As summer belatedly arrives in the United Kingdom, the MotoGP World Championship crosses the pond for a double header in the U.S.A which may prove to be a defining period in the season. Indianapolis is three weeks away but first, the ever-popular Laguna Seca.
The form man is unquestionably Jorge Lorenzo after as dominant a victory as you're likely to see at Mugello last time out. The Yamaha rider was beaten to turn one by Dani Pedrosa but led on the way out and that was the last time anybody saw him. The championship lead now stands at nineteen points, not insurmountable by any means but Repsol Honda can't let it get much bigger, and they know it.
The defending champions have taken a radical step to revitalise their season by introducing their 2013 chassis half a year early, the latest effort to overcome the chatter problem which is threatening to wreck Pedrosa and Casey Stoner's title dreams. Dani will have the new chassis available this weekend as well as an updated engine but his teammate will not be using the new chassis for now, citing rider comfort as the reason for snubbing it.
Surprisingly, the soon-to-be-retired Stoner is in danger of being cut adrift from the top two in the championship fight after another miserable afternoon in Italy. The Australian ended up touring through the gravel at one point before salvaging eighth, not enough to stop Lorenzo going 37 points clearer.
The omens aren't good for Casey when you consider that only once in the MotoGP era has a rider led at the halfway stage and failed to win the championship, when Pedrosa led eventual champion Valentino Rossi by four points in 2008. The statistic that will cause Stoner even greater concern is that no rider has ever come back to win a championship having trailed by the margin he does at present. Casey himself holds the record, when he came from 24 points back to take the title last year but no rider has come from further back to snatch the glory since MotoGP began.
Stoner did at least get the better of Lorenzo here last year, beating him with one of the moves of the season. A battered and bruised Lorenzo, who'd crashed heavily in Saturday Practice, led until the final six laps when Casey swooped around the outside of the Yamaha at turn one, the fastest corner on the circuit, to take the victory.
It may be the quickest corner on the circuit but the bend everyone talks about when they arrive in California is the Corkscrew, one of the most famous pieces of racetrack in the world. The riders plunge 109 feet from the steepest point to the lowest and bravery is just as valuable as skill when making the descent.
Cal Crutchlow has proven he has plenty in either department with his performances since breaking his ankle at Silverstone but the podium finish continues to elude him. His speed on a Saturday and Sunday is clear but lap one is proving a stumbling block with the Briton having to come from behind on a regular basis. Can he race at the front from the start this time?
Crutchlow looks set for another tight tussle with two of the other Yamaha riders in the field, Andrea Dovizioso and Ben Spies. Both will be happy to concentrate on the racing with their futures the topic of much discussion. Spies has made his position clear after announcing he will leave the factory Yamaha squad and he explained the reasons in today's press conference.
“There's a litany of reasons behind it – just getting back to stress-free and doing what I want to do and finish out the season strong. That's all that's going to be said about it at this point until I'm ready to talk about the future. It's not going to change anything. For sure, especially at Laguna we're going to give 100 per cent and we want to do what we're capable of doing and what the bike's capable of doing for the team. Nothing changes from that standpoint. I just made a decision, and wanted to get it off my chest and out of the way. Now that we've done that now I feel like the weight of the world is off my shoulders and I can do what I set out to do.”
Dovizioso has desires on the vacant seat at Yamaha but he may face competition from a familiar face. Speculation is growing that Valentino Rossi, winner of four world titles for the Japanese manufacturer, is in talks regarding a move back to the team, something the Ducati rider didn't deny when asked about his future on Thursday.
“I still haven't decided, as it is a bit too early. I have spoken a lot with Ducati about next year, but still waiting for some important ties and some important things on the contract. And I also have some other options for next year. But I think the situation will be clearer in the next weeks, and I think in the summer break I will decide about next year.”
Rossi's on track challenge will be to take his current team closer to the front, with two-time Laguna winner Nicky Hayden looking to do likewise. It's all change as far as the satellite Ducatis are concerned though with Karel Abraham making a welcome return for Cardion AB Motoracing but Hector Barbera, so impressive at Mugello, isn't here after breaking his leg in a training accident. That hands an unlikely opportunity to Toni Elias, two weeks after splitting from the Aspar Moto2 team.
The satellite Honda riders remain unchanged but Stefan Bradl faces arguably his biggest challenge so far on his LCR Honda, vacated by Elias at the end of 2011. As reigning Moto2 champion, Bradl didn't have the chance to race here last year and will start from square one when Friday Practice gets underway.
One rider has an even bigger mountain to climb as Steve Rapp makes his Grand Prix debut as a wildcard entrant. The 40 year old will be racing for Attack Performance team on an in-house built CRT machine. Don't expect him to trouble the Aspar ARTs at the head of that particular class but making the grid at all will be a triumph for the American, who alongside Colin Edwards, takes the home contingent to four riders.