The biggest event in American motorcycle racing goes down this weekend, as the MotoGP circus comes to our shores for the USGP at Laguna Seca near Monterey, California. As a primer, Yamaha invited us to its corporate headquarters for a Q&A session with its GP riders.
It’s shaping up to be an epic battle between the factory Honda riders and the factory Yamaha team. The two class heavyweights have split four wins apiece this year, and the tight nature of Laguna Seca won’t allow much of an advantage for the quick-accelerating Hondas.
Injuries are the big talking point heading into this weekend. Today it was confirmed that Yamaha’s top rider in the championship, Jorge Lorenzo, will attempt to race this weekend despite undergoing two shoulder surgeries in recent weeks.
The titanium plate he had inserted with eight screws just prior to the Assen GP, in which he finished a heroic fifth, was bent in another massive highside crash last weekend at the Sachsenring in Germany. Now with a new titanium plate and 10 screws, Lorenzo will bravely ride at Laguna.
However, Lorenzo was unable to attend the Yamaha pre-race party, and neither was the roughed up Yamaha Tech 3 rider Cal Crutchlow who twice hit the ground hard in Germany but soldiered on to a scintillating second-place finish.
So it was up to the luminous Valentino Rossi and Tech 3 rider Bradley Smith to field questions along with factory team manager Lin Jarvis.
On the many crashes at the Sachsenring, Rossi noted that it’s hard to get heat/grip into the right side of tires at the left-turn-focused track.
“You have to risk a bit,” he said about the requirement to immediately push very hard to get heat into the rubber. “It’s one of the most difficult (aspects) in MotoGP.”
Rossi says he’s optimistic for a good result at Laguna, a track on which he famously put a crazy late-race pass on rival Casey Stoner by running wide down the Corkscrew. “It’s more like a mountain road than a MotoGP track,” he related. Rossi credits his recently improved pace to a new fork and settings honed during a test at Aragon in Spain. He says it should also suit Laguna.
Rossi reuniting with Yamaha this season has boosted his spirits, especially after two years of struggle at Ducati. The nine-time world champ told us that braking zones and corner entries were the key factors in being unable to ride the Ducati at a competitive pace, resulting in too many front-end crashes. He says the Yamaha M1 has much better front-end feedback and allows braking later into corners, also adding kudos to the Yamaha electronics he says are much better.
Rossi says he’s pleased with the improvements made to his M1, but he allows that the Hondas are very difficult to beat. Of the differences between the two, he says the M1 seems to work its tires better, depending on the track, and he says the Yamaha is very friendly to the rider and allows deep corner entries.
The Honda’s advantage is chiefly superior acceleration out of corners, due assuredly to the seamless-shift gearbox in use for nearly two years. Jarvis says his GP team will soon undergo testing of its own seamless-shift tranny and will likely race with it this season. The only delay to its introduction is the need to assure reliability.
Bradley Smith has been glaringly overshadowed by the impressive performances of his Tech 3 teammate, Crutchlow. But the class rookie has steadily improved his pace throughout the season, partly because he’s learning to adapt to the particularities of the Bridgestone spec tires.
“Their incredible grip is one of the most difficult things for a rookie to adapt to,” he claims.
To get to the podium at Laguna, the Yamaha boys know they’re going to have to mix it up with the factory Hondas of Dani Pedrosa, who is nursing a hairline fracture to his collarbone suffered in Germany, and young phenom Marc Marquez, already a multiple race winner in his rookie season. Working in Yamaha’s favor is that Marquez has never before ridden at Laguna.
“Nothing seems to be difficult for that guy,” said Smith about the Spanish rider. “It’s not going to take him long (to learn the track).” At least Smith got a look at the circuit during a trackday while riding a Yamaha R1 streetbike!
Although Smith’s Tech 3 team doesn’t enjoy the latest updates of the factory bikes, Jarvis claims there is little difference between what Rossi and Lorenzo ride and the satellite bikes. So, I asked, would there be any difference in dyno numbers between them? He replied that, most often, there would be none.
The subject of Rossi’s relationship with Lorenzo, icy when teammates at the end of 2010, was brought up. Rossi says it’s different than the last time they were teamed at Yamaha, adding that things warmed while he was serving his two-year term at Ducati.
“It’s all coming very naturally,” he said, to which Jarvis nodded in agreement. “The teammate is enemy number one, but we have respect (for each other) out on the track and everything’s okay.”
So, will the broken collarbones hold up to the forces of Grand Prix competition, or could Rossi make a triumphant return to the top of Laguna’s podium? Or will Marquez again dumbfound us with his blazing speed and insane lean angles to take the checkers in his first trip to California? It’s going to be fun to watch!