World Superbike Laguna Seca Free Practice Report

Going faster

FP-2, second World Superbike practice, is about to start here at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. In it we will see again that riders go faster when they learn something new. In FP-1, riders went out with provisional settings on their bikes, settings based on previous races here. Riders re-familiarize themselves with the track and then begin to identify the various things standing between them and faster lap times.

It’s easy to imagine that this is a process of either “riding harder” or of “seat time”.

But we know that just riding harder leads to crashing. At a comfortable speed, a rider is in a rhythm that pushes close to limits without leading to small mistakes that take time to gather up. For example, if you think you can go deeper, but the only result is losing time by being forced to run wide on exit, that is an error which costs time.

Chaz Davies FP1 action
Chaz Davies, Racing-Ducati, Laguna Seca FP1.Courtesy of WorldSBK

As the rider pushes harder, mistakes inevitably become bigger, taking more time to correct, and what we see on the stopwatch at trackside is that the consistent lap times of the comfortable speed have given way to slightly faster times which have in some degree become more erratic. As the rider pushes harder yet, he makes larger errors until one of them is large enough to bring him down. This is why Valentino Rossi described the special NSR500 prepared for Alex Criville by saying “On this bike I can make one fast lap, but twenty-four laps are another story.” Going as deep into “the error zone” as a fast lap required on that bike was a process you could stay on top of for a lap, but not for a whole race.

Now the “seat time” theory of speed. One clubman said it this way; “When I get as much seat time as Kenny Roberts has, then I’ll be as fast as he is.” But in going to the races we meet people who just can’t give up the sport – some who have thousands of miles of racing in the Daytona 200 alone – far more than Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, and Eddie Lawson have together. Do they become faster the more miles they clock? No, sadly, the record shows that they have consistently become slower until they can no longer qualify.

Jonathan Rea FP1 action
Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing Team, Laguna Seca FP1.Courtesy of WorldSBK

Each time that a newcomer bursts upon the scene and sweeps all before him, seat time has clearly not been his secret. The secret has been some new appreciation of how to exploit evolving characteristics of machine, suspension, or tires. Roberts found a way to steer the new breed of front-heavy bike, explosive with two-stroke power, that was coming into being in 1974-78 (with the throttle!). Spencer taught himself a way to recover the front end on those front-heavy bikes – after it had lost grip on the way in (with the throttle!). Usually, the new techniques (like Stoner’s willingness to use the throttle when his bike was at full lean) flew in the face of what riders of that time considered normal and possible. This shows the truth of what engineer/rider Albert Gunter told a young Dick Mann over fifty years ago; “You can’t beat those guys by using their ideas – they’ve been working with ‘em a lot longer than you have. You have to have an edge – something nobody else has.”

That leaves us with this; you go faster when you learn something new.

Fourteen minutes into FP-2, Tom Sykes (Kawasaki), who was 10th at the end of FP-1, is second. Chaz Davies, on Ducati, is first, sliding in lovely front/rear balance, accelerating hard with back tire spinning but carrying close to 100% of vehicle weight. Lowes, who surprised us all not so long ago by putting the rather elderly GSX-R Suzuki up front despite its shortcomings, is 3rd on Yamaha.

Need more? Toni Elias, now on Yosh Suzuki in MotoAmerica, has won five races against the hot new Yamaha R1 that has dominated up to now. Elias identified problems, asked for powerband changes, and created changed circumstances in which he could lap consistently at race-winning speed. He knew what he needed to go fast. He did not “get lucky” (five times?). He did not “ride harder” (because “24 laps are another story”). He was not “just fast” (because he’s fast only when conditions suit him – no cold days, please).

Now, 40 minutes into the session, times have stabilized and the leaders are still Davies, Sykes, and Lowes.

Nicky Hayden, who was as high as second in FP-1 thanks to the deep knowledge and experience of this circuit that have given him wins here in the past, is now 7th. There is respect for that knowledge – as riders rolled out for FP-1 there were many taking “observer’s positions” behind Nicky.

Oops! Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki) has just jumped to the top.