There's something about America. Especially if your name is Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda Rookie led both sessions on the opening day of the Indianapolis Grand Prix (the last one? Too early to say) going quickest both in the tricky morning, when there was very little grip, and in the afternoon, once the bikes had laid down some rubber. Marquez has won both US rounds so far, dominating at Austin and winning comfortably at Laguna Seca, and he has picked up at Indy where he left off before the summer break.
Unsurprisingly, the parallels with Kenny Roberts are starting to be made, the only other rider to become world champion as a rookie. Those parallels are unfair yet perfectly valid: both men exceeded expectations and raised the bar, shaking up the established order with a radical new riding style. Yet Roberts and Marquez also came from totally different backgrounds: Kenny Roberts had grown up racing dirt track, switched to road racing and then came to Europe to win his the championship at the first attempt, on tracks he had never seen before. Marc Marquez has had a classically European education: minibikes from a very young age, then nurtured through Spain's many road racing series, before rising up through the ranks of 125, Moto2 and now MotoGP. Marquez knows all of the tracks MotoGP races like the back of his hand, with the exception of Austin, which nobody knew, it being a new circuit, and Laguna Seca, which didn't prevent him from mastering and winning at his first attempt.
Of course, there is the small matter of half a MotoGP season before Marquez can match King Kenny's achievement, and with Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa now back from injury and approaching full fitness, the title is far from being a given. When asked if he thought Marquez was now favorite to win the championship, the ever astute Cal Crutchlow pointed out the glaringly obvious flaw in that line of argumentation. "I still don't agree that it will be solely his championship, because Lorenzo and Pedrosa are so strong always at the end of the year," he told reporters. "I expect him to win this weekend, because of his pace and how good he was at Laguna. But I still think Pedrosa and Lorenzo are the strongest guys." Marquez learns fast, though. "He's fast," Crutchlow affirmed. "You can't slow him down, he gets faster every race."
Fortunately for the championship - and the defending champion in particular - both Pedrosa and Lorenzo are in better shape than they feared. The pair had taken radically different approaches to recovering from their collarbone injuries. Lorenzo, ever the training monster, had spent all his time working on building strength and gaining flexibility. Pedrosa, more cautious, had proceeded more carefully, resting the shoulder as much as possible to allow it to recover. Both approaches worked - demonstrating once again that no two collarbone or shoulder injuries are ever alike - with Pedrosa grabbing second spot just eight hundredths behind his teammate, and Lorenzo the fastest Yamaha a quarter of a second behind Marquez. Pedrosa will likely make the most progress, his shoulder loosening up as each session goes on, struggling less and less to force the bike to change direction and to control the bike wanting to wheelie.
Lorenzo and Pedrosa weren't the only riders returning from MotoGP's sick bay. Both Pramac Ducati men were also back from injury, Ben Spies after a long layoff to allow the shoulder he damaged at Sepang last year to heal, while Andrea Iannone injured his shoulder at the Sachsenring. For Spies, it was good news: "It's great to be able to ride the bike with both arms," he said. Though he was only 13th fastest, 1.6 seconds behind Marquez, he felt he was riding at full fitness again, something he had not done since that injury at Sepang. The prognosis for Iannone was less favorable: the Italian has shooting pains in his shoulder in the change of direction, can't tuck in properly and is suffering in braking. Painkillers may help him get through the weekend, but he faces two more on two consecutive weekends. Iannone may do better by following Spies' example.
That the Hondas have an advantage at Indianapolis is clear. Marquez, Pedrosa and Stefan Bradl lead the session, the German continuing his solid progress on the LCR Honda, while Lorenzo leads Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi, the trio of Yamahas over a quarter of a second and more behind Marquez. That may yet change, as grip improves. Jorge Lorenzo complained that his bike was spinning too much, unable to get the drive to match the Hondas. Watching the super slow motion shots set up at Turn 5, you could see the rear end of the Honda stepped out more, biting to help get the bike turned and making it easier for the Hondas to drive out of the corners. As the track cleans up, the improved grip should favor the Yamahas a little more, Cal Crutchlow said, allowing them to exploit their better edge grip and to reduce the spinning of the rear tire.
Would Yamaha's seamless gearbox help? It's hard to say. On Thursday, Jorge Lorenzo had pleaded with Yamaha to introduce it sooner rather than later. The gearbox, which he and Rossi had tested a week earlier at Brno, did not give the massive boost in lap times some had been expecting, Rossi had explained, but still made a big difference overall. "The big improvement is in 20 or 30 laps, because the bike becomes more easy to ride," Rossi said. It was more stable in acceleration, more stable in braking, and placed less stress on the tires. The gearbox made it easier to ride the bike at the limit, but it also allowed a change of riding style. Gear changes became less critical, allowing the rider to change up while the bikes is still leaned hard over, Rossi explained. "You don't have to modify the style, but you can use some tricks for use gearbox to the maximum to go faster," he said.
But Yamaha do not want to introduce it yet, much to Lorenzo's discontent. The Spaniard would like to see it brought in as soon as possible, to allow him to challenge the Hondas at every circuit. But the risk is great, as if the gearbox locks up, there is no way of saving it. "I understand that Jorge wants the gearbox as soon as possible," Rossi said. "Also me, I want the gearbox as soon as possible. But you know, the gearbox is a critical part, and I also agree with Yamaha that they want to be sure at 100%." The penalty if things went wrong was high. "You have the good and the bad. You can take a risk for the advantage, but you can also have a problem. But anyway, Yamaha will decide," Rossi said.
So Yamaha hope that the track conditions will come to them. The surface is the subject of much discussion, with riders due to debate the issue in the Safety Commission, there are calls for the multiple track surface changes to be fixed. Whether Indianapolis Motor Speedway heeds the call of the riders or not will depend on many things, most importantly whether there is a race at the track again next year. The circuit is keen to retain the race, and though three races in the US are perhaps a little too much of a good thing, Dorna are keen to stay as well. Indy is a byword in American racing, and close to many of the US' major markets. It is easier to sell motorcycle racing to an American audience when it is linked to such an iconic venue than if it stays only at Laguna Seca - also iconic, but really only for motorcycles and the smaller four-wheeled series - and Austin, a brand new circuit with no history.
Therein lies the conundrum for Dorna: try to hitch a ride on the coat tails of established traditions like the Indy 500, or try to build a new audience around the entirely foreign concept of road course motorcycle racing. Neither is simple, and when it comes down to it, smart promotion of the sport may be much more successful and significant than the location of the races. But until Dorna shows any sign of doing that - on the basis of past evidence, an impossible dream - then jumping on the Indy 500 bandwagon may be their best bet for conquering America, the world's richest TV market.