Grand Prix motorcycle road racing visits California this weekend for the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. This hybrid road racing event features the MotoGP prototypes as well as the production-based AMA Pro Racing classes and the electric TTXGP bikes. Three championship series, and six classes will battle it out around the Dry Lake’s 2.238-mile, 11-turn road course.
Perhaps the biggest news in the GP paddock heading into the first US-round is Factory Yamaha rider Ben Spies parting ways with the Tuning Fork brand at the end of the season despite being named MotoGP Rookie of the Year in ‘10. Right now, it’s unclear if he’ll continue to compete in MotoGP or if he’ll return to racing production based Superbikes. Still, the American rider hopes to put on a good show for fans.
“It’s always special racing in front of your home crowd,” says Spies. “It’s been a pretty rough season so far but we’ll see if we can turn it round here, put on a good show for all my fans and change it up for the second half of the year. We had some great results here before in AMA and not so bad on my first two MotoGP visits. It’s going to be great to see some old faces around the track over the weekend too.”
With nine of 18 rounds in the books, Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo has a commanding points lead in the MotoGP World Championship. The Spaniard excels at the northern California track having notched pole position in ’10 then went on to win the race over the Ducati mounted Stoner on the way to his first and only MotoGP title. He found himself on pole again in ’11 and finished as runner-up last year when Casey Stoner got by him after leading the entire race with six laps to go.
“We are having a very strong season so far,” shares Lorenzo. “Hopefully we can continue to do this here to extend the lead a little more. I have always had great races here in Laguna in MotoGP and always finish on the podium. I love the circuit, the Corkscrew corner is amazing and the American fans always make an incredible atmosphere for us.”
Hot on the heels of Lorenzo in terms of points is fellow country man and Repsol Honda rider Dani Pedrosa. The 26-year-old has been running neck-and-neck against Lorenzo having only finished off the podium once in France. He’s won at Laguna in 2009 and could do it again this year if he gets the engine and chassis settings dialed in on his newly-refined factory Honda equipment.
“I’m really looking forward to racing in Laguna Seca. The atmosphere there is fantastic and it’s a very particular track, nothing like what we are used to in Europe,” explains Pedrosa. “Laguna is very small, bumpy and technical. Last year it was a very hard race for me due to the lack of fitness, so I hope to enjoy riding there again as we did in the past. Honda has made a big effort to bring the new parts to Laguna so we’ll have our standard bike but we’ll also get the new engine and chassis we tested in Mugello [Italy] and I hope we can take advantage of these improvements and have another good race.”
Pedrosa’s teammate and reigning world champ, Casey Stoner, has also recorded wins at Laguna on a red Italian motorcycle that was far more difficult to master compared to his current Repsol Honda. With Stoner retiring at the end of this season due to disenchantment with the waning GP series, there’s little doubt he would like nothing more than to end his career on top. A late season charge for the championship could get off to a good start at a venue he knows well.
“I always look forward to going to Laguna, it’s a circuit we’ve enjoyed quite good results at and the atmosphere there is fantastic,” Stoner reveals. “The circuit is a very tight and technical and it’s definitely a positive that it goes around to the left, as we have less chatter on the left hand side. However, some of the most critical corners are right handers so it depends how we can get the bike set up before I can say if we’ll be competitive. We’ve had a nice short break since Mugello and we’re looking to improve on our results from the last two races. HRC have worked hard in Japan to provide us with the new engine and some parts from the test, hopefully we can have three dry sessions to get some work done and be competitive for Sunday, but we’ll have to wait until we get on track”.
Andrea Dovizioso has the distinction of being the top finisher in the group of satellite support race teams. The Monster Yamaha Tech 3 racer has been on a roll lately having recorded third-place finishes at the last three rounds. His best finish to date at Laguna is fourth-place. Could he finally make it to the podium this time around after a successful test at Mugello a few weeks ago?
“We changed the geometry of the bike to help me understand some different options for the future and we definitely improved the bike,” said the 26-year-old Italian. “We made the bike better on the front-end to help enter the corner better and the good thing is the changes we made should help at the next race in Laguna Seca. I also worked a little on my riding style with the YZR-M1 and now I am even more confident for Laguna Seca where I’m sure I can be battling for another podium.”
The second Monster Energy Tech 3 Yamaha ridden by Cal Crutchlow might also be a threat if he can get out in front early on in the race. Upon the news of Spies’ eminent departure from the coveted factory Yamaha seat, Cal will be keen to prove his worth on one of the most challenging tracks on the GP calendar.
“I will be going to Laguna Seca confident that I will be faster in the first part of the race,” said Crutchlow after a discovering some machine set-up improvements at the last test. “This season I have been really strong as the race has gone on, so we need to work on improving my speed right from the off. We worked on a few different settings and it was interesting to understand how they affected the bike and that will give us some options in the second part of the season.”
The Ducatis of former world champs Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden also have some new kit race parts to use when they hit the racetrack Friday morning. Rossi, specifically has made some progress getting closer to the front row at the last two races so he seems slightly optimistic heading to the first of back-to-back races in the US of A.
(Top) Rossi and Hayden will be anxious to one-up each other at Laguna Seca. ((Bottom) U.S. based aftermarket parts manufacturer, Attack Performance takes on the big boys of MotoGP this weekend.
“Laguna is a difficult track, with many bumps and a lot of elevation change, but at the same time it’s beautiful and fun, in part because it’s rather old-style,” Rossi tells. “I really like the fans and the general feel. Although my last test at Mugello was ended early, we were able to begin working with some details, and we’ll probably be able to use some of them at Laguna, even if we’re talking about a small percentage of the package that they’re working on at Ducati. Last year we went okay at Laguna, so we’ll see what happens this weekend.”
Hayden by contrast is pumped for the weekend considering it was the site of two of his most memorable race wins in ’05 and ’06: “Of course I like Laguna, so I’m excited to go there and see my home crowd and all my friends in the AMA paddock. We’ve been getting a little closer to the front lately, but now is no time to rest. We have to keep working, because now the gains will be more difficult. Laguna is certainly not easy, and I doubt the lap times will be much different with the 1000s than they were with the 800s. I’m not even sure we’ll use sixth gear, and as was the case at the Sachsenring [Germany], we’ll probably spend a lot of time working with the wheelie control and just trying to use that power when it’s available. The new tires should work better at Laguna, especially in the colder mornings and on the right side.”
Up and coming racing stars Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista will also be threats. Both riders are fresh into their careers and anxious to prove themselves against series veterans like Rossi and Stoner. Behind the big-money premier class prototypes are the CRT Teams and this year we have a stake in the Attack Performance effort piloted by our own friend and AMA Superbike racer, Steve Rapp. Make sure to review the Attack Performance CRT Takes on MotoGP article which describes team owner Richard Stanboli’s process of building a prototype race bike.