Home races are something special. For every rider involved in MotoGP, indeed, for athletes involved in any form of organized sport, performing at home in front of your friends and family, and usually your most devoted fans, is a truly memorable experience. At home, you can push just that little bit harder, brake just that fraction later, and lean just that scintilla further, allowing you to rise above yourself and put on an exceptional show for a frenzied home crowd. Some of the most memorable races in motorcycle history have come at home races: Valentino Rossi at Mugello, Wil Hartog at Assen, Alex Criville at Jerez.
So to have five American riders on the grid at Laguna Seca, as well as a Canadian who's a fan favorite in the AMA, made American hearts swell in their chests. At the very least, an American was sure to end up on the box, and an all-American podium seemed a perfectly realistic prospect. After all, American fans had history to go on: Since MotoGP's return to Laguna Seca, an American, Nicky Hayden, had won both races, and the first visit to Laguna Seca saw two Americans on the podium, Hayden being joined by Colin Edwards.
US fans had the present to go on, as well as the past: Despite Nicky Hayden's poor form on the tiny Honda RC212V at the start of the season, the Kentucky Kid had made a few changes to the bike which had allowed him to get two podiums in a row, in Holland and Germany. John Hopkins was also looking stronger than ever this year, the Suzuki 800 a much-improved proposition compared to previous years, and the Suzuki's strong point, excellent maneuverability, absolutely key to get round the rolling and tortuous Northern California track. Then, of course, there is Colin Edwards, the Texas Tornado having some very strong results aboard the Fiat Yamaha, though interspersed with periods of more problematic finishes. And you can never rule out local knowledge at a track as notoriously difficult as Laguna Seca, so both Roger Lee Hayden and Miguel Duhamel, both with intimate knowledge of Laguna, had to be in with a shot at the US Grand Prix.
Practice and qualifying had seen American names in the top 5 throughout each session, with John Hopkins and Colin Edwards looking strongest. But as good as Edwards' and Hopkins' times looked, there was one man who completely overshadowed their achievements: In every session, Casey Stoner was faster than any other rider on track, by over 2/10ths of a second on average, a huge amount at such a short track. If the Americans wanted to grab a chunk of glory at their home race, they had their work cut out for them.
The bikes lined up at the lights, the engine revs raised as high as American hopes and the tension in the crowd, screaming off the line as the lights went out. As the bikes wailed through the fast left-hand flick of Turn 1 to start braking for the hairpin, those dreams of American glory looked like becoming reality. Casey Stoner, normally launching his Ducati off the line as if it was a rocket poking out from the tail of his seat unit, rather than an exhaust pipe, faltered slightly off the line, allowing Dani Pedrosa to play the role the Australian usually takes. But round the outside, coming from 4th and 7th on the grid came Nicky Hayden and John Hopkins, powering up to contest 2nd spot with Casey Stoner. Where Hayden cut inside for the first apex round the Andretti hairpin, he found Stoner blocking his way, and was forced outside, allowing Hopkins, who was right behind him, to dive up the inside to momentarily snatch 3rd spot. But Hayden wasn't done yet, and as Hopper drifted outside for the left hander, Hayden was correcting his line and cutting back inside. The two American hopefuls entered the same square foot of asphalt, collided, and were out. Hopkins lowsided, clinging on desperately to the controls in an attempt to keep the bike running, his wheels collecting the rear of Hayden's bike, almost throwing the Kentucky Kid out of the saddle, forcing him into the gravel and damaging his brake adjuster. Both men rejoined, but were out of contention after just a couple of hundred yards. Hopkins entered the pits for new controls, rejoining the race already 3 laps down, but with no chance of points, despite being the 3rd fastest bike on the track, while Hayden struggled with a lack of braking for 22 laps before retiring.
What, Me Worry?
The confusion behind him had not fazed Casey Stoner. Getting drive out of the hairpin, he was beside Dani Pedrosa, and through to take the lead at Turn 3. Pedrosa was not content just to roll over and let Stoner go, however: As they ran round to fire up the hill, Pedrosa was harrying Stoner every inch of the way. Nearly level going under the bridge, Pedrosa blinked first, braking before Stoner through the right-hand kink which precedes the gut-wrenching downhill drop of the Corkscrew.
Behind Pedrosa, Chris Vermeulen was closing. The Australian Suzuki man had opened up a gap with Valentino Rossi, leading the chasing pack. Rossi had already clawed his way up to fourth, past Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards, Capirex starting on a slide down the field which would end just three laps later, when the Italian was forced to retire with a gearbox problem. 2007 has not been Capirossi's year, and it got worse directly after the race, when Ducati announced that they had signed Marco Melandri to partner Casey Stoner for 2008 and 2009, and that Capirossi might be offered a third Ducati for next season to appease his sense of affront. Capirossi has not had much luck at Laguna Seca, and this year was no different.
Behind Capirossi, the man who will replace him at Ducati was pushing on. Marco Melandri headed Shinya Nakano, Randy de Puniet and a remarkably strong Makoto Tamada, the Dunlops starting to work well at the Californian track. As the pack hit the bottom of the Corkscrew, Melandri was lining Capirossi up for a pass. Two turns later, Melandri was through at Turn 10, and into 6th.
Up at the front, Casey Stoner was starting to get into his stride. Once across the line and onto lap 2, Stoner was clearly faster than Dani Pedrosa, Chris Vermeulen, following behind. On lap 3, Stoner hit cruising speed: Where his second lap had still been a 1'23, his third lap time was already into the 1'22s. On lap 2, Stoner had pulled away from Pedrosa by a tenth, on lap 3, the young Australian wunderkind took 4/10ths out of Pedrosa. If Pedrosa wanted to repeat his Sachsenring performance, he had to act quickly.
But first, he would have to fend off Chris Vermeulen. The Rizla Suzuki rider had slowly been reeling in Pedrosa turn by turn on lap 3. As they crossed the line to start lap 4, Vermeulen was with Pedrosa, and climbing all over his tail. He pushed ever closer as they climbed the hill up towards the Corkscrew, using a better line to get his front wheel virtually on Pedrosa's tailpipe, then lining the Repsol Honda rider up through Rainey, to put himself in the perfect position to dive underneath Pedrosa going into Turn 11, and back across the finish line.
It now came down to a straight shootout between the two fastest men on the track. Just over 1.3 seconds separated the two Australians, the scarlet of Casey Stoner's Ducati leading Vermeulen's powder blue Rizla Suzuki. On the first clear lap that Vermeulen had, he took nearly 3/10ths out of Stoner's lead, to cut his advantage down to a second. Stoner responded, taking an extra tenth the following lap, trying to maintain his cushion. Vermeulen pushed again, taking wafer-thin slivers out of Stoner's lead for a couple of laps, but still not getting within a second of the championship leader. On lap 10, the game of cat and mouse neared a climax, with Casey Stoner starting on a run of laps at almost record pace, taking nearly 2/10ths of a second back from Vermeulen, and over 3/10ths on lap 11. Two more laps of this kind of pressure, and Stoner had finished the job, pulling away a lead of over 2 seconds.
Done, Dusted And Destroyed
Over the following laps, Casey Stoner piled on the speed, at first 3/10ths faster than the rest of the field, then 4/10ths, then 5/10ths, keeping his lap times tightrope taut to the very end to claim an awe-inspiring victory, ahead of second-place man Chris Vermeulen by nearly 10 seconds, only really losing time as he slowed up to pull a gigantic victory wheelie across the finish line after the 32 laps of utter domination. Of those 32 laps, 29 had been inside last year's lap record set by Dani Pedrosa. Stoner's winning time was some 44 seconds faster than Nicky Hayden's time from last year, or just short of the distance between Turn 5 and the finish line, over half the race track. This was not a race, this was a bloodbath, a Doohanesque lesson in control, concentration, and calmness. It was as close to perfection as you will ever see on a racetrack. And Casey Stoner is only 21, with a contract for at least another two years with Ducati. These could be very, very long years for the competition.
Even Chris Vermeulen, a man who has some kind of extra mojo at Laguna Seca, making him just that little bit faster than everyone else, could do nothing about Stoner. Vermeulen had also rode a brilliant race, but brilliance means nothing when faced with perfection, and the Australian Suzuki rider was happy to settle for 2nd. Vermeulen had done everything he could to try to beat Stoner, but it hadn't worked. But then, nothing would.
With the top two steps of the podium settled, the fight was on for third. After being passed by Chris Vermeulen, Dani Pedrosa seemed to have the podium sewn up. Behind Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi chased, but could make no headway, putting in similar times to the Spaniard, not good enough to win back the brace of seconds separating himself and Pedrosa. But the danger would not come from Rossi, but from further down the field.
Marco Melandri was on a charge. Starting from 10th on the grid, the injured Melandri, still suffering with a badly swollen ankle after a very nasty looking crash during qualifying, had sliced through the field to end the first lap in 6th place, behind Colin Edwards. Try as Edwards might, there was nothing he could to hold Melandri up, and by the time the pair exited Turn 3 on lap 5, Melandri was past, and off after Rossi.
Doing The Doctor
A lap later, he was pushing at Rossi as he had previously prodded at Edwards, probing the back of The Doctor looking for a way past. But Rossi has a few more tricks up his sleeve than Edwards, and rebuffed Melandri's every move, for lap after lap. Melandri chased Rossi through the pair of lefts leading towards the climb up to the Corkscrew, inching closer and closer, but unable to get ahead of Rossi on the brakes for the most difficult turn on the MotoGP calendar. Rossi then slammed the door in Melandri's face, forcing the Gresini Honda rider to back off, giving Rossi some breathing space to try and use the drive of his Fiat Yamaha to grab a few yards' breathing space around to the finish line. And then, the cycle would continue, Melandri chasing up the hill, Rossi parrying down the Corkscrew.
It could not stand. Finally, on lap 10, Melandri got close enough to get past through Turn 5, denying Rossi a chance to deny Melandri, and holding Rossi off on the run back to the finish line, where Rossi had earlier been faster.
Once past Rossi, Melandri then set about Pedrosa. Again, the process of chasing the Spaniard down commenced, the Italian taking out a 3/10ths of a second on almost every lap, until he arrived on Pedrosa's tail. On lap 16, Melandri tried a repeat of his Rossi pressure cycle on the Spaniard, using the drive he was getting up the hill to try and slip ahead before the Corkscrew, but like Rossi, Pedrosa too held Melandri off, swooping down the roller coaster left-right flick still in 3rd. But Melandri was not to be denied: Hanging back slightly to get some extra drive out of the heavily banked Rainey Corner, Melandri pounced on Pedrosa at Turn 10, stuffing the front wheel of his Gresini Honda inside the Repsol RC212V of the Spaniard to snatch 3rd. Though too far behind the Stoner and Vermeulen to bother the front two, Marco Melandri held on to finish 3rd, a very brave and dogged performance for a man who could barely walk to his bike on the grid because of the pain.
But Pedrosa was in more trouble. The battle with Melandri had taken too much out of his Michelins, and the Spaniard's lap times dropped off by half a second. The lead he had over Rossi was melting like springtime snow, The Doctor getting closer every lap. 5 laps later, Rossi was on Pedrosa, and then past, going into the final turn before the front straight. Valentino Rossi dropped Pedrosa, but could not catch Melandri, taking 4th spot, and surrendering yet more precious points to Casey Stoner in the race for the championship.
What Goes Around
Though his times continued to deteriorate, the early running among the front group had give Dani Pedrosa enough of a cushion to finish in 5th, a disappointment after his triumphant victory at the Sachsenring. This time, though, Pedrosa's Honda was not to blame, but the Michelin tires. Rossi and Pedrosa were the only Michelin runners in the top 10, Colin Edwards being the next Michelin man down in 11th. Last weekend, in the heat in Germany, the Michelins dominated, lasting the distance where the Bridgestones suffered with wear. Here in Laguna Seca, the roles were reversed, Bridgestone supplying perfect rubber to their riders, while it was the Michelins that struggled for grip all weekend. The days when Michelin rubber was a prerequisite for winning in MotoGP seem long gone. The French tire maker will be relieved that MotoGP takes a long summer break, perhaps giving them the chance to catch up with the Japanese Bridgestones ready for Brno.
While the racing at the front had been processional, further back it was much tighter. Throughout the race, a group consisting of all three Kawasaki riders - MotoGP regulars Randy de Puniet and Ant West, and wildcard Roger Lee Hayden - had been slugging it out with Makoto Tamada on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha, Colin Edwards, as he slipped back down the field, Shinya Nakano on the Konica Minolta Honda, and Alex Barros on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati, still suffering with a gashed and broken hand. The three Kawasakis and Tamada spent almost the entire race trying to settle the matter in their favor, with Edwards going backwards, and Nakano running with the group until his Michelins started generating too much chatter at the front.
In the end it was Randy de Puniet who came out on top, finishing in 6th position, a place he looks capable of ending in every race, if he could just restrain himself from the impetuous crashes which take him out of so many races. Ant West took 7th, passing Tamada with 4 laps to go, and climbing a place as he has done for every race he has finished in so far. Makoto Tamada came in 8th, the best finish of the season so far for the Dunlops, and just one place down on Carlos Checa's 7th spot from last year on the same bike and tires.
Alex Barros snatched 9th spot from Roger Lee Hayden on the last lap, the wily MotoGP veteran finally outwitting the Kawasaki wildcard, despite considerable pain in his right hand. This left Roger Lee down in 10th, a highly creditable outing for his first race in MotoGP, and with so little testing on the bike. A less happy circumstance for the home crowd was the fact that Roger Lee Hayden, the Kawasaki wildcard, was the first American home. The crowd were nothing but gracious in their applause for all the riders, and cheered as wildly as ever for everyone who finished. But, spoilt as they had been for the past two years, it came as quite a shock to see the Stars and Stripes such a very long way down the running order.
Colin Edwards came home as 2nd American in 11th, his special Tornado livery seemingly scattering his Laguna luck to the winds as his tires failed in the conditions. He was not alone, as behind Edwards finished Shinya Nakano on the Konica Minolta Honda, struggling badly once his tires went off.
Sylvain Guintoli finished 13th on the other Tech 3 Yamaha, struggling to come to terms with the notoriously difficult Laguna Seca track, a fact emphasized by his T-boning Alex Hofmann out of the race weekend when he completely missed his braking marker at the Corkscrew during the first free practice session, badly injuring the German's left hand, and leaving the Pramac d'Antin team with a quotient of 25% of fully functioning hands. Hofmann's place was taken by the British rider Chaz Davies, a former 250 privateer who was scheduled to ride Supersport and Formula Xtreme in the AMA races. Davies ended up finishing in 16th spot, 3 laps down, after having problems with a rear sprocket damaged when he ran off into the gravel.
Carlos Checa finished in 14th spot, never really having been in contention throughout the race, while John Hopkins took the final point from 15th, finishing 2 laps down after his 2nd corner incident with Nicky Hayden, but putting in times which would otherwise have seen him on the podium once he rejoined after pitting for repairs.
The attrition rate had been high, with Loris Capirossi and Kurtis Roberts retiring with mechanical problems, Nicky Hayden eventually retiring from the damage his bike had suffered in his collision with Hopkins, and Miguel Duhamel, the Canadian veteran who has been 39 years old for as long as most people can remember, pulling into the pits after 10 laps, never coming to terms with his bike, and afraid of either crashing or getting in the way.
MotoGP came to Laguna Seca with many questions to answer, but leaves with more questions raised than answered. After Valentino Rossi's heroic fight back to almost regain his title from Nicky Hayden last year, many expected the same thing to happen to Casey Stoner, with Rossi clawing back points at every round to finally take the championship from the Australian. But after Rossi's crash at the Sachsenring, and Stoner's demolition of Laguna Seca, Rossi's chances are rapidly receding. Although Stoner's riding simply cannot be faulted, not putting a foot wrong so far, the young Australian has had everything come together at the right time: The Ducati GP7 has been perhaps the best bike in the paddock, closely followed by the Yamaha M1; The Bridgestones have been superb, and the Japanese tire maker has adapted brilliantly to the new tire rules, in stark contrast to Michelin; and Stoner has gained confidence and maturity over the winter, with the mistakes he's made countable on the fingers of Troy Bayliss' right hand. Stoner is in the midst of a perfect season, and so far, nothing looks like disrupting his year.
But Stoner's win at Laguna does beg the question of what MotoGP will look like in years to come. Casey Stoner's victory here reminded everyone of Mick Doohan, not just because of the scale of his humiliation of his competitors, but also because of Stoner's attitude. Stoner doesn't just want to win, he wants to destroy the competition, winning by as large a margin as possible. Whilst this is stunning when considering the formidable level of MotoGP, and the standard of competition, it's about as entertaining as watching a great painter create a masterpiece: The end result is an article of wonder, but the process of getting there was exceedingly tedious to observe. If MotoGP is to continue its meteoric rise, devastating victories like this one should be avoided as much as possible. But with Casey Stoner in the form he was in on Sunday, who is going to be able to stop him?