One record down, one to go. By qualifying on pole in just his second MotoGP race, at the age of 20 years and 61 days, Marc Marquez becomes the youngest premier class polesitter in history, deposing the legendary Freddie Spencer of the crown he has held for 31 years. On Sunday, Marc Marquez will go after the next target: the record as the youngest winner of a premier class Grand Prix, also held by Spencer. If he fails to win on Sunday - a very distinct possibility - he still has until Indianapolis to take Spencer's record, making it very far from safe.
Marquez' pole was the crowning glory of an utterly impressive weekend so far. The Repsol Honda youngster has dominated most of practice, leading his teammate by a quarter of a second or more in every session but one. He was immediately fast, but his race rhythm is just as impressive. In FP3, as grip on the track improved, Marquez cranked out 2'04s and 2'05s like they were going out of style. He was consistent, too. Not quite Jorge Lorenzo consistent, but he was running a pace that would have let him build up a lead, with only Dani Pedrosa able to stay close.
Marquez continues on the meteoric path blazed by the fastest riders in the world who went before. Casey Stoner always said about that truly exceptional riders are up to speed almost immediately, and this is exactly what Marquez has done. On the podium in his first race, on pole for his second and a strong favorite for the win, this is the mark of a true "Alien", to use a much-denigrated, but still useful phrase. His first MotoGP victory can't be far away.
The young Spaniard also learned a valuable lesson on Saturday morning: push too hard, too early on Bridgestone tires and you will find that they bite you. On his very first out lap in FP3, Marquez saved the front, only to have the rear slide and then bite, flinging him up into the air. He took a fair battering, landing heavily on his back, but still walking away. This, too, is MotoGP: pushing too hard on tires which are not quite up to temperature and you will find yourself with an aerial view of the environs of the track. Marquez had been seeking the limit, he said. He found it perhaps a little earlier than he had hoped.
Though Marquez' prowess is beyond reproach, he still needed a modicum of luck to retain pole. Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa was on a fast flying lap when he ran into Ben Spies, doing his best to get out of the way but coming up short. In one sector Pedrosa, the Spanish veteran lost all of the ground he had made on Marquez, and more, forced to settle for second place.
There is no dishonor in that, nor will it materially affect his shot at a podium. Pedrosa is quick, not quite as consistent as Marquez, but with a faster overall pace. "This race will be closer than you think," warned Cal Crutchlow, suggesting that Pedrosa can run with Marquez, and that Jorge Lorenzo may even be closer than many believe. Lorenzo himself is sanguine, understanding that a win in Texas is simply not possible, and determined to salvage as many points as he can. Given his metronomic consistency, a podium looks almost automatic, but then again, to quote Nicky Hayden's apt and oft-quoted line, "that's why we all line up on Sunday. You never know what's going to happen."
Where does Honda's advantage come from? Naturally, the extra drive out of the point-and-shoot corners which are a feature of the tricorne layout at the Circuit of The Americas is a big part, but Crutchlow pointed out that the Hondas are also really strong in braking at the circuit, traditionally one of the Yamaha M1's strongest points. "I can't believe how well they stop," Crutchlow commented after qualifying. When you're fastest both into and out of a corner, then you are going to be pretty hard to beat.
Crutchlow himself was playing down his chances, saying his goal remained the top six. Yet the Tech 3 Yamaha man once again impressed, taking 4th spot in qualifying ahead of both Stefan Bradl and Valentino Rossi, who tested at the track just a month ago. Crutchlow has had to learn the track on the first day, and now sits less than two tenths behind Lorenzo, and over a tenth ahead of Stefan Bradl.
The biggest challenge is going to be maintaining the kind of punishing pace necessarily for 21 laps. The track is so complicated that it is hard to keep the necessary intensity for that kind of duration. The first sector, with a sequence of nine corners all leading into each other before the hairpin at Turn 11, and a moment to catch your breath on the long back straight, is going to be toughest of all. Stringing five or six perfect laps together will be tough enough. Hammering out 21 in a row is nearly impossible.
This may give the struggling Valentino Rossi a chance to catch up, but the Italian faces a much tougher challenge here than he did in Qatar. There, he was competitive in free practice, but made a mistake in qualifying. At Austin, Rossi will start from the position he has been in more or less throughout practice. The Italian is struggling with the front end, and they have not yet been able to find a solution to his problem. They naturally have some ideas for warm up on Sunday morning, but Rossi regards a win as completely out of the question, and a podium as only a remote possibility.
Marquez' pole was not the only first at Austin. In Moto2, Scott Redding got his first ever Grand Prix pole, in either 125s or Moto2, after a sterling lap. The young Englishman is brimming with confidence, the pole exactly the boost he had needed. He has been second so often, he said after qualifying, that it was hard to believe he was finally at the front. Winning will not be so easy, however, as Takaaki Nakagami and Nico Terol are also fast. Pol Espargaro is further down the grid, but you have to count on the championship leader once the lights go out.
And in Moto3, Alex Rins stamped his authority on qualifying. Rins has impressed throughout testing, but at Austin, he has taken charge of the class, and is looking almost unbeatable. Nearly half a second quicker than Qatar victor Luis Salom, and seven tenths ahead of Maverick Viñales, Rins is coming into his own. He was highly tipped when he came into Moto3, and after a year of adapting, he is firmly in the groove. This is a young man with a very bright future indeed.