The 2011 Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca featured a three-man showdown that pitted Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and reigning world champion Jorge Lorenzo into a battle that not only left the massive three-day crowd of 136,000 people in a frenzy but also set the stage for an epic finish.
The trio has been battling for the podium all season long, trading first-place wins in all but one race. So it was no surprise that -- right from the start -- the trio separated themselves from the other world-class riders as they flew through the turns and famous corkscrew of Laguna Seca.
All three have already won at that track in previous years. Stoner scooped up a win in Laguna Seca in ’07 en route to his world championship, Pedrosa reigned supreme in impressive fashion in ’09 and Lorenzo came good last season to help pave the way for his successful title run.
This year, top honors went to Stoner who won first place using some impressive overtaking maneuvers -- he was followed up by Lorenzo and Pedrosa as second place and third place, respectively.
Lorenzo crashed hard in Saturday morning practice, making a mental error and forgot to register that his racer's sophisticated traction control system had been disengaged, leading to a very short but memorable flight.
The champ's weekend was feared finished for several terrifying moments. However, he not only eventually returned to his feet, he made a near-miraculous charge to pole position later that same day. Still, his battered body was certain to be stiff for Sunday's clash.
Pedrosa understands that feeling all too well. Having only returned to action a few weeks ago after a pair of surgeries to repair the broken collarbone he suffered in a tilt with the ever-controversial Marco Simoncelli, the diminutive Spaniard showed his mettle last week in Germany by ignoring the pain and riding to victory at the Sachsenring. Thankfully, the German circuit made things slightly easier due to its left-hand nature.
Laguna Seca follows a somewhat similar pattern, but it requires much more aggressive riding and Pedrosa was still feeling the aftereffects of his previous week's triumph. Thirty-two punishing laps around Laguna Seca's undulating layout would not come easily for him and Lorenzo.
Stoner, the current championship leader, had teased moments of invincibility earlier in the season, storming to four early-season wins. However, edge grip issues had made him seem mortal the last three times out, beaten straight up by Ben Spies, Lorenzo, and Pedrosa heading into Laguna Seca.
The pragmatic Australian didn't particularly play up his chances following qualifying either, admitting that he was concerned that he wouldn't have the race pace to contend for the win as the harder Bridgestone tires seemed less than ideal for his V4's set-up.
Whatever cracks they had showed in their game, they were considerably more put together than the rest of the star-studded field. Streaking away out front at the opening of Sunday's Grand Prix, Spies was immediately dropped off the chase when he was shuffled behind the legendary Valentino Rossi -- never an easy man to overtake even in his darkest days.
After the Italian was finally dispatched of, Spies was several seconds off not only the battle for first, but also the war for fourth being waged by Italian rivals Andrea Dovizioso and Simoncelli.
'Super Sic' made things a bit easier for the first-year factory Yamaha ace, crashing out of yet another contest and shifting the target firmly to Red Bull rider Dovizioso's back.
Up front, Lorenzo and Pedrosa shut out their aches and pushed hard, Jorge leading and Dani pushing him forward from second. Stoner clung on perilously in third, looking ready to retreat back into a lonely ride for the final spot on the podium as the Spaniards transformed this year's USGP into a test of fitness.
However, the Aussie had another trick up his sleeve. As it happened, his Repsol Honda crew had transformed his previously uncooperative racebike into a new machine overnight (literally) -- one that required a bit of patience but which would allow for a late-race strike for victory.
Stoner patiently allowed his bike to come good and once it did he took full advantage to register a pair of classic Laguna Seca overtaking maneuvers. He dropped teammate Pedrosa entering the famed Corkscrew on lap 18 of 32 and then closed immediately on the brave Lorenzo.
As hard as he tried to deny him, the Yamaha superstar proved relatively easy pickings for the rolling Stoner, who powered past to snatch away the lead around the outside of the intimidating blind Turn 1 on lap 27.
There was to be no answer. The Red Bull rider continued his torrid pace once in front and ultimately claimed the checkered flag with nearly six seconds to spare, even after wheeling across the stripe.
Lorenzo held on for a damage-minimizing second (he now trails Stoner by 20 points), while Pedrosa claimed an encouraging third.
Home track hero Spies threw his M1 up the inside of Dovizioso's Honda to close lap 30 and made it the season's four race winners in the day's top four positions.
"All weekend we've hadn't really been on the pace with Dani and Jorge consistently and I didn't feel we could consistently run that pace," Stoner admitted. "We worked on it pretty hard last night and we came up with two completely different bikes last night for the warm-up and fortunately both of them felt better than what we had before. We were a little bit more confident going into the race knowing no matter which bike we had a bike reasonably good enough to run with these guys.
"We felt a little bit more calm, a little bit more patient. It didn't really matter what happened at the start, just as long as we got the tires warmed up and didn't make any silly mistakes.
"The bike didn't feel good with a full tank of fuel so we had to wait for it to start coming down. Once it did we started feeling really feel confident. I just had to wait for them to make their mistakes or start to struggle with their rear grip because our bike started to feel better and better. We were really able to be patient."
For Lorenzo, second place -- even to his primary title rival -- was a remarkable result considering that he was writhing in pain on the pavement only twenty-some hours earlier and in fear that his weekend was over.
"I did my best," Lorenzo offered. "But Casey was getting better and better. He had something more, especially in this race to the end. Altogether, my physical condition and the rear tire, and Casey was so super, it made us slower. Today the most we could get was second position.
"To win the world title, the important thing is to finish in front of Casey. Today we tried but there are more races ahead. Things can change very soon."
Third-placed Pedrosa stated, "At the very beginning I was feeling good. Jorge was pushing very, very hard and I was trying to stay with him. By the middle of the race my arms were not so strong. I started to lower my lap time. I had to slow. But I am still very happy. It's my third race back and I am on the podium. I just have to work on my endurance and hopefully in the next races I can be stronger at the end."
Stoner's victory re-cemented his status as MotoGP's man of the moment. With five victories, a 20-point lead, and his 'losing streak' snapped in resounding fashion, Casey Stoner is firmly back on track.
And it doesn't hurt that four of six previous Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix winners during the MotoGP era have gone on to win the MotoGP World Championship crown -- Stoner included.
No one is ready to roll over for Stoner just yet, however, and Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Spies, and others such as Rossi and two-time USGP winner Nicky Hayden will have their say in front of American fans again yet this season. The MotoGP World Championship will return to U.S. soil on August 26-28 for the Red Bull Indianapolis GP.
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- Upcoming Moto GP Event: Red Bull Indianapolis GP
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- The Perfect Lap by Andrea Dovizioso