Lessons From The Austin Test: Marquez' Star Rises, Rossi's Starts to Wane
So the three days of testing at Austin are over, and what did we learn? That Marc Marquez is something special? We knew that, though we didn't perhaps realize just how special. That Yamaha really need to find more acceleration? This, too, was known, but becoming clearer every time the M1 goes up against the Honda RC213V on track. That Valentino Rossi's return does not equate to an automatic 8th MotoGP title? We suspected as much.
The first thing that became obvious is that the Austin circuit itself is pretty decent. Valentino Rossi described it as "a typical Tilke track, with corners that remind you of Shanghai and Turkey." Unsurprising, given that Herman Tilke, who also designed Shanghai, Istanbul and many other race tracks around the world, was responsible for designing the track. The input from Kevin Schwantz was helpful, though, making the track more like Istanbul than Shanghai. The circuit has a couple of highly technical sections, where you go in blind and need to have memorized which way the track goes. It is wide, giving opportunities for overtaking and braking, and has a couple of the fast, fast sweepers which motorcycle racers love.
It also has a couple of tight corners, leaving the bike in low gear with a lot of acceleration to do. This, it became apparent, favors the Hondas, the RC213V strongest off the bottom, and capable of pulling a gap. Acceleration issues will be a problem for Yamaha this year, unless Masahiko Nakajima and his fellow engineers can find some extra grunt out of the corners. The situation was similar in 2012, but Yamaha was helped by the problems the Hondas had with chatter. So far, the Repsol Honda men have remained silent on the issue, meaning the worst of it is over. Yamaha have their work cut out, and Jorge Lorenzo's second title defense could be a little too reminiscent of his previous one in 2011.
A visit to a new track reveals more than just what the track layout is like on a racing motorcycle. It also levels the playing field for younger riders: the veterans of the class can no longer rely on the secrets they have learned at tracks they have tens of thousands of testing miles at. The track is the same for everyone, and experience is no longer relevant: it is much, much more about talent.
Talent is something which Marc Marquez quite clearly has in abundance. The Spaniard was dogged throughout his Moto2 career by accusations of his success being down to having the best bike, his team bending the rules, and a host of other excuses. At Austin, those excuses do not hold. He leaves the test having dominated all three days of testing, something a rookie - this was day 9 through 11 for Marquez on a MotoGP bike, as opposed to the hundreds and thousands the other riders there have had - simply should not be able to do. Marquez' first task is to learn to ride the bike, to understand its secrets and find ways of extracting the final hundredths of a second from the bike. It seems he has already done this - though he is still learning, and his team are nowhere near arriving at a final race set up for the Spaniard while he is still finding the limits. Casey Stoner left huge boots to fill at Repsol Honda; so far, Marquez is filling them very comfortably.
Two photos tell the tale of Marquez' talent. At the first test at Sepang, photos appeared of Marquez' Alpinestars leathers with holes worn in the elbows, despite the elbow protectors. Alpinestars' "mistake" was to assume that Marquez was as fast as other riders, and would occasionally drag his elbow in a corner. They underestimated both his ability and his style, Marquez doing things on the bike which are not really supposed to be possible. At Austin, more photos appeared of his leathers, Alpinestars having applied their ingenuity to the problem by adding titanium sliders over the patch where the Repsol Honda man was wearing through his leathers. That helped a lot, but even then, Marquez is wearing through the titanium sliders at a worrying rate. Racing leathers manufacturers back riders because they wish to associate themselves with talent. They chose wisely.
While Marquez is already challenging his teammate, Valentino Rossi is as yet no match for Jorge Lorenzo. The Italian had spent time at Sepang confirming to himself that he can still ride a motorcycle as fast as he used to, and then worked on adjusting the bike to try and understand how it reacts to changes. All that went to plan, but Rossi has a problem. While he was at Ducati, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa were getting faster and faster, pushed on to no small extent by Casey Stoner. While Rossi was desperately trying just to keep his head above water at Ducati, Lorenzo and Pedrosa were striking off in search of shores unknown, and now that Rossi is back on a bike he understands, he is in danger of losing sight of the Spanish duo - better make that a trio, given Marquez' incredible debut so far.
There is a golden rule in motorcycle racing of the last 15 or so years: Never, ever, ever count out Valentino Rossi. That rule showed a few cracks while he was at Ducati, and now that he is back on a Yamaha, he should be able to at least paper over the cracks. But given how the game has moved on in the past two seasons, the ground rules have changed, and though it may be foolish to write Rossi off for victory at any given race, he is looking exceptionally vulnerable in terms of the championship. Rossi has not once been faster than his teammate throughout testing, nor has he been faster than Pedrosa. Indeed, only once has the Italian been quicker than Marc Marquez throughout testing. Though doubtless Rossi will improve once racing gets underway, that is likely still to leave him behind the three Spaniards.
Of course, it is still only testing. In less than a month's time, the MotoGP season kicks off at Qatar. There will be nowhere to hide, no sandbagging, no "I was just testing some stuff". Once the flag drops, the production of bovine manure stops, as the expression has it. Before then, three days of testing are to take place at Jerez, a track everyone knows like the back of their hands, and where the focus will shift to finalizing a race set up. So far, the 2013 season has the makings of being something a little bit special.