For defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo, the approach of the U.S. Grand Prix at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca circuit in Monterey is fraught with peril. Fate, and the powerful Repsol Honda duo of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez, have conspired to put the bright star of Yamaha Racing in an incredible bind. Having injured his left collarbone twice in two weeks, a crash in Monterey could jeopardize the rest of Lorenzo’s career. But by sitting out, he effectively surrenders the 2013 title to one of his rivals.
Graphically, it looks something like this:
ROCK———Jorge Lorenzo———HARD PLACE
As has been said of Peyton Manning and Cal Ripken Jr., this guy is so competitive he would want to whip your ass in tiddlywinks. Just the idea of allowing one of his compatriot/rivals to abscond with his title this year must make him physically ill. But taking the track on his Yamaha M1 is something of a sucker’s bet, i.e., wagering 2013 versus six or eight years yet to come.
The odds are shortened somewhat by the inarguable fact that rookie Marquez is going to be a serious threat to Lorenzo’s fortunes from now on. The precocious Spaniard, barely out of his teens, is a legitimate contender for this year’s title. What’s he going to be like three years from now, when he is at the top of his game? One shudders to think.
Lorenzo indicated on Saturday night via Twitter that he would stay home and try to be 100% in time for Indianapolis in August. But his factory bosses quickly shot that down, saying no decision had yet been made; they have some skin in this game, too, although theirs is figurative.
After one final visit to the doctor (as opposed to the Doctor), Lorenzo decided to fly to California with the rest of the team and try to race. He may still pull out if the injury proves to be too severe, so his participation will be what we’ll call a “game-time decision”.
Both Pedrosa and Marquez will be there, though Dani is less than 100% after his ugly highside in practice at the Sachsenring, and Marquez, according to me anyway, is unlikely to finish what will be his first career outing at Laguna. The U.S. Grand Prix is a crashfest pretty much every year, and is notoriously difficult for first-timers. Even one as gifted as Marc Marquez.
The Changing Dynamic at Repsol Honda
What a difference a weekend makes. Heading into Round 8, the 2013 title fight appeared to be Pedrosa vs. Lorenzo, with Marquez, as well as Lorenzo’s Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi, playing supporting roles, more wingmen than leading men. All that changed in Saxony.
With Pedrosa and Lorenzo sidelined, Marquez seized the day and the championship lead, while Rossi and Monster Tech 3 Yamaha stud Cal Crutchlow thrust themselves into the conversation by joining the rookie on the podium. And while some people now see 2013 as a five man race – a bit of a stretch, in my opinion – the relationship between Marquez and Pedrosa has changed fundamentally.
Let us suggest that HRC management is greatly interested in adding 2013 to their impressive roster of MotoGP world championships. Let us then suggest they are less concerned whether it is employee Pedrosa or employee Marquez who wins it for them. Until last week, one suspects Marquez felt somewhat deferential to Pedrosa, the alpha male on the factory team. Now, leading the series, and with Pedrosa nursing a variety of injuries, it is possible that Marquez sees him as an obstacle.
Recall Round 2 in Austin, where Marquez went through on Pedrosa without so much as a “by your leave” on the way to the win. The pass was not disrespectful, but it wasn’t reverent, either. It was clean (and much friendlier than his bumping Lorenzo out of his way in Jerez the following time out). But that was then, and this is now. With no team orders to back down from Pedrosa, and with a MotoGP title clearly possible in his rookie year, I look for Marquez to treat Pedrosa like any other rider for the remainder of the season. Salir de mi camino, señor!
Recent History at Laguna Seca
Among my most vivid MotoGP memories is the 2008 U.S. Grand Prix, when Rossi, on the Yamaha, pushed then defending world champion Casey Stoner and his Ducati so hard that Stoner eventually piled into the kitty litter. Stoner and others accused Rossi of having been overly aggressive. The rest of us viewed it as just plain old fashioned racing, a master class by The Doctor when he was at the top of HIS game.
In 2009, Pedrosa beat Rossi in a sprint to the flag, with Lorenzo in hot pursuit. That was the year Pedrosa took off like a scalded cat and looked to have the race in his back pocket midway through, only to have to withstand a furious second half charge by the Italian that fell tenths of a second short. Rossi lost valuable time that year jousting with teammate Lorenzo for much of the day, back when the two combatants still had a wall separating them in the “team garage.”
Lorenzo enjoyed his only premier class win at Laguna Seca in 2010, having started from the pole, stiff-arming Stoner by 3.5 seconds, with Rossi well off the pace but still on the podium. Under pressure from Lorenzo, Pedrosa crashed out of the lead on Lap 20 that year, a low point for MotoGP as only 12 bikes managed to finish the race. Two of those finishers were the Hayden brothers, with Nicky, still relevant at the time, coming in 5th and wildcard Roger Lee earning 5 points in 11th position.
There was a certain similarity in the 2011 and 2012 contests, as Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa finished 1-2-3 both years. In 2011, Pedrosa was healing from injuries suffered earlier in the season at Le Mans, but was still dogging Lorenzo for the lead much of the day. Meanwhile, Stoner, managing his tires in third place, found his fuel load to his liking with ten laps left and went through on both Pedrosa and Lorenzo on the way to his second world championship.
Last year, Stoner became the first three-time winner at Laguna, while even Rossi crashed out, the seventh starter out of 21 to fail to finish in his only DNF of the year. Lorenzo led Stoner for much of the day, but didn’t have enough left to withstand the Repsol Honda chieftain, who was on his way to HIS second world championship.
What? No Weather Forecast?
Honda has now taken three of the last four U.S. Grands Prix, making it officially a Honda-friendly track. Whether that remains so this year depends upon two things – the physical condition of Dani Pedrosa, and how quickly young Marquez is able to learn his way around. (I’m sure he has played the video game a million times, but something tells me the real thing will be different.) With Lorenzo problematic as of Tuesday, the possibility of seeing some new faces on the podium is pretty good. Maybe Cal Crutchlow captures his first win, or Stefan Bradl his first podium.
Anything can happen in California.
Check back here on Monday for the race report of the 2013 U.S. Grand Prix!