The first day of practice at the Circuit of The Americas was summed up with eloquent brevity by the headline of the press release issued by the RW Racing GP Moto3 team of Jasper Iwema and Jakub Kornfeil: "No grip in Texas." Despite the awesome facility, a fascinating and difficult track, and clear blue Texan skies, the times set by all three Grand Prix classes in Austin were a very long way off what had been expected, as the riders struggled to find any grip anywhere.
Why was the grip so low? The heavy rains from the previous day didn't help, washing any rubber that was on the track away. Not that there was much, on a track that has seen very little bike use in its short existence so far. Then there was the cool temperatures, with thermostats showing just 13°C in the morning, and a strong wind blowing away any heat the sun managed to get into the tarmac. "Like riding on ice," was the common consensus in the morning, with times some five and a half seconds off that set by Marc Marquez at the previous test back in mid March, at which conditions were far from ideal.
Three free practice sessions in the morning, a little less wind and a full day of sun worked wonders in the afternoon, with all three classes taking big chunks of time off their lap times from the morning. By the time the day had ended, all three classes were some three seconds or more faster than they started off. Tomorrow, most riders said, should be even better now there's more rubber on the track. Warmer temperatures should help too, as will the wind dropping off.
The contrast between the three classes was intriguing, once the riders had spent a morning learning which way the track went. Moto3 was dominated by the names you would expect to see: Maverick Viñales led comfortably, ahead of Alex Rins and Luis Salom. Moto2 was a little more surprising: Scott Redding topped the timesheets, quickly getting to grips with the new track, ending ahead of Xavier Simeon and Johann Zarco, both men known to excel in low-grip conditions.
That the five men who tested here a month ago should be topping the timesheets comes as no surprise, nor should it surprise anyone that the order between testing and the first day of practice is also unchanged. Three Hondas sit atop the times, with Marc Marquez unsurprisingly at the helm, and by an impressive margin. The rookie is over half a second quicker than his teammate Dani Pedrosa, and more than 1.1 seconds faster than third-place man Stefan Bradl. Jorge Lorenzo is just 4th, over 1.6 seconds behind Marquez, and over a second behind Pedrosa. Valentino Rossi is fifth, but he is only just quicker than Cal Crutchlow, who rode the circuit for the first time this weekend, and had not been at the test.
Marc Marquez is looking untouchable, though it is still a little early to be handing out trophies. The young Spaniard is clearly exception, but it is also clear that the stop-and-go nature of the Austin circuit favors the Hondas. With several hard acceleration points, it plays to the Honda's strengths, Marquez told the press. But it is more than just the bike. Fellow MotoGP rookie Bradley Smith put it succinctly and memorably: "The 93 is blowing everything out the water." Spectacularly fast, once again he is proving to be something special.
Dani Pedrosa is looking for more grip, and hoping to find it if the track improves on Saturday. He hopes to use his experience in the class to claw time back on Marquez, and bring the gap back down to manageable proportions. Jorge Lorenzo is less happy, the low grip punishing Yamaha right where they are strongest, in edge grip and carrying speed through the corners. A low grip track usually favors the Hondas, as they can use their ability to stop the bike, get it turned and then fire the thing out of the corner and make use of the blazing acceleration of the RC213V. That only works on stop-and-go type circuits; at more sweeping circuits, their strengths become a weakness.
The tires were also a problem for the Yamahas, with Lorenzo's team boss Wilco Zeelenberg saying that the tires looked almost untouched even after having close to full race distance put on them. This is in part because they are simply not warming up enough to work properly, a combination of the cold track and a lack of rubber to give the riders confidence to go hard into the corners, which in turn heats the tires and allows them to work better.
Though Lorenzo and Rossi were hoping for improvements to close the gap on the Hondas - which should come, if the higher temperatures improves tire grip - Rossi did not believe that they would get close enough to form a serious threat. Asked if he thought a podium was possible, or perhaps even a win, Rossi was adamant. "A win? No!" he told reporters. A podium was possible, though it would be difficult with three Hondas and his teammate faster than him on the first day, but victory looked to be out of the question.
Qualifying could prove crucial, everyone agreed, especially at a track with a lap of well over two minutes. The ideal is to have four flying laps in the new 15-minute qualifying sessions, but that would be tough. An out lap of 2'20, two fast laps of 2'04, 2'05, and an in lap of 2'20 takes over half the session already. Swapping tires, then another out lap leaves you with enough time for one fast lap, but the second will be hard to get in unless you take off out of the pits right off the bat. The trouble is, all 12 qualifiers will be trying to do the same, and so finding clear track that early will be difficult. The alternative is to wait for 30 seconds to get a clear track ahead of you. That may give you a better shot of a fast lap, but it almost guarantees you will only get three flying laps instead of four.
You have to be pretty confident to gamble on three flying laps being enough to secure a good grid slot, but the alternative is to risk getting caught up in traffic and coming up empty handed anyway. Expect there to be a real drag race to the first corner once the green lights go on for qualifying. One rider, maybe two, will get a shot at a clean and fast lap, the others are more likely to be getting in each others' way. On a technical track like Austin, being pushed off line for any length of time leaves you without a hope in hell of redemption. Qualifying at Austin should be an intriguing spectacle indeed. But first, let us see whether the weather is willing to play ball. The Circuit of The Americas is a remarkable facility. A surprise pole or front row would be fitting for the place.