Home hero Nicky Hayden
has taken a lights-to-flag victory in the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, the Repsol Honda rider finally claiming his first ever MotoGP win after a faultless display that saw him fend off the dual attack of Yamaha stars Colin Edwards
and Valentino Rossi
under the bright Californian sun.
Qualifying had seen Hayden convert his dominant free practice pace into a first ever MotoGP pole - on his 38th attempt and after almost two and a half years of trying - as he used all his local knowledge to claim a significant 0.354secs advantage over world champion Rossi.
The factory Yamaha rider would set his best time with two laps to go, prior to which Hayden had held a near one-second lead over his nearest rival. Indeed, despite Rossi's late pressure, third on the grid Alex Barros
was left a worrying 0.642secs from the flying American.
That form would suggest that Hayden and Rossi would be the men to beat this afternoon, setting up a fascinating duel between the former team-mates - whose situations couldn't be more different: Hayden, now in his third year of MotoGP competition, desperately needed a first victory, while Rossi had won six of the last seven races and held a huge 63-point championship lead.
But the normally supreme Rossi had been made to look a little more human by the spectacular, and in places plain scary, Laguna Seca circuit - prompting some to question how much he would risk himself and his points lead today - while Hayden has, by contrast, never looked so fast and comfortable… a distinction underlined when Nicky led the morning warm-up, with Rossi just seventh.
However, with Yamaha's much publicised 50th Anniversary celebrations taking place this weekend - and The Doctor's considerable pride at stake - there was little chance of the Italian handing Hayden, or anyone else, what would be an historic first MotoGP victory in the USA.
Certainly, with third to ninth on the grid - Barros, Bayliss, Edwards, Hopkins, Biaggi, Checa and Tamada - covered by 0.4secs, the fight at the front would be hard to call. And what could Hayden's fellow countrymen Colin Edwards, John Hopkins
and Kenny Roberts
do for their home fans? Would Honda Pons team-mates Alex Barros
and Troy Bayliss repeat their practice form?
Before the race, many were warning that the one lap qualifying times were not an accurate representation of what would follow in the 32 lap race - with the steep uphill start, inevitable thrills 'n' spills and not least tyre endurance expected to shake up the order by the chequered flag. In short, anything and everything seemed possible.
And so, following a sombre one-minute silence in memory of the London bombing victims, the red lights went out - accompanied by the deafening sound of roaring engines and cheering fans - to mark the start of the first US GP since 1994 - and it was Hayden who had the honour of leading the 21-rider field up and over the steep turn one crest and into the double apex Andretti hairpin with Bayliss, Rossi, Hopkins, Checa, Gibernau, Edwards and a poor starting Barros in hot pursuit.