From Donington Park to Laguna Seca: The American MotoGP Experience
In 2005 I went to watch a MotoGP race at Donington Park. My brother was an avid fan, my uncle and cousin likewise, but I knew little about the sport. It chucked it down and we were drenched – it was a British sporting event in the summer after all. But sat facing the daunting Craner Curves, I witnessed something special that day. The control the riders somehow had in atrocious conditions beggared belief; I was gripped (aah what a pun). One rider in particular though, Valentino Rossi, caught the eye with a breathtaking victory – highlights fail to do the event and its trepidations justice, but they are still well worth a watch if you can get hold of them.
Since then I have followed the sport closely; there have been World Titles for Honda’s Nicky Hayden and Ducati’s Casey Stoner, as well as a couple more for Rossi, and countless epic on-track contests that have blown my mind – notably Stoner and Rossi at Laguna Seca in 2008, and then Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo in the Catalan Grand Prix a year later. I have also been back to Midlands track each year since, memorably witnessing Scott Redding’s remarkable victory in the 125cc class at a very windy Donington in 2008 as he became the youngest rider to ever win a Grand Prix Motorcycling event.
This year, however, I branched out and headed across the pond to California and the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. I was travelling in the area anyway, so I thought it would be the perfect excuse to sample the American experience of top level motorbike racing. So, here’s my take on how Laguna Seca compares with Donington Park with regards to raceday experience.
For the Fans…
When we used to go to Donington we used to pre-buy our tickets; the one year we didn’t, we were stung with ridiculously high per-ticket credit card charges to buy at the gate. It was quite a relief, therefore, that there were no such charges when it came to buying my Laguna Seca ticket on the day. Furthermore, the transport system put in place for the weekend at Laguna was far superior to what has previously been on offer at Donington – where, for instance, in our first year it took nearly five hours to get out of the car park! At Laguna, they commandeer the nearby California State University at Monterey Bay (CSUMB) campus and car parks, operating a regular and free shuttle bus that takes you from your car straight to the track, and back again, in no time at all.
Once at the track it was very much honours even. One’s first glimpse of the Mazda Raceway is just what you want – up close is the start/finish straight in what seems ridiculous proximity, with a view of a couple of other corners around the track in the distance.
Once over the track and into the in-field, it is very much resemblant of Donington Park. Hoards of folk busily making their way from hot-dog stand to official merchandise tents, the occasional glimpse of a rider surrounded by a throng of photographers and fans, and most notably, that unmistaking buzz of excitement and anticipation. The Paddock Girls weren’t half bad either…
Laguna Seca also has a cracking Ducati Island and Yamaha Marketplace where the big brands of the motorcycle industry show off their products and offer you plenty of their merchandise too. Donington has this too, but it seems more formulaic and less spontaneous than Laguna’s equivalent; not least when you listen to an impromptu beat-box contest whilst staring at some absurdly shiny (and no doubt equally absurdly priced) motorbikes. It is all rather fun.
With regards to the actual circuit, Laguna Seca has the Corkscrew whilst Donington Park has the Craner Curves. Both are equally challenging and highly respected by all in the racing world… phenomenal corners to watch bikes race through.
Stoner’s view of the most challenging section at Donington is rather clear: ‘The first part of the track is really tough, with the long, downhill Craner Curves and then up to the Old Hairpin, where you’re braking with the bike leaned over, moving around all over the place‘. One only has to look at the Corkscrew to recognise the significant elevation changes (roughly a 60ft drop in one left-right corner) that make this one of the most feared turns on the MotoGP calendar. To attempt to compare such equally impressive signature corners would be doing both a crass disservice.
Perhaps the real highlight of the Laguna Seca experience is the views on offer from the somewhat sizeable hill that sits in the middle of the circuit. From this cracking vantage point, where many spectators convene, you can see the bikes run through turns 10 and 11, heading on to the start/finish straight before entering turns 1 and 2, the latter of which is a hairpin which doubles back in to turns 3, 4 and 5. Seven corners all visible from one spot – kudos, Laguna Seca. Kudos indeed. The video embedded below should give you an idea of the views on offer:
All in all, I’d have to say that given the far superior transport infrastructure and potential to see over half of the track from just one place, Laguna Seca just about edges it over Donington for the fans’ race experience. But only just…
There’s a cracking vibe at both race tracks really. The crowd take up their seats throughout the morning, and by the time the racing starts their is barely a patch of ground left unclaimed. The only real difference pre-race was that whilst at Donington you get a fly-by from the local airport (usually big Jumbos or Airbuses etc), at Laguna they send down a couple of sky-divers to wow the crowd.
Oh, that and the American National Anthem. The American public are renowned for their ferverous patriotism, and when the anthem commenced, all rose at once, hats removed, several hands were on hearts, to belt out the words to The Land of the Free. It was quite stirring I must admit, not least when the final words gave way to patriotic cheering and whooping, all topped off with a fly-by from an F-16. Quite something indeed…
The Support Races…
Only one winner here – Donington Park. But this is down to the fact that Laguna Seca is the only circuit on the MotoGP calendar where the traditional Moto2 and 125cc Grand Prix support races / junior categories (and Red Bull Rookies) do not race. Something to do with Californian polution laws I believe. Not to do a disservice to the AMA Pro American Superbikers (and others) that support at the Mazda Raceway, but there is something to be said for MotoGP’s normal support races where you can see the stars of the future battle it out and a chance to further gauge their progress.
The comedy contest is comfortably won by Laguna Seca, however, thanks to the FIM e-Power International Championship – a ten lap race for electric motorbikes. Although they go at a decent speed, the fact that the batteries are not powerful enough to last more than ten laps is one thing, the fact that they sound no more aggressive than a beard trimmer quite something else! Everyone had a right laugh, not least when the race winner revealed he had a moped-esque beeper attached which he used to toot the crowd in celebration.
The Main Event: The MotoGP Race…
Whilst ‘lunch’ was in session on raceday I took the time to wander around as much of the circuit as possible in order to gauge the best vantage point to watch the race. At Donington we used to plump for the signature corner, the Craner Curves, so doing the same at Laguna Seca meant the Corkscrew for me. I considered the panoramic vantage point on the hill, but the proximity to the bikes at the Corkscrew made it a rather easy choice.
The main talking point pre-race had been nine-times World Champion and fan favourite Valentino Rossi’s supposed recovery from a displaced compound fracture of his right tibia and other shoulder injuries suffered earlier in the season at Mugello, Italy. He missed four races as a consequence, and whilst still struggling from the injuries suffered, he was some way off his very high standards in his comeback races. Sadly for MotoGP, coupled with Casey Stoner’s early-season bike issues, it meant that Rossi’s teammate Jorge Lorenzo was (deservedly) waltzing his way towards his first premier class title.
Lorenzo topped the time sheets in Free Practice 2 and duly took pole, two tenths ahead of Stoner, with Honda pair Andrea Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa third and fourth, home favourite Ben Spies fifth, and Rossi in sixth, over seven tenths back from his pole-sitting Yamaha teammate. It was no surprise to see Lorenzo top the Warm Up time sheets on the Sunday morning then.
Into the race (click this link for the official race video) and, as ever, Dani Pedrosa claimed an early lead; the Spaniard’s comparatively light frame helping him get off the line quicker than his rivals. Watching the bikes stream through the Corkscrew on the first lap was quite the sight to behold (see below), raw power tamed as the riders negotiated the left-right with a fifty-foot drop.
However, Pedrosa isn’t too popular with the American bike-loving public for whatever reason, so it was no surprise to hear a chorus of cheers erupt when he binned it early on in the race under relatively minor pressure from the chasing pair of Lorenzo and Stoner. Lorenzo had moments earlier passed Stoner, and he held his position until the race’s conclusion – a somewhat anticlimactic battle for the victory if I’m being honest.
The four-way battle for the final podium spot, however, was anything but, with Dovizioso, Rossi, Spies and Nicky Hayden all swapping places throughout the race. The American crowd had three of these riders as ‘favourites’, with one being the always-loved Rossi and the latter two being American, and consequently didn’t know who to cheer for when lap-by-lap a different rider came round leading the foursome. Poor old Dovi was probably the only one without support.
Rossi, in spite of his ailments, managed to claim the final podium spot ahead of Dovizioso, Hayden and Spies, with just 5.5 seconds covering the four riders at the finish. It was a remarkable feat from the Italian just seven weeks after his fall at Mugello.
Further back, Marco Simoncelli had a minor off-track excursion in front of us at the Corkscrew whilst dicing with his San Carlo Honda Gresini teammate Marco Melandri, whilst affable Texan Colin Edwards found himself in a lonesome race of one for seventh place, twenty seconds behind sixth and nearly ten clear of eighth.
Lorenzo celebrated the victory right in front of us at the Corkscrew – he traditionally ‘claims’ race tracks he wins at as ‘Lorenzo’s Land’ – with a nod to all things American by donning a space suit and helmet and planting his flag in the gravel in slow motion / moon walk style. The crowd loved. Heck, I did too. Such showmanship, learned off the master Rossi, is very American… so no wonder it went down well. It was rather fitting, I must say…
Laguna Seca: The American MotoGP Experience…
So, how do they compare? Both are cracking events, and it is just such a shame that the British Grand Prix has now been relocated to Silverstone. Both Donington Park and Laguna Seca have cracking signature corners that add to the experience of the race; you feel you’re not just at any ordinary race thanks to these corners.
Laguna Seca seemed to have a far superior transport infrastructure in place, and thanks to the large hill in the middle you can take in no less than seven turns at once should you so wish. That’s not to do Donington a disservice, however, for sitting opposite the Craners you can take in turn two, the Craner Curves, and the Old Hairpin before watching the bikes disappear off through Starkey’s – an experience just as remarkable, but closer to the action. Pre-race entertainment is shaded by the patriotic Americans, but for a fan of actual MotoGP racing you’re better off heading to Donington Park where you’ll see the Moto2 and 125cc Grand Prix support races.
A real stand-out memory for me was experiencing the crazy elevation changes at Laguna Seca – making your way to the top of the hill was one knackering endeavour. That and the fact you get decent weather in the States I guess. But overall, I enjoyed the Laguna Seca experience just as much as my previous Donington Park ones. If you like MotoGP, or just motorsport for that matter, than you’ll struggle to do much better than a visit to one of these fine race tracks.