How do you solve a problem like Marc Marquez? The short answer is you don't. You can push as hard as you like, beat everyone else on the grid, but try as you might, you still find yourself a second or more behind the reigning world champion. Marquez came to Texas, he saw, and he conquered. Just like last year. And nobody seems capable of stopping him.
Valentino Rossi could only shake his head in dismay. 'Today he was very strong. He is on another level,' Rossi said. Was it down to the bike, was it Marquez? Sure, Austin is a Honda track – first-gear corners are still where the Honda has the advantage – but the bike wasn't really the issue. 'He makes the difference,' Rossi said. Sure, the bike was good, but it was mostly down to Marquez' riding. Speaking to the Italian press, Rossi had a single word to describe Marquez' riding: 'bellissima'. Beautiful.
Where was he gaining the time? Basically everywhere. MotoMatters.com's photographer Scott Jones' keen eye watched Marquez through Turn 11, the hairpin before the back straight. Coming out of the corner, the front goes light and when the tire hits the ground again, the bike puts on a bit of a headshake. Where other riders work hard to control the bike, backing off or struggling to handle the bike, Marquez just holds it wide open, lets the bike wag its head as much as it likes before it sorts itself out. Marquez was the only rider to get into the 2'03s, and he did it multiple times. At Austin, Marc Marquez is blazing a trail at Austin which nobody else can follow.
Behind Marquez, the battle is tight. Though Marquez has a second on the rest of the field, another second separates 2nd from 11th. Andrea Dovizioso put on a late charge to grab second, the Italian pleased with how the Ducati has improved since last year. The bike is stronger in braking and corner entry, meaning Dovizioso can brake later and turn in faster than he has before. Actually getting through the corners – especially the vicious and treacherous section from Turn 3 all the way down to Turn 10 – was hard, the Desmosedici still having understeer, but Ducati is already starting from a stronger position than last year.
At Yamaha, Valentino Rossi is happier than he was last year. Rossi is more confident with the bike, and happier with the set up. He can brake later and turn in, two things where he suffered last year. It was tougher in the afternoon, rising temperatures making the bike more difficult to handle. Still, Rossi was on the pace with the other Hondas, not over a second back like he was in 2013. The Italian needs to work on the hard tire to see if that will work in the race, but so far, Rossi looks like he is carrying the form he found at Qatar into Austin.
Jorge Lorenzo is a much, much unhappier man in Texas, his dark mood from Qatar following the double world champion across the Atlantic to Austin. The problem can hardly be the tires – the medium tire at Austin is the 2013 version, rather than the 2014 tire which Bridgestone have brought to the early races. Still, after saying he did not feel safe in the morning, some electronics improvements – a return to the 2013 electronics, a step his team tested at Sepang with success also – meant he was much closer to the front in the afternoon. Lorenzo was reasonably competitive, but only in terms of the battle for second. Marc Marquez, clearly the man to beat if Lorenzo still has any pretensions at the title, is out of reach for the Yamaha man.
Cal Crutchlow's debut at Ducati has been far from successful, through no real fault of his own. At Qatar, a failing transponder meant the bike was extremely hard to ride. Electrical gremlins continued to plague the Englishman at Austin. The bike just completely cut out along the front straight, a system failing, forcing him to push the bike the wrong way down the pit lane to return to the box. The system which failed was not a Ducati part, but part of an external system, also used on helicopters, Crutchlow explained. The consequences if the same part had failed on a helicopter did not bear thinking about, he added.
The systems were all too complex, he said. Dovizioso's side of the garage were used to dealing with them, but Crutchlow's team were running into problems. The system that failed was linked in to two other systems, and although that meant there was a certain redundancy built into the system, it also created serious problems in getting it to work. These were issues that would take a little time to iron out, but if the systems could be simplified, that would be a bigger benefit for Ducati, Crutchlow said.
Tires were the main focus of many riders at Austin, with the Factory Option riders vacillating between the hard and medium options. So far, it looks like the Hondas will race the hard option, while the Yamahas will wait for the weather, the hard tire only really working for them when it was hot. The Yamaha riders were happy enough with the hard tire, though. As Bradley Smith pointed out, at least it was a genuine option at Austin. Previously, Smith said, the tires just sat there 'looking pretty, black and round.' The fact that the tire is usable is already a big step forward.
Tires are likely to be a much, much bigger deal in the future. 2014 is the last year of the contract with Bridgestone, and there are a few signs that the relationship is not set to continue. Though the idea of a spec supplier is set in stone for both Dorna and the teams, the conditions clearly need to be changed. When the contract comes up for renewal, the number of tires supplied and the choice of compounds and constructions will be at the heart of the debate. Though much of the focus of the media will be on contract negotiations between riders and factories, the biggest change to the championship could come from the tire supplier. So far, speculation is all we have, but watch this space, and watch it carefully.