of race which he loves and at which he excels. Rossi had been able to measure himself against the best in the world all race long, and had come out on top.
More than that, Rossi had shown Stoner that he knew how to beat him, and had managed to force Stoner into a mistake. He finally had the measure of Stoner, and had let Stoner know it.
The MotoGP circus now takes a long, and well-deserved break from action for the next four weeks, and riders and teams will be heading home to recover from 8 grueling weeks of racing. Valentino Rossi goes into that break with a victory under his belt, and one taken by winning on his own terms. It's an important psychological boost, and gives Rossi the advantage going into the next round.
Casey Stoner goes into the summer hiatus with a bitter pill to chew over, a defeat delivered against expectations, and in a manner which Stoner did not enjoy at all. It will be a measure of how strong the young Casey Stoner is to see if he can put this race behind him and regain his usual focus. If Stoner dwells on this defeat for too long, this could be Jerez 2005 all over again: the race at which the championship was decided, despite many races still left to contend.
Sign Of The Times
The good news for racing fans is that there will be more races like this to come. Now that Rossi has found a successful strategy, he will be trying to use it at every race for the rest of the year. If Rossi can continue to improve his qualifying, and if he can get ahead of Stoner in the early stages of the first lap, then there could be a lot more wheel-to-wheel racing during the rest of the season. If Stoner can find a way to handle that and learn to be patient until the end of the race, then he has a very good chance of retaining his title. But if he repeats the mistake he made today and allows himself to get frustrated and angry, then he will be handing Rossi the title on a plate.
The 2008 MotoGP season was always going to be fascinating. Now, it's going to be thrilling as well.