The 2009 MotoGP World Championship continues its most concentrated stretch with its most vivid study in contrast. From last week’s Dutch TT, at the historic Circuit van Drenthe near the North Sea, the championship flies halfway across the globe to the California cool of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, within sight of the Pacific Ocean, for the first of two Grands Prix in America. The United States Grand Prix is the second of four races in five weeks that span the midpoint of the 17-race championship and the only event on the calendar to feature only the MotoGP class.
With so much attention paid to Laguna Seca, it’s a little known fact that the first two U.S GPs took place at Daytona International Speedway in 1964 and ’65. Both were won by the legendary Mike Hailwood on an MV Agusta. Then followed a 24-year absence after which the U.S GP returned to the calendar at Laguna Seca for six years, ending with the 1994 running. Eleven years on, when MotoGP came to Laguna for the first time, the race was won by a Honda, as was the 2006 edition. Repsol Honda RC212V riders Andrea Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa lead the six-strong Honda contingent into the 2009 U.S GP.
Dovizioso and Pedrosa currently sit fourth and fifth places in the championship, behind series leader Valentino Rossi (Yamaha), Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha) and Casey Stoner (Ducati).
The short interval between Assen and Laguna gives both Dovizioso and Pedrosa a chance for quick redemption. With limited set-up time for their Honda RC212V machines equipped with revised chassis, both men slid off in the Assen race. That followed a promising start to the weekend when Pedrosa missed out on pole position by a scant 0.085 seconds.
Dovizioso was one spot off his possible first podium with the Repsol Honda squad when the 23-year-old Italian fell, ending a string of fourth-place finishes in the previous three GPs. In his first visit to Monterey last July, Dovizioso was the highest placing Honda rider in fourth place. With a year’s further experience on the RC212V, and on a circuit he finds fascinating and challenging, Dovizioso is certain that all the pieces are in place to secure him a place on the podium.
Pedrosa has recently shown improvement after hitting a rough patch that began at the Italian GP at Mugello. Following a promising start to the season – with three consecutive podium finishes – Pedrosa injured his right hip in an incident during Italian GP practice. Since then he has been fighting to regain fitness and was encouraged in Holland, where he was able to complete the weekend without the help of pain-killers. And he did himself no further damage with the crash, which came while he was in the thick of the battle for second place. Despite having to fly some 9000kms, Pedrosa is in better shape than he has been in more than a month and anxious to get back to work at Laguna Seca. This will be only his second race at Laguna. Pedrosa skipped last year’s race after injuring himself in the previous weekend’s German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring.
The Honda MotoGP satellite squads arrive in Monterey with varying fortunes. Randy de Puniet (LCR Honda) is coming off a promising weekend in Assen. The Frenchman led the 18-strong MotoGP field in Thursday practice and followed it up with his second top ten finish of the year. He is the most consistent Honda rider at Laguna Seca, with sixth place finishes in his last two visits.
San Carlo Honda Gresini riders Alex De Angelis and Toni Elias are hopeful of better luck when they arrive in California. Elias was in position to take sixth place in Assen when a mistake in the final chicane sent him off the track. Because he’d cut the course, race direction applied a 20-second penalty, which dropped him from his eighth place finish to 12th.
From Laguna onwards, the Scot Racing Team will continue with Gabor Talmacsi in the MotoGP class. Due to unavoidable circumstances Yuki Takahashi will no longer ride with the team. This decision was reached after exhaustive attempts to find a way to continue with two riders, but the economic realities facing the team, combined with the increased cost involved in running two riders, has led to this regrettable outcome.
“For Honda as well as the Scot Racing Team, this is a sad announcement,” said HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto. “But we understand that the extremely challenging financial circumstances facing the team left them with no choice. Takahashi was the only Japanese rider in the MotoGP championship and of course Honda wanted to see him continue. But in the end the team made it clear that this outcome was impossible and we respect their decision. Honda will continue to support the Scot Racing Team in MotoGP with Gabor Talmacsi riding.”
Talmacsi will have his hands full this weekend. Laguna doesn’t host the 250cc and 125cc classes so the Hungarian hasn’t previously seen the track, which isn’t easy to learn, especially for a rider with only two previous races on a MotoGP bike. On the plus side, Talmacsi will now have two RC212Vs at his disposal.
In a championship that features 17 of the best racetracks in the world, Laguna Seca stands out for its uniqueness. Set in the natural terrain of the foothills east of Monterey, California, the track has undergone a number of changes over the course of its life, which began in 1957. The biggest changes came in 1988 when it was lengthened from 3.1kms to its current 3.61kms to conform to the World Championship minimum. Prior to the change, the track had nine corners, seven lefts and two rights.
It was on that layout that Freddie Spencer rode the oval-piston Honda NR500 to victory over Kenny Roberts in a heat race in 1981, a victory that former Honda Motor Company CEO Takeo Fukui calls his favorite win in all of racing. To meet the minimum length, the track turns back on itself at turn two, incorporating the right hand turns three and four before rejoining the old circuit with a left at turn five. The most recent change came in 2006 with the flattening of the run-up to turns 8-8A, the legendary Corkscrew.
The Corkscrew is the track’s signature turn, a blind left-right downhill that some riders love, some don’t. A number of races have been decided in the Corkscrew, including last year’s classic when Valentino Rossi rode up the inside and through the dirt to re-pass Casey Stoner en route to what is considered the turning point of the
2008 MotoGP World Championship. The Corkscrew is the track’s highest point, after which it begins a 91 meter drop, through the daunting turn nine Rainey Curve downhill left, into the dip that is the difficult right-hand turn ten, and to the track’s lowest point, the near dead stop turn 11 left-hander that leads onto the 996 meter front straight. Out of turn 11, riders accelerate out of first gear up the straight to a quick rise and into the formidable turn one, a high speed drop-away left-hand kink taken by the bravest wide open, but by most at partial throttle.
Honda has won two of the four MotoGP classes at Laguna Seca, with the last victory coming in 2006 by Nicky Hayden (Repsol Honda).
HONDA MotoGP RIDER QUOTES
Andrea Dovizioso (Repsol Honda) says: “I really look forward to the race in Laguna Seca. The track itself and the whole atmosphere makes coming to Laguna a fascinating experience. Last year was the first time that I had raced in the United States and I was impressed by this track. Some parts are quite dangerous and very different from the European standard of racetracks we are used to, but the whole atmosphere is incredible and I like it a lot. I’m confident that we can have a good race here. Last year I had a good battle and finished 4th, which I was pleased with. I feel as though I’ve come fourth enough times this year though, so I hope to make the step up. At each race we’re getting closer to the leading riders but we’re still not close enough yet. So we need to work hard to get the speed and consistency we need.”
Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) says: “I’m actually really looking forward to getting to Laguna and I’m feeling confident going into the weekend – as I was before Assen. The result there wasn’t great, but there’s no reason why we can’t have a strong race in the US. I felt much better on the bike in Assen than I did in Barcelona and, although my physical fitness is not at 100 per cent because I haven’t been training as usual for quite a while, the injury is getting better and isn’t giving me any problems on the machine. The Laguna track itself is unique and it can be a lot of fun to ride – as long as you’re going quickly. When you’re struggling it obviously isn’t quite as much fun! As a team we’ve got to continue working hard and bring the whole machine package up to a level where we can compete for wins again. We’re making progress and with luck Laguna will take us closer to that target.”
Randy de Puniet (LCR Honda) says: “Laguna is a very special racetrack – I love the challenges that it throws at you. We had quite a challenging time there last year, but came out of it all with a not so bad sixth-place finish. This year we have the potential to do better if Friday and Saturday go well for us. I feel really good on this year’s bike and tyres, so I’m really looking forward to the race.”
Alex De Angelis (San Carlo Honda Gresini) says: “I am extremely motivated going into this race because we’re finally finding the right way with the bike and working through our problems. We know that sometimes when you solve one problem you can create another and finding the ideal package isn’t easy, but the point is that we are solving our biggest issue, which is rear traction, and that is important. I don’t think anything more problematic than that is going to crop up! I love Laguna Seca, I went fast from the first day on my debut there last year and we know the tyres work well there too, so I am excited. The target is to get involved with that second group again but this time be fighting with them all the way to the final corner.”
Toni Elias (San Carlo Honda Gresini) says: “I left the last race at Assen feeling frustrated with the result, having been relegated to twelfth by Race Direction for an aggressive move in the final corner, but even the eighth place I managed before the penalty was below our expectations. Having said that I was encouraged by the performance and to have passed so many riders in the race gives me motivation and determination to continue where I left off at Laguna Seca. For this race I’ll have both bikes equipped with my preferred chassis, which should allow us to work a bit more calmly and make quicker progress in adjusting the set-up. Our recent pace suggests that we’re not far from making another step forward – not into the top four just yet but at least a little closer to them.”
Gabor Talmacsi (Scot Honda) says: “I never have been there. I’m really curious. I asked for information from my more experienced companions and everybody told me that Laguna is different and difficult. Well, the great majority of things are new for me in the MotoGP class. So, I’m getting used to facing new challenges. I will try to understand by myself as many things as I can about Laguna Seca, then I will knock on Nicky Hayden’s motor home and ask for his advice; he declared himself glad to teach me the secrets of his home circuit. We reached a point at which I feel necessary to work a little bit more on the set-up, to improve my performances. In the first races, the target was simply – not to do silly things and learn as much as I could. Now I want to make a step ahead and leave the last position to some other guy.”