Of all the races in recent GP history, Laguna Seca will likely continue to be a benchmark for drama - both on track and off as regards to the tide of the championship season. 2008 saw a frustrated Valentino Rossi arrive on track with seemingly nothing in hand for the reigning champion and near untouchable Casey Stoner, and leave seemingly with the keys that would eventually secure him his first 800cc championship. As the series returns to the United States, however, there is much more excitement for this round than for many years past.
A Tale of 2 Champions The Championship Elects - The Hare and the Greyhound
On that fateful day in 2008 Casey Stoner stepped onto the grid as the defending World Champion, the points leading Champion Elect and the fastest man around the track. His only worry, and a distant one at that, was a former MotoGP World Champion on a factory Yamaha, who had been chasing at his heels for the entire season. In 2011 Casey will enter the grid as simply the points leading Champion Elect having ceded the championship first to Valentino Rossi, and then to reigning champion Jorge Lorenzo who once again puts a factory Yamaha M1 in the position of hounding him to the finish. In a dramatic turn, however, Jorge has managed to do what Valentino struggled to do in 2008 - turn the season's tide in his favor. Just as in 2008 Stoner has been blisteringly fast from the off-season to race day. He has been the hare that all others must chase mindlessly or be left by the wayside. Yet in the past 2 races Lorenzo has begun to chip into the lead that Stoner had managed to establish once he recovered from being taken out by Rossi early in the season. Lorenzo now sits within 15 points of Stoner, a critical point as virtually any mistake from Casey will put Lorenzo into the low single digits of regaining the championship lead. Lorenzo has the momentum pushing him on with successive strong finishes ahead of Casey, but for his part Stoner has matured in leaps and bounds from the sophmore rider under pressure from a racing legend. He has already rebounded from a points deficit once this season and has a strong pace around the track. He has the mental fortitude to put together a strong race despite the odds.
The Manufacturers - The Secret Ingredient of Secret Ingredient Soup
What a difference a few short days can make. At this time last year Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi were embroiled in a violent battle of wills both on and off the track. Yet while all eyes focused squarely on the Yamaha garage and the drama being played out there very publically, Honda set its sights on righting a very large wrong in the universe. Widely believed to be the central instigator of the 800cc era of MotoGP, Honda had yet to come within even sniffing distance of a championship. The end of the 2010 season would mark one final chance for the famed mark to secure a championship and, as things stood, they were out on a Wing and a prayer. The Ducati of Casey Stoner motored past their top riders on the straights (bucking and weaving all the way), the Yamahas of Rossi and Lorenzo cut under them in the corners, with the overall result being that Honda was left to pick up the scraps left behind. Yet in the final third of the season the Honda riders, particularly Dani Pedrosa, experienced a quiet resurgence the catapulted them back into contention. The change went largely unmarked until the post-season, when the factory Honda bikes began to dominate every practice session. A trick clutch mechanism would later be revealed to be the source of Honda's newfound competitiveness (that and a healthy rivalry between Pedrosa and Stoner - and to some extent Simoncelli - to be top Honda factory rider). It was an advantage that they would hold for almost the entire season to date as, though not certain, it seems likely that Stoner would have taken and maintained the championship lead barring the combination of his unfortunate encounter with Rossi on a wet track and the Honda's now remarkable inability to be started trackside if the engine is stopped. Lorenzo, so dominant and full of confidence at the end of 2010 became visibly frustrated at the start of 2011. His press conference interviews, usually ebullient, became clipped and short while his quotes held scatterings of words such as "worried" and "try". Then 3 races ago everything changed. Almost as quietly as Honda the year before, Yamaha made subtle changes to the M1 that has catapulted Lorenzo back to the front of the grid. Yamaha has also been coy about specifying just what changes have been made to provide Lorenzo with the extra pace that he has enjoyed. Will their secret ingredient be enough to counter Honda's? The Tuning Fork Factory hopes so as it seeks to build on Lorenzo's momentum and reclaim their hard fought championship lead.
The Incumbents - Young, Sometimes Dumb and Full of....
That Ben Spies and Marco Simoncelli can ride a motorcycle fast is without question. That they can ride a MotoGP bike fast is also beyond doubt. Marco Simoncelli has had pole setting pace from pre-season to current, and Ben Spies has podiums and wins to his name in the premiere class. What remains to be seen however, is whether either can make the last tenatitve step to put them into championship contention. Both men have been at each other's throats (figuratively) since the 2009 WSBK season when Simoncelli had a wild card ride on the factory Aprilia RSV4. Yet despite many tipping Simoncelli as the man to beat in the GP class he has yet to live up to the high bars that have been set for him. Despite a factory Honda ride (in machine if not support) for 2010 and a full factory effort in 2011, Simoncelli has failed to finish higher than 5th and has yet to claim a single podium this season. His most remarkable impact on the championship has been his tendency to collide with other riders, ultimately injuring Pedrosa. Yet recent races have shown a more mature Super Sic emerge, with cleaner racing and passing over race distance. This newfound form has allowed him to at least finish races, yet if he has hopes of rekindling his charge to the front of the pack then he will find tough going this weekend to get past Ben Spies. Laguna Seca is perhaps the only track on the calendar where Ben's knowledge equals that of the regulars' of the European rounds and he has been known to use that knowledge to devastating effect. In last year's race he ran with the front runners on an out of date M1 (with an anchor tied out back and uphill every lap). With a full factory team behind him Elbowz is expected to be strong this weekend, and will be the first - and formidable - obstacle that Simoncelli will need to pass. Assuming, of course, that he hasn't already passed the usual suspects first.
The Ducati Riders - The Tunnel and the Light
Things are bleak in the Ducati camp. Many can point to the team's decision to bring a brand new bike, the GP11.1, mid-season to the race; or Valentino Rossi's inability to use the bike to match the pace of the leading group; or Jeremy Burgess' unexpected departure to care for an ill wife. Yet none of it is likely as telling as Nicky Hayden's near refusal of the GP11.1 for his home race. Citing Rossi's lack of drastic improvement - to be fair Rossi is faster than Nicky on the GP11.1, but then again he was faster on the GP11 as well - Nicky was concerned about the stresses of adapting to a new bike for his home race. Even Rossi has commented that the GP11.1 has its own set of flaws that must be worked around, the bike exhibiting anomalities that did not appear in the full on GP12. The minor changes made to make the bike a legal 800cc machine seem to have been enough to upset the delicate balance of the carbon fibre chassis, and his team are now frantically trying to tune those anomalities out. It would be easy to say that Rossi should ride the bike harder, but there are 3 facts that loom in his way of doing so. The first is that, by all accounts, Rossi never likes to do so. That he has in the past goes without saying, as witness his rides on the 500cc two stroke and early MotoGP machines. However, as mentioned previously, Rossi had already been speaking seriously of retiring before becoming embroiled in the rivalry with Lorenzo that ultimately prompted his switch to Ducati. Add to this the fact that, for the first time in his career he suffered not one but two serious injuries and we have to wonder how much an aging Rossi is willing to really put on the line.
The Dark Horses - Beware the Horseman
Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso are the only two of the front runners who do not have top flight championships to their names. Yet both riders have shown time and again that they are blisteringly fast and, while not in championship contention themselves, can take points away from those that are and influence the outcome of teh season. Pedrosa, now back from injury and already a race winner, will be looking to continue form and solidify his position within the Honda camp while Dovi will be looking to keep his momentum from the last few races where he has run with the leading pack. One small mistake could see either or both riders on the podium, drastically altering the points landscape in favor of one of the Elect while leaving the other fuming impotently. Laguna's mix of tight turns and short straights could provide the perfect venue for the pair to act as spoiler, but could team orders come into play for Honda this race weekend?