After qualifying at Laguna Seca, there should be few doubts left over who is the favorite for the race on Sunday. Jorge Lorenzo left pit lane and proceeded to put down such a scorching pace - a 1'21.9 on just his second full lap - that left the rest breathless and unable to match him. Lorenzo then blasted out a huge string of high 1'21s - race pace, according to Ben Spies - before pitting and going on to set pole. As Spies put it to reporters, "Everybody's scratching their heads over Jorge's race pace. Casey got down there for one lap, but Jorge did five of those in a row."
Even Casey Stoner had to admit that his fast lap was a "one lap wonder" made by pushing the bike to the limit in an attempt to secure pole. He felt he even had a legitimate shot at pole, but had made a mistake at the final corner, running wide and getting poor drive on the exit. But even starting from pole, Stoner would have been up against it. He and his team have been struggling with front-end feel and drive out of the corners all weekend, and consistently two to three tenths off the pace, the Australian said in the press conference. They had tried a whole host of things to try to fix the problem, but a real solution remained elusive. Stoner still had hope, however: miracles can still happen overnight, and if they can find something in morning warm up, the Repsol Honda man might be able to either stay with Lorenzo, or at least get ahead of the Yamaha rider and try and disrupt his race.
Dani Pedrosa is the dark horse in all of this: the Spaniard's race pace has been closest to Lorenzo's, though he is still a tenth or so off what Lorenzo is capable of. But Pedrosa is the only rider whose main problem has been the soft tire, rather than the hard tire, and he told the press conference that with a fix to help him a little over the bumps, he should be able to stay with Lorenzo.
Pedrosa, of course, is still struggling with his fitness after recovering from a shoulder injury, but the Repsol Honda man is looking confident. He had been balancing doing enough laps to get the bike sorted out with the need to spare his shoulder, helped by a little massage and physical rehab in between sessions.
But Pedrosa isn't the only rider who is in pain. What made Jorge Lorenzo's qualifying performance even more astonishing was the fact that the Spaniard had suffered a monster highside at the end of free practice 3 in the morning. Lorenzo had lined up to try a practice start, taking off and heading down toward turn 5. He arrived at the corner and tipped the bike in, but as he opened the throttle again, the rear came right round and tossed him high into the air.
The cause, it was later revealed, was the traction control system on Lorenzo's Yamaha YZF-M1 not kicking in, as the Spaniard had not changed down a gear before tipping it into the corner. The system is set up so that once launch control is engaged, traction control is automatically switched off, with launch control being disengaged and traction control switch on again once the rider changes down a gear. The corner where Lorenzo elected to try his practice start meant he didn't need to change down, and when he opened the throttle, the bike pitched him off.
Though it is tempting to put the crash down to the electronics, the real cause was simply rider error. Lorenzo either hadn't remembered or hadn't realized that he needed to change down a gear to reactivate the traction control. Lorenzo entered the corner expecting the electronics to be switched on, but the bike reacted completely differently to the way he expected it to. It was not so much the electronics that chucked Lorenzo off, more confounded expectations.
Lorenzo came away with a bruised hip and thigh, but this was causing him more pain walking than while riding. The concern will be that the hip will swell up and limit his movement, but treatment with ice packs and anti-inflammatory drugs should leave him able to race.
Behind the front row, Ben Spies is confident of at least staying in the mix for a podium. His crew had been experimenting with a longer and shorter wheelbase, and had settled on a slightly shorter bike, sacrificing the tendency to wheelie for a little more rear grip. Spies said they felt they had found something in qualifying that may help them during the race, and though Lorenzo is on a planet of his own, a podium is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Spies has two Italians beside him, Marco Simoncelli and Andrea Dovizioso, but this did not worry Dovizioso. The Repsol Honda rider said that so far, Simoncelli had only managed to finish ahead of him during qualifying, but the race was a different matter. Simoncelli is still a little too far off to be fighting for his first podium of the year, but the battle of the second HRC riders should be entertaining to see.
Jeremy Burgess helped Valentino Rossi find something with the soft Bridgestones, putting the Marlboro Ducati man onto the third row of the grid, and equaling his best qualifying result of the year with a 7th. The change - a shift of weight towards the rear to improve rear grip, and been a big help with the soft tire, but Rossi still has no grip with the hard rear tire. As that's the tire they are going to be racing with, the race is going to be hard, but at least they are starting from 7th rather than 13th.
The most telling figure in that equation is that 7th equaled Rossi's best qualifying - the other coming at Barcelona. The 7th place on the grid, the front of the third row, is not where the world is used to seeing Valentino Rossi, and thinking back to the disappointment on his face in previous years when he finished off the front row puts that result in perspective. The focus now is on 2012, with Burgess and Rossi collecting data for next year's bike. Paddock rumors are circulating that the bike could feature a more traditional aluminium twin spar perimeter frame, but how much stock should be put in such rumors it is hard to say. Vito Guareschi told Italian reporters at Mugello that Ducati had no experience and no data with a twin spar frame, so trying to compete against the 20+ years of experience that the Japanese manufacturers had would be an almost impossible task. What is clear is that Ducati Corse is running 24 hour shifts back in Bologna to find a fix.
While Rossi concentrates on the future, and sticks with the GP11.1, all Nicky Hayden wants is a good result in front of his home fans, and perhaps even more importantly, his family. Hayden's brothers Tommy and Roger Lee are racing in the AMA support races, and his sister is to have a ride on the back of the Ducati two-seater with Randy Mamola. Hayden would rather risk everything on a bike that he is familiar with than try to understand a bike he has only ridden for a few sessions, and so is sticking with the GP11 that he started the season with.
Speaking of the support classes, there will be a round of the combined FIM e-Power and TTXGP championships for electric motorcycles at Laguna Seca. The progress of these bikes is simply amazing: Steve Rapp qualified on pole for Sunday's race with a lap of 1'31.376, 10 seconds off Lorenzo's pole time, and fast enough for the front row of the AMA Supersport class - a class for younger riders on Superstock-spec 600s. As this is just the second full year of competition for the class, these bikes are coming on in leaps and bounds, and though Rapp is seriously quick rider, his Mission Motorsports Mission R machine is closing in on the performance of a traditional combustion-engine powered racing machine. The gaps are huge in the class, though, as the 2nd place man Michael Barnes is over 6 seconds slower than Rapp, his Lightning still a way off Rapp's Mission R. If progress continues at this pace, electric bikes could soon be properly competitive, and we head into a radically different future.