With upwards of 137,000 excited American fans paying homage to the boys of MotoGP at northern California’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this past weekend for the Red Bull USGP you’d be hard pressed to tell that the series is navigating across rough water. But with the imminent departure of two if MotoGP’s brightest stars, the downward spiral of the sport’s all-time greatest personality, waning factory support, and the questionable introduction of the quasi-production Claiming Rule Teams (CRT), the world’s premier motorcycle racing series faces a host of problems. And all of them were evident at Laguna Seca.
Going into the race weekend, all the attention was on American Ben Spies. But it wasn’t for the same pre-race propaganda that Laguna is known for. Prior to the race Spies announced on Twitter that he will be separating with Yamaha this fall. His lips were sealed in regards to his plan for ’13 and beyond, but rumor is he’s returning to his Superbike roots next season; most likely with the BMW World Superbike squad. During the USGP race, Spies’ YZR-M1 had a unusual mechanical swingarm failure causing him to crash at the apex of The Corkscrew. Yamaha brass was hush-hush on the reason for the failure – but the incident was typical of Spies’ hard-luck season.
Despite winning Sunday’s race, reigning world champ, Casey Stoner, who has already declared retirement at the end of the year (at the ripe young age of 26), was one of the more vocal critics of the weekend. One of the biggest issues he encountered was with the CRT machines and the dangerous on-track conditions due to the huge speed discrepancy between the lower-spec CRT and the GP prototypes.
“There was always a CRT bike in the way and considering we’re three to four seconds a lap quicker than them, you come up on them pretty quick no matter how big a gap you give them,” explained Stoner after Saturday’s qualifying.
During the 32-lap race it was clear Stoner’s criticism was founded as the top-three riders (Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa) began to the 21-rider field at just over two-thirds race distance. Even top CRT-finisher, Randy de Puniet, who finished just outside of the top-10, got lapped by Stoner.
Perhaps the most vocal critic of the hybrid CRT (prototype chassis/production engine) format is veteran GP racer Colin Edwards, who finished in last place in Sunday’s race. Edwards, who is never shy about sharing what’s on his mind, was blunt in his dismay on the direction the series is taking.
“It just kind of a bullshit rule,” shared Edwards. “The formula’s just not right yet. The CRT thing is a good idea, or a one-brand bike or… whatever that rule is. But when you still have a bunch of prototypes out on the track, it’s more dangerous than anything. I feel like I’m spending more time looking behind me. I don’t want to get in any of these guys way. It needs to be thought out… something needs to be done.”
“We’re always between 1.6 and 2.5 seconds behind,” adds De Puniet in reference to the CRT lap times versus the prototypes. “We finish between 50 seconds and one minute behind the leaders. To fight for the 12th position every weekend isn’t so easy. In the beginning i thought it was possible, but it’s impossible. We have 50 horsepower less and the electronics and the weight of the bike are different. My bike isn’t that bad – but we’re in a different category. Same race, one start, but two different classes.”
(Top) Ben Spies Yamaha YZR-M1 had a rare suspension failure in the race causing him to crash. (Bottom) Nicky Hayden will be riding red next year… but will Rossi?
Nicky Hayden’s seat at Ducati was renewed for another year but speculation to where seven-time World Champ Valentino Rossi will ride next season reached feverish levels at Laguna. After a challenging two seasons with his national brand, Ducati, Rossi is said to be talking with his previous employer, Yamaha; and there’s a good chance we’ll see him back on the blue bike teamed with his Spanish nemesis, Jorge Lorenzo.
Even though his results haven’t been impressive, Ducati is still eager to retain Rossi. How eager? So much so that president Gabriele Del Torchio flew in to California to try and persuade him to prolong his stint with the team. But that’s not all, in a post-race interview, Rossi also said that he had a mysterious third offer to ride on a satellite squad.
Rossi continued to experience difficulties at Laguna. The factory Ducati rider qualified 10th for the race, but was nearly two seconds behind pole sitter, Jorge Lorenzo. Come race time, Rossi was off the pace and ended up crashing in a unusual spot. During braking for The Corkscrew the front wheel locked up while he was straight up and down causing him to throw his shiny red Ducati into the gravel.
“I wasn’t fighting for the podium, but a crash like that at the end of the race is still disappointing because I had done the whole race like the first lap and my rhythm wasn’t fast at that moment. Still, I lost the front when I was approaching the Corkscrew, when the bike was vertical, right when I touched the brake, a bit like happened at Silverstone.”
Once Rossi announces who he’s riding some of the other big name riders including Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow and de Puniet will have better idea where they’ll slot in next season. With the next GP taking place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, many of the European riders haven chosen to stay Stateside until the next race in just over two weeks time.