Once the “marine layer”, the stuff you and I call fog, burned off at the Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway on Sunday morning, it became obvious it was going to be a great day for Honda Racing Corporation. Having placed three bikes on the front row of the qualifying grid, the only impediment left would have been the weather; the RC213V likes it hot. And hot it was, as Repsol rookie Marc Marquez continued his amazing first season by becoming the first rookie ever to win the U.S. Grand Prix.
The run-up to the race was unusual, as premier class icons Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, the respective leading lights of the Yamaha and Honda factory teams, came to California in deplorable physical condition. Lorenzo’s left shoulder, trashed twice in the previous three weeks at Assen and the Sachsenring, was being held together with duct tape and popsicle sticks.
Wonder rookie Marc Marquez won in his first race at Laguna Seca, joined on the podium by fellow Honda rider Stefan Bradl.
Pedrosa, who missed Round 8 in Germany with an incomplete fracture of his own left collarbone, bailed on both FP1 and FP3, choosing to limit his laps and conserve his ailing wing. This necessitated his spending 15 minutes in Q1 with the dregs before advancing to Q2 and starting seventh, one spot behind Lorenzo.
Almost lost in the sauce of the medical reports was LCR Honda sophomore Stefan Bradl. In perhaps the best weekend of his life, Bradl became the first German to claim the pole in a premier class race, and led the first half of the contest before finally settling for second place and his own maiden podium. His team was probably pinching itself, flashing back to the nightmare that was the 2011 season. Two short years ago, the hapless Toni Elias carried the LCR colors to a 61 point season. After a slow start, young Bradl has managed 84 points in the first half of 2013, proving there is a God, even for French racing teams.
Time to Eat a Little Crow
Regular readers of this column will recall with glee my prediction that Marquez would not finish today’s race. Fine. I was wrong. (You may have been right, but we don’t know, on account of no one publishes your stuff.) The thing is, I had it right. On Lap 4, from third position, Marquez decided to take on Yamaha legend Valentino Rossi at the famous Corkscrew, Turn 8, where there is room for two bikes to enter but only one to leave. Lizard brain firmly in control, Marquez dove into the turn on Rossi’s right/inside, and the Italian didn’t budge.
Valentino Rossi found himself the victim at the Corkscrew this time. Still, the Doctor was pleased with his third consecutive podium finish.
Marquez, obviously enjoying the blessings of the racing gods, went even farther into the dirt than Rossi himself did in his famous pass of Casey Stoner in 2008, to the right of the drainage grate. What, by all rights, should have been a gruesome high side became exactly … well, nothing. Marquez continued as if the impossible hadn’t just occurred, and was soon stalking Bradl, leaving Rossi shaking his head. On Lap 19, after shadowing the German for a dozen laps, the rookie finally relieved Bradl of his anxiety, went through easily, and sailed to the finish line unchallenged.
This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen. Rookies don’t win at Laguna Seca. Rookies don’t win premier class championships. Rookies don’t, well, never mind. Marquez has now won a third of the first nine races he’s entered, beating the best riders in the world. He leads teammate Pedrosa by 16 points and defending world champion Lorenzo by 26. He appears unflappable. And once the ridiculous MotoGP summer vacation ends in four weeks, he has the favorable half of the season in front of him. Indianapolis. Sepang. Motegi. Valenciana. Plenty of hot weather. Plenty of stop-and-go racing.
Marc Marquez now has a 16-point lead atop the standings with his two main challengers nursing various injuries.
If Las Vegas bothered to offer a betting line on MotoGP, Marc Marquez would be the odds-on favorite to take the 2013 championship. And probably the next eight as well. One of the criticisms of MotoGP centers on the constant rule changes the oligarchs in Spain institute pretty much whenever it suits them. I suggest they consider stealing some regs from roller derby, where contestants are allowed to block, tackle and bludgeon opponents to protect a teammate’s lead. Otherwise, we’re looking at a decade of riders fighting each other for second place. Not good. Not good at all.
Elsewhere on the Grid
Valentino Rossi drove his Yamaha M1 to his third consecutive podium today in a somewhat hollow triumph. He had to stiff-arm GO&FUN pretty boy Alvaro Bautista for most of the race just to hold onto 3rd place. Bautista qualified his Honda on the front row and barely missed out on his first podium since Motegi last year. If you’re like me, you wince watching him go into the first turn among the giants, where he often gets overly-excited, causing a visit from the Allstate Mayhem Man. Today, though, Bautista ran a smart, effective race.
Alvaro Bautista was a threat for a podium position at Laguna Seca … as opposed to his usual role as a threat to other riders.
Dani Pedrosa fought his injury to a draw and ended up in 5th place after going through on Lorenzo on Lap 12, putting all four Hondas in the top five.
Lorenzo struggled all day, and had visible difficulty in the left-handers, running wide on practically every one in the first five laps. That he was out there racing at all, at one of the most hazardous tracks on the tour, is a testament to his courage and determination. Both he and Pedrosa should be close to 100% when Indianapolis rolls around.
Nicky Hayden confirmed he will not be renewing with Ducati Corse for the 2014 MotoGP season.
Nicky Hayden, on his way to being evicted from the factory Ducati team at the end of the season (see our preview article from April), stuck one in teammate Andrea Dovizioso’s eye by beating the Italian to the line today for another ho-hum 8th place finish. This put him 18 seconds behind a confused and confusing Cal Crutchlow, who was fast in practice, fell to 5th in qualifying, and never once seemed to have his mojo working today. I’m going to guess that a video of Crutchlow complaining about rear grip will appear on the MotoGP website today. Just sayin’.
Crutchlow’s Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Bradley Smith retired today with what appeared to be engine trouble, possibly giving some pause to the non-MSMA teams contemplating the lease of a “production” M1 for next season. If you’re going to lease ANYTHING for a million euros a year, you don’t want it sitting by the side of the track smoking like a sugar factory.
Jorge Lorenzo finished sixth and faces a difficult challenge to repeat as champion. He’s taking it well.
Over on the other side of the tracks, both of the Power Electronics Aspar bikes failed to finish today, as Randy de Puniet retired with engine trouble and Aleix Espargaro crashed out. This left the way open for Hectic Hector Barbera, aboard the Avintia Blusens FTR, to claim the top, um, non-prototype spot for, like, the first time ever. Or so it seems.
Andrea Iannone, usually found on the Energy T.I. Pramac Ducati, failed to answer the bell today, joining Ben Spies on the sidelines with injuries suffered in four separate crashes in Saxony. Spies’ place was taken this week by our old friend Alex de Angelis, who gathered five championship points by staying vertical long enough to finish 11th.
Summer Vacation Arrives
As MotoGP makes the turn and heads to the clubhouse prior to teeing off on the back nine in mid-August, I’d like to hear from someone who predicted back in April that Marc Marquez would be leading the championship today. This stunning turn of events has caught the attention of the suits at Yamaha, who are scrambling to get their own “Magic Gearbox” installed on the factory M1s. Since Honda introduced their seamless shift transmission at Sepang in 2011, life has gone from good to great. As usual, David Emmett wrote an informative article on this subject two years ago.
Honda has benefited from its seamless transmission but it’s only a matter of time before Yamaha starts using a similar system.
The good news for Yamaha is that even without this new technology, they aren’t that far behind Honda, despite outings like today’s. The Yamaha YZR-M1 with the new transmission is likely to be a beast. Marc Marquez needs to enjoy having the fastest bike on the track while he can.
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