I knew something weird was happening in Monterey when I glanced at the results of the first two practice sessions and noticed that the top five spots in each were identical. FP3 was mostly fogged out, and the Repsol Honda team blew it off in the garage playing euchre rather than tackling The Corkscrew blindfolded. Lorenzo snatched the pole from Stoner on the last lap of the QP, and then Stoner topped Lorenzo in the warm-up practice on Sunday morning by a full 1/1000th of a second, after waiting an hour for the fog to clear. Although the podium duplicated last year’s rostrum, the lead-up to the weekend was vastly different.
Recall last year. Heading to California, Stoner was enjoying a string of seven straight podium finishes, and led defending champion Lorenzo by 15 points. Lorenzo had been having a great season until he crashed out at Silverstone and finished a lowly sixth at Assen. Curiously, on Saturday Stoner had given himself virtually no chance of winning, all but conceding the round to his Alien rivals, a master class in sandbagging.
Despite having amassed a total of eight (8) points in the last two rounds and trailing Lorenzo by 37, Stoner started this weekend quick and got better each day. Curiously, he was the only one of the top six riders to choose the softer option rear tire on a day when the sun was quickly heating the racing surface. My thought was he would try to jump out to the lead and hope his tire held up long enough to fend off his challengers late in the race. And though he was able to go through on Pedrosa on lap 3, it took him 22 laps to pass Lorenzo. At that point I, for one, expected the Spaniard to win the race, thinking that his rear tire would outlast Stoner’s.
Wrong. The Australian did a masterful job managing his rubber, and still looked strong at the end of the day. Lorenzo, visibly exhausted after the race, didn’t have enough left in his tank to mount a serious rally at the end. Pedrosa observed after the race that the soft tire was too soft and the hard tire had no grip, and seemed pleased to have finished third.
When the tire dust cleared, the standings at the top of the 2012 chart had tightened slightly. Stoner became the first three-time winner at Laguna, where Hondas have won four of the eight races since 2005; it is inarguably a Honda-friendly layout. Lorenzo, with four consecutive poles but only one win, enjoys a larger lead leaving California than when he arrived. Pedrosa is, as yet, uninjured in 2012. Heading into the summer break, everyone has something they can feel good about.
Well, Not Exactly Everyone
Laguna Seca lived up to its reputation as a thorny place to ride motorcycles at high speeds. By lap 2, both CRT pilot Michele Pirro and Pramac Racing designated victim Toni Elias had crashed out. Two CRT pilots retired with mechanical problems or, more likely, Corkscrew-induced psychological issues, and James Ellison crashed on lap 20. None of these mishaps had anything to do with anything.
That would change on lap 22, when the luckless Ben Spies endured an ugly crash out of fourth place, ruining yet another weekend for the wayward American. Yamaha later attributed the crash to swingarm failure, the latest in a string of unfortunate circumstances for Spies this season. No one on the grid tries harder, or has less to show for his efforts. As the old blues standard laments, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Having injured his heel in a QP crash, Spies may have added to his medical woes ending his day with an Olympic-caliber double back flip in the tuck position, with a degree of difficulty of 4.3 out of 5.
The last and most surprising fall of the day occurred on lap 29, when Valentino Rossi, who never crashes, lost it at the top of the corkscrew for his first DNF of the season. We knew Rossi had a lot on his mind before the race, with the speculation about his future with Ducati and rumors of a return to the factory Yamaha team swirling. His Italian employers sent one of their Bigga Bosses to California to make The Doctor a final offer for next year, somewhere in the neighborhood of €17 million ($21 million) to waste another of the last few years of a great career wrestling the demonic Desmosedici. Vale didn’t appear to have much on his mind at all after the crash, wandering around in the gravel looking like he’d had his bell rung, waiting for his own personal fog to clear.
Elsewhere on the Grid
Tech 3 Yamaha teammates Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow spent another lovely Sunday afternoon bashing each others’ brains in, finishing 4-5 for the fourth time this season. Nicky Hayden, glowing after having signed another one year contract with the Italian factory, went through on rookie Stefan Bradl late in the day to claim 6th place, relegating the German to a still respectable 7th in his first visit to Laguna.
San Carlo Honda’s Alvaro Bautista started 7th and finished 8th, another nondescript day at the office for the young Spaniard. Aleix Espargaro, clearly the cream of the CRT crop, finished ninth, with ”Kareless” Karel Abraham rounding out the top ten in his first return to action since Barcelona.
Bits and Pieces
The Hayden-Ducati marriage appears to work better for Nicky than for Ducati, as his best days are well behind him. Over the past three seasons he’s managed a single third place finish each year, and the last of his three (3) premier class wins came back in 2006, when he somehow won the world championship with a thin 252 points. (In 2008, Pedrosa would finish third with 249 points.) Other than name recognition, the Kentucky Kid doesn’t bring much to the party any more.
Rumor has it that Fausto Gresini, the volatile manager of the San Carlo team, is courting Andrea Dovizioso to return to the Honda family that so unceremoniously dumped him last year. Fausto has clearly lost whatever confidence he ever had in Bautista. Whether he can convince Dovizioso to wear Honda colors again is problematic. Personally, I think Dovizioso has earned the second factory Yamaha seat, and that Rossi could again be competitive on the factory-spec San Carlo Honda.
An interesting bit of trivia concerns the Constructors Trophy awarded each year to the manufacturer whose riders earn the most points. Not surprisingly, Honda and Yamaha sit tied at the top of the pile. But third place Ducati is much closer points-wise to the Aprilia ART bikes than to the two Japanese manufacturers. We’ve come up with a term to describe the increasing irrelevance of the Ducati MotoGP program: Suzukification.
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