It was a monumental duel, with the full edge-of-the-seat quotient for the capacity crowd at Laguna Seca and TV viewers alike, as Valentino Rossi battled Casey Stoner for the lead of the US Grand Prix, the 11th round of the MotoGP World...
It was a monumental duel, with the full edge-of-the-seat quotient for the capacity crowd at Laguna Seca and TV viewers alike, as Valentino Rossi battled Casey Stoner for the lead of the US Grand Prix, the 11th round of the MotoGP World Championship. In the end Rossi prevailed by 13 seconds over Stoner, but that figure alone describes little about the race.
"It's the first time that I've been able to win here, and it was an unbelievable race," Rossi said. "The crew made some modifications and I was able to take a much better pace. I had a good start, then a great battle with Casey, which was a lot of fun."
The two riders both started from the front row, with Rossi taking the lead into the first corner from Stoner, who had dominated most of the weekend's sessions on his Ducati, including yesterday's qualifying. Meanwhile, Rossi's Yamaha teammate, rookie MotoGP rider Jorge Lorenzo, had a breath-taking highside accident, landing on the track and sliding to the gravel trap.
Lorenzo appears to have survived the incident with just a broken bone in his left foot -- -- a fractured third metatarsal in his the big toe -- based on the initial reports, and may be back as soon as the next race.
In the meantime, the gloves were off for Rossi and Stoner. While 'Il Dottore' would cross the start-finish line fractions of a second ahead of Stoner each lap, there were countless passes and counterpasses each lap. Stoner might power ahead into the first turn, only for Rossi to retake the lead on the uphill or in the corkscrew.
"I enjoyed a lot of the race, but I felt that some of the passes a bit too much for me," Stoner said, not as thrilled at the fans at some of the moves. "I've been racing for a lot of years and have come through a lot of different ranks, and for me just a couple of passes were a little too much. I would have liked to have had a little bit of a cleaner battle, but anyway we are happy with the result. We're still at the front of the championship and not too far off."
Around the one-quarter point of the race, Stoner appeared to take a more cautious approach. Still shadowing Rossi's blue-and-white Yamaha, he appeared to be waiting for 'The Doctor' to make a mistake -- or at least to avoid big risks until the final laps. He did get his chance to pass on lap 13, but Rossi would retake the lead again on the next lap.
Behind the two leaders, the pack was falling away quickly, not able to keep up with the duo's torrid pace. Dani Pedrosa, who might have been able to be the third rider in the mix, had to skip the race because of the hand injuries he suffered in the German Grand Prix a fortnight ago.
Front-row starter Nicky Hayden headed the rest of the field for some time, but on lap 9, Chris Vermeulen, who had started in eighth, made his way past the Repsol Honda rider. Once past, Vermeulen gradually disappeared into the distance, the Australian clearly determined to put paid to the rumors that Suzuki might be dropping him for the 2009 season.
"It was difficult starting from the third row, and (Rossi and Stoner) got away early," Vermeulen recounted. "I had a bit of a battle with Hayden and (Andrea) Dovizioso for a few laps, and once we got past them then we had more pace than everyone else."
"After I had got through they were a long way ahead and I ended up having quite a lonely ride," he continued. "It was tough to keep my concentration at times as there was nothing to focus on other than count down the laps."
After making the pass, Vermeulen rode a lonely race, lapping nearly a second slower than the leaders, but well ahead of the pack. He finished 26.6 seconds behind Rossi and 13.6 behind Stoner, but 8.2 seconds ahead of Andrea Dovizioso, who would pass Hayden with 12 laps to go in the race.
With eight laps to go, the dramatic finish the crowd was waiting for was suddenly canceled without notice. On that lap, Stoner was on Rossi's rear wheel going into the final corner, when he seemed to carry too much speed to keep his line. The Australian ran wide, and then into the gravel trap, where his bike fell over. Fortunately for Vermeulen, the engine did not stall, and he was able to rapidly get back onto the bike.
It speaks volumes for Rossi's and Stoner's dominance of the race that the latter was able rejoin after his spill without losing a position. But, indeed, Vermeulen was still eight seconds away when Stoner got going, and never got within attacking distance of the Ducati. Ahead of the two, Rossi was now able to comfortably take his first victory at Laguna Seca, maintaining a 12+ second margin throughout the remaining laps.
"At the end of the day I'm not happy because I've made a mistake and it has cost me the chance to win the race," Stoner grimaced. "But I also think that even if he rode a great race, some of Valentino's moves early in the race were too aggressive."
Rossi stretched out his championship lead, with the absent Pedrosa falling to third, but Stoner was still able to stay in touch. Rossi's lead is now 212 points to Stoner's 187, with Pedrosa at 171. Beyond the top three, there is a big gap to the next group, with Lorenzo at 114, Dovizioso 103 and Colin Edwards at 100.
The American riders were not able to give the fans around the track much to celebrate, though. Hayden looked to have the most potential, starting on the front row, but he fell back steadily throughout the race, finishing fifth, 0.762 seconds behind Dovizioso -- who was riding a Honda as well, but a JiR Team Scot satellite team one, rather than the works Repsol.
Randy de Puniet held sixth place for much of the race, after disposing of James Toseland early, maintaining steady position for LCR Honda. He finished just over two seconds adrift of Hayden.
Toni Elias, on the second works Ducati, had a good start, moving up from tenth to sixth on the first lap, but then fell backward through the pack, falling to 12th when Edwards passed him on lap eight. The handling of the Ducati came back to him, though, as the race wore on, and by lap 24, he was back to tenth, and shadowing Suzuki's impressive wildcard entry, AMA Superbike champion Ben Spies.
Spies, who had started 13th, was riding only his second MotoGP race, but as the race wore on, his comfort level with his steed improved, and he was able to leverage his familiarity with the Laguna Seca circuit. with four laps to go, Spies and Elias caught up to the Toseland-Shinya Nakano battle. Spies impressed by passing both of them on the same lap, lap 30, but by the next lap, Elias was once again on his rear wheel.
Elias made a move on Spies on the final lap, taking seventh place, and the Suzuki rider did not respond, thinking that there was still another lap left. However, an eighth position was more than a credible result for Spies, riding only his second MotoGP race.
"I couldn't get going right off the bat as I haven't quite got used to the tyres yet," Spies recalled his afternoon. "I started to reel a few riders in and I could see Nakano and Toseland coming back to me. Everything was getting better and better and then Elias came past me and I thought I had one more lap, but the chequered flag was out and that was the end of the race!"
The Suzuki team leader, Loris Capirossi struggled with the arm injury he incurred earlier at the TT Assen, especially with the highly technical Laguna Seca track making additional demands on the riders' physical condition. He finished 15th, just ahead of the second works Ducati of Marco Melandri.
The Continental Circus now takes a four-week summer brake, allowing the riders to rest and the injuries to heal. The season will get back under way in four weeks' time at Brno for the Czech grand Prix.