Can Anyone Stop Rea in Laguna Seca?

This weekend, the 2018 Superbike World Championship heads to California, and the Laguna Seca circuit, home of the famous “Corkscrew”. Negotiating turns eight and nine efficiently this weekend will be critical to achieving a good result, but the puzzle of Laguna Seca is not only limited to its most famous section. Coming over the crest of a hill at turn one on full lean angle and at around 160mph gives a breath-taking start to the lap, which leads straight into the second turn at the double-apex Andretti Hairpin. The complexity of this section means mistakes are inevitable across the weekend, so minimising having a setting to give good confidence when braking on angle is essential for this part of the track. Then the circuit flows right into turns three and four. Three is merely a kink, but it is important to take a good line to be able to make a good turn four. At the same time, in the race, the layout of this part of the track means that the fastest line also leaves you open to a pass, so finding the right compromise will be important in the early laps.

Turn five is a fairly simple, flat right hander, but the radius combined with the relative lack of camber means that it is easy to get sucked in, but the important thing here is the corner exit, because there is then a reasonably long run to turn six through the un-numbered right kink. There is a lot of camber to offer a lot of support in turn six, meaning there is potential for a pass. Turn seven is very fast, on the left side of the tyre. As Always the riders are on the limit of the track boundaries on the exit, and track boundaries in Laguna are enforced not by the Race Direction but by the run-off areas themselves, which are largely gravel – rest easy Mr. Haydon. After the run down the Corkscrew, it is the tricky Rainey Corner, where the riders push the front hard as the downhill run continues before another heavily cambered corner at the penultimate turn. Finally, the last corner is the best overtaking spot, as highlighted by Eugene Laverty in 2013, but as Casey Stoner showed in the MotoGP race back in 2008, it is also quite easy to make a race-deciding mistake at turn twelve.

Image courtesy of Honda Pro racing

Chaz Davies best mastered the Californian circuit in race one last year, which was a remarkable victory, only two weeks after he was run over by Jonathan Rea in Misano race one. This year, it is not physical issues which have the potential to hinder Davies this weekend, but rather problems with the bike. Davies has struggled since Imola, and especially in Donington and Brno. In Donington, Davies suffered his worst weekend of the season, missing the podium in both races; then, in Brno he suffered again, but with some crashes in race two he was able to make the podium. Laguna has been a good track for both Davies and the Panigale in recent seasons, and the Welshman will be hoping to make a return to the top step.

It was Jonathan Rea who took victory in the second Laguna Seca race last year, and the form he is in at the moment would suggest another double could be coming the way of the new ‘most victorious’ rider in World Superbike history. He took that record from Carl Fogarty in race one in Brno two weeks ago, but contact with his KRT teammate Tom Sykes left him as a spectator from lap three in the second race. The frustration from the incident was put to one side, though, as he put pen to paper on a new two-year deal to pilot the ZX-10RR until 2021. As for this weekend, Rea and Davies have been the two to beat around Laguna since 2015, and with the Welshman currently in a difficult moment, this weekend could well be a Johnny Rea domination.

But maybe Marco Melandri can take it to the reigning World Champion. He should have won race two in Brno but made a mistake at turn three which put him out of contention. Melandri made the podium last year in race two, and may prove to be the only rider with any hope of stopping Rea taking yet another double. However, if his instability issues reappear this weekend, Melandri could have a bigger problem in Laguna than anywhere else – few places require total confidence, especially in the front end, as the Weathertech Raceway.

What about Sykes? Well, he took two wins in Laguna – one in 2013 on his way to the championship, and the other in 2014 when he shared the winning that day with Melandri, the last time the Italian won in Laguna. He took a pair of second places in 2015 behind Chaz Davies and in front of Rea both times, before he took a third US win in 2016. A podium was followed by a crash two weeks ago, and with his record in Laguna Seca, this weekend could offer an opportunity for Sykes to expand on his solitary victory of 2018 so far.

Perhaps the biggest question for this weekend is: what can the Yamahas do? Three race wins out of the last four races, across both riders, and including a double for Michael van der Mark in Donington one month ago leave the R1s under significantly more pressure to perform and achieve big results, especially with the Ducati riders having fairly large question marks over the heads of their competitiveness, as well as Sykes. The Pata Yamaha riders could be the biggest contenders to Rea this season, ad they have to be in a good position to be able to try to challenge the championship leader.

The Aprilias could also have something to say this weekend, with Eugene Laverty making good progress at Brno a couple of weeks back, taking a sixth in race one and a fourth in race two. He was backed up, too, by Lorenzo Savadori who, despite having a bonfire underneath his rear tyre for most of both races, managed to shadow his Milwaukee Aprilia teammate to take seventh in race one and fifth in race two. Coming here, Laverty was confident of being able to achieve podium results, and the progress in the last races would point towards being able to get near that. Maybe they are quite far away, still, but with some luck they might be able to get themselves on the box. Laguna has been a good circuit for Laverty in the past. He only has two podiums, but has only ever raced there once on competitive machinery, in 2013 (when both podiums came), including a stunning win in the second race that year.

There are also three Americans on the grid this weekend: the two WSBK regulars, Triple M Honda’s PJ Jacobsen and Red Bull Honda’s Jake Gagne; and the wildcard Josh Herrin on a Yamaha.

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