I woke up on a new Ducati: a day at raceway Laguna Seca
To witness the Ducati Desmosedici racing bike pass you at 165 miles per hour with just a concrete barrier separating you can — if caught unaware — cause you to thoroughly shit yourself.
This past weekend I was at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the Red Bull MotoGP, one of the three Grand Prix events held in the United States and among the Grand Prix’s 18 contests held throughout the world. It would be the first time I would experience a MotoGP race, and the first time I would see the Desmosedici race at incomprehensible speeds. Built by a group of elite engineers within the inner sanctum of the Ducati factory in Bologna, the racing bike has a V4 four-stroke engine with 235 horsepower and their patented Seamless Transmission. All told, that’s enough for the Desmosedici to top speeds of 205 miles-per-hour.
“This is the perfect bike for Ducati,” said Juan Martinez, a race engineer for Ducati Corse racer Nicky Hayden, an American who was the 2006 Grand Prix World Champion.
Since 2003, the Desmosedici has been the standard bike for Ducati Corse, the motorcycle maker’s racing team. The name for the bike — ”Desmo” for desmodromic and “sedici”, Italian for sixteen — highlights the Desmosedici’s sixteen desmodromic valves (four per cylinder).
In 2008, they decided to develop a street legal version of the Desmosedici: The Desmosedici RR. The bike had a 989cc engine with 200 horsepower, and featured Ducati’s unique Desmodromic valve system, which “actuates valve closure mechanically,” ensuring exact valve timings at every speed. But only 1,500 were ever produced, and was discontinued thereafter to preserve its exclusivity and desirability. Today, the model Ducati offers that most resembles the Desmosedici is the Superbike 1199 Panigale R. The horsepower and weight are virtually the same, and the design of the Panigale is equally as flawless. These and other models from its past — including the Sport 1000, Paul Smart 1000, and Multistrada 1200 Pikes Peak — were on display a day before the race on Ducati Island, their sprawling tent at Laguna Seca.
And while these mechanical marvels were a sight to behold, the most thrilling part of Laguna Seca remained on the track.
There are 11 turns throughout the 2.238 mile-long course. Its most notable, if not daunting turn is the Corkscrew at Turn 8. Here riders encounter an 18 percent drop in elevation, the equivalent of five-and-a-half stories over a length of 450 feet. As the rider approaches Turn 9, he has descended over 10 stories, with sharp turns both left and right in Turns 8 and 8A. It can be a perilous to say the least.
“This is really a track where if you make one little mistake, you can just ruin the rhythm of the track,” said Ben Spies, the Texas-born racer for Ducati who was sitting out this year’s Grand Prix with a shoulder injury.
Spies, then racing for Yamaha’s factory team, fell victim to the infamous turn during the 2012 Grand Prix as he was entering Turn 9. “Last year on the Corkscrew when I was coming down, the rear shock actually broke on the bike,” he said. “So that didn’t end up too well.”
Hayden had a successful run in 2005 and 2006, winning his first MotoGP race at Laguna Seca in 2005 while racing for Repsol Honda. But since joining Ducati in 2009, he has not placed higher than seventh in the MotoGP world championship. And days before the race he announced that he would not be re-signing with Ducati, perhaps spelling an early retirement from racing altogether.
Moments before the race was to begin, Hayden was on the grid, sitting stoically on his bike as a fetching blonde held an umbrella over his head. Just a few feet in front of him sat Valentino Rossi, his former Ducati teammate and 7-time Grand Prix world champion. “The Doctor”, as Rossi is nicknamed and has scrawled cartoonishly across his ass, crouched in deep meditation as the Yamaha factory team’s umbrella babe kept him in the shade. To his left was the actor Josh Brolin, who was crouched on the ground and taking pictures of Rossi with his iPhone. Brolin spent a long time watching Rossi, and for a while it seemed like he was genuflecting to the Italian racing star. Whatever it was, it worked. Rossi would eventually go on to take third place in the race.
As for Hayden, his struggles continued and he finished eighth, his brakes failing him for two laps. He was able to restore control but maintained a close distance with teammate Andrea Dovizioso — so close that for a moment the two even touched.
“It was an extremely close moment, and when I went into turn two, my folding clutch lever had pivoted up and my handlebar tweaked,” Hayden said afterwards. “I couldn’t use the lever to back-shift and went through the turn in fourth gear, then it took me a little bit to get used to the new position.”
Besting Hayden and Rossi was Marc Marquez, the petite Spanish rider racing for Repsol Honda. He would become the first ever rider to win Laguna Seca in his first race at the racetrack.
The victory suited Marquez well. At the Red Bull after party at the Cannery Row Brewing Company, the 20-year-old Spaniard was sitting at a private table with a gigantic bottle of Grey Goose that stood as tall as the champion himself. Women of every age and bust surrounded Marquez, all vying to meet him. The men — young and burly and wearing flat-brimmed caps that matched the rest of their slovenly attire — all tried to to snap cameraphone pictures of him on the sly.
Just think: the women, the complimentary bottle service, the bikes; Marquez was living an adolescent’s wet dream. I did not see Hayden at the party. Perhaps he saw Marquez celebrating the victory on the podium at Laguna Seca and later in the Cannery Row Brewing Company, and perhaps it was the motivation he needed win another MotoGP. With the Desmosedici, anything is possible.