MOTOGP: Round 8 – Laguna Seca, United States – July 5

With both of his chief rivals hobbled by injuries and illness, this was supposed to be an easy win for Valentino Rossi against a second string of Honda riders. But someone hadn’t read the script.

At the start, Dani Pedrosa had his traditional flier from the second row and took the lead, with Valentino characteristically looking to get away initially only to get overtaken by Casey Stoner. Still, Rossi could easily handle Stoner – and passed him at the top of the corkscrew on the first lap. Now he would go after Pedrosa and claim the lead, right?

Nope. Stoner stayed stuck to the back of Rossi’s bike and neither of them were making in-roads into Pedrosa’s lead. Indeed, the Spaniard was getting away from them with every passing lap. And then to make matters worse for Rossi, Stoner actually managed to blast past him off the final turn onto the start/finish straight, and Rossi spent nearly ten laps staring at the back of a Ducati while Pedrosa made good his escape before he himself was finally able to get past the Aussie again, this time for good.

Further back, the hurting Jorge Lorenzo had dropped back from second on the grid to 8th with in a few metres of the start. But after that he’d pulled himself together, steadied the ship and climbed back to 5th behind Pedrosa, Stoner, Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso. And when Dovizioso washed out on lap 7 (leaving him sitting in the gravel with a erfect picture of “What the hell just happened?” body language) Lorenzo suddenly found himself up into fourth place. Suddenly this was looking like a very nice piece of damage limitation to keep him in the championship stakes. Still, the group ahead seemed too far away for him to do anything more about.

As well as Dovizioso, we lost Gabor Talmacsi, Loris Capirossi and Sete Gibernau to similar accidents that happened unseen off the television footage. Laguna Seca was proving to be a very accident prone circuit – possibly the cooler-than-expected weather (still in the 70s, but that’s much cooler than expected for the California desert in July) combined with hard tyres was proving costly, as Rossi had suggested after Stoner and Lorenzo’s twin accidents in qualifying on Saturday.

The most ignominious retirement, however, was that of James Toseland: he was judged to have jumped the start from 15th place and given a drive-thru penalty on lap 5, but despite it being hung out on his pit board Toseland apparently completely missed it and failed to come in within the allotted time. So out came the black flag on lap 11, meaning that he was disqualified. Oddly Toseland then tried to perform the drive-thru only to be told that in MotoGP the black flag could not be undone: he was out. He had to crawl back into his garage under the disapproving gaze of the team boss.

Back up at the sharp end of the proceedings, things were pretty stable up to about lap 20. Stoner had been continuing to stick to the rear of Rossi’s Yamaha, but two-thirds of the way into the race and Stoner’s physical capability suddenly hit the wall. He was done. Rossi disappeared into the distance and in the same lap, Stoner was in the clutches of Lorenzo – who made short work of passing him and leaving him for dead. Stoner continued to circulate and had built up enough of a lead never to be under threat for fourth, but in eleven laps he lost as many seconds to the leading trio.

That seemed to spur on Lorenzo, who appeared to forget he was among the walking wounded himself. He cut the distance to Rossi and with half a dozen laps to go was right on the back of his team mate and seemed determined to serve up revenge for being beaten on the final corner of the last lap of his home race at Catalunya. He lined up Rossi for an overtaking move, and seemed about to pull it off when the Yamaha locked up and sent driver and bike into a violent spasm. Lorenzo shouldn’t have been able to hold onto it, especially with his damaged shoulder from the previous day’s qualifying accident, but somehow he did – and still managed to make the next turn without ploughing into the gravel. Of course Rossi was now safe and scampering off, and Lorenzo’s chance for second place was gone, but it was still a great piece of damage limitation.

“I didn’t imagine I could race today,” said Lorenzo afterwards. “Things were so difficult, but with the bad start, plus the physical difficulty, I did the best I could. The pain was terrible. In the right hand corners it was a big pain. I couldn’t do so much with that hand, so I used the left arm and it got tired. It was terrible.”

No longer under threat from Lorenzo, Rossi could reapply himself to trying to catch Pedrosa in the hope that the Spaniard might have shot his tyres. But while Rossi did succeed in closing the gap, Pedrosa seemed to have everything under control. And then in the closing turns of the final lap, all of a sudden Pedrosa’s lead evaporated – almost 2s gone in the final lap – and there was a sudden flurry of excitement: was Dani in trouble? Well, no – he’d just relaxed a little too much on those final corners, he admitted, but he was still able to keep the race under control and take the chequered flag all the same.

Dani was rightfully delighted – it’s Honda’s first MotoGP victory in over a year, since the 2008 Catalunya race in fact, so it broke a severe brought for both driver and team. Even arch-rival Lorenzo hobbled over to him to congratulate him on the win. In fact the only man looking happier than Pedrosa was Nicky Hayden, whose home race this was and where he’d managed to chalk up a remarkable fifth place right behind his Ducati team mate Casey Stoner. He was beaming from ear to ear as the crowd cheered.

Rossi might not have been able to pull off the expected win, but as he surveyed the limping Lorenzo, and Casey Stoner practically falling off his bike and crawling into his garage, Rossi could be happy that in the battle that counts most – the championship points standings – this had been a very good day at the races.

Race result

Pos  Rider             Bike               Time/Gap
 1.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda            44m01.580s
 2.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha           +   0.344s
 3.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha           +   1.926s
 4.  Casey Stoner      Ducati           +  12.432s
 5.  Nicky Hayden      Ducati           +  21.663s
 6.  Toni Elias        Gresini Honda    +  22.041s
 7.  Colin Edwards     Tech 3 Yamaha    +  30.201s
 8.  Chris Vermeulen   Suzuki           +  32.857s
 9.  Randy de Puniet   LCR Honda        +  40.325s
10.  Marco Melandri    Hayate Kawasaki  +  48.028s
11.  Alex de Angelis   Gresini Honda    +  48.810s
12.  Niccolo Canepa    Pramac Ducati    +1m18.531s

Retirements:

     Andrea Dovizioso  Honda                6 laps
     Sete Gibernau     Hernando Ducati      6 laps
     Loris Capirossi   Suzuki               3 laps
     Gabor Talmacsi    Scot Honda           3 laps
     James Toseland    Tech 3 Yamaha           DSQ

MotoGP Championship standings

Pos Driver              Points
1   Valentino Rossi     151
2   Jorge Lorenzo       142
3   Casey Stoner        135
4   Daniel Pedrosa       92
5   Colin Edwards        76
6   Andrea Dovizioso     69
7   Marco Melandri       61
8   Chris Vermeulen      61
9   Randy de Puniet      58
10  Loris Capirossi      56
11  James Toseland       39
12  Nicky Hayden         38
13  Toni Elías           37
14  Alex de Angelis      36
15  Mika Kallio          26
16  Niccolò Canepa       16
17  Sete Gibernau        12
18  Yuki Takahashi        9
        
Pos Constructor Points
1   Yamaha      185
2   Ducati      135
3   Honda       123
4   Suzuki      79
5   Kawasaki    61
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