Those who fear a Marquez whitewash at the Circuit of the Americas could draw some comfort from the raw numbers on the timesheets as Saturday progressed. Marquez gap from Friday was cut dramatically, first to under a second in FP3, then to a third of a second in FP4, before being slashed to less than three tenths in qualifying. Is the end of Marquez' dominance at Austin in sight?
But raw numbers are deceptive. Sure, the gap in single lap times is small, but there is still no one who can get close to the reigning world champion. Marquez' four flying laps were faster than the best laps by any other rider on the grid. Second place man Dani Pedrosa's fastest lap was still slower than Marquez' slowest. In FP4, Marquez punched out four laps in the 2'03s, while the best anyone else could do is lap in the 2'04s. During the morning FP3 session, Marquez racked up five 2'03s, while only Pedrosa could manage two 2'03s, Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Bradley Smith managing only a single solitary lap under 2'04.
Where the others took eight or nine tenths off their best time during qualifying, Marquez only improved on his previous best by a quarter of a second. 'It looks like Marc always rides at qualifying pace,' Jorge Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg quipped. Given the string of 2'03s Marquez hammered out on hard tires in race trim during FP4, that bodes ill for the rest of the riders.
A measure of just how confident and comfortable Marquez is at Austin – a local journalist finally got the Spaniard to admit that the circuit favors the Honda, a small triumph in itself – came during FP4, and then again during qualifying. In Q2, Marquez lost the front in the tight left hander, saved it, nearly lost it again, then got on the gas again as if nothing had happened. In FP4, while testing a change to the weight distribution, Marquez found himself running straight on at the end of the back straight three laps in a row. On one lap, the rear came up as he hit one of the few bumps on the circuit, and instead of struggling to regain control, Marquez tried to control it and carry it on as far as possible. He grinned as he recounted the experience to the press conference. This young man is in his element, which bodes ill for the competition.
The only man which Marquez expects any competition from is Dani Pedrosa, his Repsol Honda teammate not as far off the pace as the times suggest. There is no doubting Pedrosa's motivation. All weekend long he has faced questions over the performance of his teammate, and Pedrosa is answering them with increasing irritation. His answer has been to state repeatedly that he is not concerned with what anyone else does, but is solely focused on his own race. He was fitter than he was last year, and felt confident his team had found some improvements. But Pedrosa badly wants to beat Marquez, though the question is how.
Stefan Bradl took advantage of the favorable circuit layout to grab his first front row start of the year, an important achievement after crashing out of the race at Qatar. Bradl finds himself in something of a conundrum, caught between the need to score points and the need for a strong result. 'I don't want to finish 8th,' Bradl said, adding that his aim was to convert his front row start into a podium. With Austin a Honda track, this will be an excellent opportunity for the German. His pace during free practice has been strong, a fact underlined by his strong performance in qualifying.
Aleix Espargaro is fourth on the grid, but the Forward Yamaha rider is fully aware that this did not represent his race potential. The soft tire gives a major performance boost to the Open class bikes, but it is impossible to use in a race, the power of the Yamaha destroying the soft rear in just a couple of laps. On the medium tire – the harder of the two options available to the Open bikes – Espargaro was struggling. 'I need to fight with the bike in every corner,' Aleix told us. Austin would be an uphill task, he said. 'Tomorrow won't be as easy as Qatar.'
The two Movistar Yamahas sit behind the NGM Forward bike, just four thousandths of a second covering the three men. After struggling badly on the first day of practice, Lorenzo made a big step forward on Saturday. Wilco Zeelenberg had been absent from Lorenzo's garage throughout the weekend, the Dutchman spending all his time at trackside observing, pointing out where Lorenzo was having problems, and advising on solutions. It helped, but Lorenzo knows he is on a damage limitation exercise. After scoring a blank at Qatar, crashing out through simple rider error on the first lap, the double world champion needs to start scoring points again. The mood in the garage was improved from Qatar, where Lorenzo had been extremely agitated. Though there was still concern about the pace of Marquez, Lorenzo's objective is to maximize points, and take what he can from Texas. The season is still very long, and anything can happen, a fact which Zeelenberg was keen to emphasize.
The other good news for Lorenzo came in the form of the engine lists. The bike Lorenzo crashed at Qatar took a real beating in the gravel, with some people concerned the engine would not come out of it undamaged. Yamaha, too, were concerned, flying the engine back to Japan to give it a thorough checking over. Fortunately, there was no serious damage: Lorenzo had that engine back in use in Texas, racking up three sessions of practice on the motor.
Lorenzo could find himself under attack from his teammate. Valentino Rossi has 20 points in the championship to Lorenzo's zero, and can claim to be leading the assault on the Hondas. That situation appears to be opening up a few cracks in the relationship between the Movistar Yamaha teammates. During Rossi's first qualifying run, Lorenzo sat up on the racing line, causing Rossi to abandon a fast lap. That resulted in a certain amount of gesticulating by the Italian, though from the footage it was far from clear whether Lorenzo's move was deliberately aimed at Rossi, or just a result of cruising too close to the racing line. We journalists did not get a chance to ask Rossi about the incident, the chaos of rider debriefs meaning that the Yamaha man only spoke to the Italian press, and not the English media. Flyaway races always lead to chaos for the media trying to speak to the riders, schedules going out of the window and a lack of hospitality units making media debriefs difficult. Some teams manage admirably; Movistar Yamaha is not one of those teams.
While Lorenzo will be pushing hard to chase the Hondas, Rossi will be hounding his teammate with a view to beating him. Finishing ahead of a healthy Lorenzo will be an important milestone for Rossi, and one he will be pursuing with vigor. Whether he can manage it or not is open to question. The Movistar Yamaha rivalry could turn into quite the battle on Sunday.
In Moto2, Tito Rabat grabbed his second pole of the year, the Spaniard leaving it until the last moment to make a final push. Rabat found enough improvement to keep Johann Zarco behind him, holding off a fleet of Suters. The Marc VDS rider has been struggling with false neutrals on his Kalex Moto2 machine, an issue which is not easy to solve on the sealed spec units. But as he proved during qualifying, you can never write the Spaniard off. No doubt he will have company from a gaggle of Suters – besides Zarco, Xavier Simeon and Domi Aegerter have been fast all weekend – but in the form Rabat is in at the moment, it would be foolish to write him off. The dark horse could be Maverick Viñales, the reigning Moto3 champion making an astonishingly quick transition to the intermediate class.
If the paddock – and especially the media – are bemoaning the loss of Colin Edwards at the end of the season, his natural heir Jack Miller took pole in Moto3. Miller's move to the Red Bull KTM team is paying dividends, giving him a competitive bike and a very strong team. Miller followed up his maiden win at Qatar with a maiden pole at Austin, the Australian telling us that a pole was almost as important as a win. You always want to end a session in front of your rivals, Miller explained, so grabbing pole had been a key objective. Strategy had played a key role, Miller chasing a fast lap early after finding himself in trouble at Qatar. The gamble had paid off.
Miller also demonstrated why he is truly Colin Edwards' successor both during and after the press conference. Why was taking his first pole so important? It had just been his mother's birthday, Miller joked, and so the Tissot watch awarded to every polesitter meant that he could save his money on a gift for her. He also laughingly described his 'goon riding', the exaggerated style he takes on to celebrate success, as 'a bit of Doohan, a bit of Schwantz, a bit of Abe with some elbows thrown in'. It looks comical, but exudes the sheer joy of riding. Miller is bursting with life, wit, and perhaps surprisingly, maturity. If Australia feared the loss of Casey Stoner, they needn't be worried. Miller is going to be a star.
Though the races seem fairly predictable for Sunday, there is a giant curveball on the horizon. A storm is due to pass through Austin, though the weather forecasters cannot agree on whether it will come on Sunday, Monday morning or Monday afternoon. If it rains on Sunday, then all bets are off, in all three classes. For the championship, it might even be a very good thing. I suspect that the Yamaha riders are all quietly doing a rain dance.