2013 Austin MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Of Record Breakers, Deserved And Undeserved Attention, and Banquo's Ghost
Another day, another record. Marc Marquez now takes the place of Freddie Spencer as both the youngest rider ever to take a premier class pole, and youngest rider ever to win a premier class Grand Prix. If you had any doubt that Marquez is something special, then the inaugural round of MotoGP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas should have removed it. Marquez is on the path which all great riders take, scoring a podium in his first race, pole and a win in his second. This is what preternaturally talented riders do: learn fast, and race fast, and win soon.
The manner of Marquez' win was what was most impressive. Together with his team, the Spaniard elected to run the harder rear tire, holding station when everyone else (except for fellow Honda rider Stefan Bradl) chose the softer of the two options. After overshooting the start, he slotted in behind his Repsol Honda teammate - a rider in his 8th season of MotoGP - evaluated how wear was affecting his rear tire, then pushed hard to pass Pedrosa in a strong and gutsy move through turns 5 and 6. He then nursed a front tire that had developed a minor problem home to take his maiden win in MotoGP, and take two of Spencer's records, both of which had stood since 1982. His win was not just a matter of talent, but also of great maturity, and of having the backing of arguably the strongest crew in the paddock.
Both Marc Marquez and his father Julian were keen to put his victory into perspective. "People remember the records as they are today, now," Julian Marquez told me, when I asked about it. "What you have to remember is that one day, a rider will come along and beat Marc's record. And from that day on, nobody will remember it was Marc who once held the record," he said, before adding rather ominously "what they will remember is who won the championship."
Marc's father also pointed out that his son had had plenty of time to break the record, as he was still 133 days younger than Freddie Spencer. And here he touches upon an interesting point: Marquez won at Austin because he is an exceptional talent, of course, but also because the Austin circuit clearly favored the Hondas. The Repsol Honda man had dominated the tests here last month, and pretty much dominated all of practice and qualifying. This was clearly a track that suited both him and his bike, given the strength of the Hondas at the test and the weekend.
This points to the dangers of putting too much stock in records: if the Austin race had taken place in October or November, Marquez may have had to wait for much longer for his first win. From Qatar to Jerez to, say, Laguna Seca, the first half of the MotoGP season is at tracks which favor the Yamaha, by and large (though Hondas have won a fair few races at those circuits). Had Austin been later in the year, Spencer's race win record may have endured, though his pole record was always like to fall early. Records are susceptible to the hands of fate; they are ephemeral. World championships are set in stone, and last forever.
Though Marquez finished ahead of his teammate, Dani Pedrosa was sanguine after the race. Qatar had been a major worry, not being able to be competitive all weekend, so to come to Texas and be in with a shot of the win was a giant confidence builder. Taking nothing away from his teammate - "Marc was super today," Pedrosa said at the press conference - Pedrosa said he had struggled with a fatigue cramp in his left triceps, making turning from right to left a problem. It was a fitness problem he needed to work on, he conceded, as other tracks with a lot of strong left-handed braking zones were coming up later in the season.
Where Jorge Lorenzo should have been elated, he ended the race with a sense of frustration. He had not expected to be so close to the front runners, after struggling with grip all weekend. To get within a couple of seconds of Marquez and Honda was more painful than being beaten by over ten seconds, Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg explained, when there is nothing you can do about it. Maybe, with another day at the track, Lorenzo could have run the pace of the two Hondas, and challenged for 2nd, or maybe even 1st. Knowing that a much better result was possible made things worse.
The change in competitiveness had come when Lorenzo's team decided to gamble on a revised gearbox strategy, shortening second gear on his factory Yamaha M1 so that he could use second to get around the hairpins and get better drive out of them. It had been a gamble during warm up which had paid off - "you've normally tried all the variations of set up, so in the warm up you try something a bit more off the wall," Zeelenberg explained. It paid off, getting Lorenzo much closer than he had expected to be. But not quite close enough.
Three seconds behind Lorenzo, Cal Crutchlow crossed the line in what he regarded as possibly his best race in MotoGP. He had been fast, consistent and made only one mistake, running wide when he attempted to pass Stefan Bradl. But even that had been forgivable: better to run wide when trying to pass, than not to try to pass at all. Once past the German, Crutchlow ramped up his rhythm, and for much of the second half of the race, he was the fastest man on the track.
What is remarkable about Crutchlow's achievement is that he did it without any testing - he finished ahead of both Stefan Bradl and Valentino Rossi, who had both tested at the track previously, and after a fire caused massive problems for the Tech 3 squad on Thursday, including damaging a set of tire warmers so they only worked on one side of the tire, not both, a difficulty spotted in time by the Bridgestone technicians. Crutchlow started the race at Austin with a minimum of preparation. Yet he still ended up fourth in the race.
Crutchlow's enjoyment was dampened by the fact that no one came to his press debrief after the race. A combination of an overly long press conference, and a timing clash with Valentino Rossi, whose debrief had been hastily rescheduled with complete disregard to the previously agreed schedule, drawn up so that as many journalists as possible got to speak to as many riders as possible. A group of journalists gathered to hear the man who came 6th, ten seconds behind Crutchlow, but no one came to see Crutchlow, who had just ridden one of the best races of his career. The media are a fickle mistress, more interested in fame than in actual achievement.
What the journalists who went to speak to Rossi did learn is that the reason he finished so far down the field was in part a brake problem, where a chip from one of his disks had come off, causing a vibration under braking. The other part - and perhaps at least as significant - was that they had tried a radically revised weight distribution during the warm up, which had turned out to work quite well. So in the race they went even further, but that proved to be a step too far. Rossi was simply never in contention this weekend. He will be hoping for better at Jerez, a track he likes and a track where he is fast. Though not as fast as Crutchlow in the test.
Three more performances are worthy of mention. Firstly, Aleix Espargaro, who is getting in among the tail enders of the satellite bikes on his CRT machine. Espargaro took eleventh spot, ahead of Bradley Smith and Ben Spies, and not that far off the time of the tenth place man Nicky Hayden.
Secondly, Nico Terol. Terol has shown promise, but never really delivered, especially since joining the Moto2 class. But the confidence boost of a podium at Valencia last year came at exactly the right time, giving Terol the willpower to trust his machinery more, and push harder. That has so far paid off, bringing him his first win in the intermediate class.
And finally, Alex Rins. The young Spaniard certainly has the right bike - the factory KTMs are almost unbeatable - but he still has Maverick Viñales and Luis Salom to contend with. Rins disposed of them as if they were not there, leading the first, interrupted race with ease, holding Viñales off without too much difficulty. In the restarted 5 lap race, Rins this time kept Luis Salom at bay, Salom running wide in a final do-or-die attempt to get past Rins. This is Rins' second season of Moto3, and his already a title contender. The young Spaniard is definitely someone to keep your eye on.
And finally, the question of "absent friends." The Circuit of The Americas is exactly 5,513 meters long or 3.426 miles. That it is 3.4. miles should come as no surprise, the #34 helped to design the track. Like Banquo's ghost, Kevin Schwantz haunted the proceedings at COTA, his absence more keenly felt than his presence would have been. Whatever the wrongs and rights of the case, we can only hope for a speedy resolution to the situation. It leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth, that much is for sure.