2014 Argentina MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Marquez, Miller And Rabat Dominate, But For How Long?
Two races and three qualifying sessions in, and all three classes in MotoGP are providing an object lesson in the importance of consistency. Marc Marquez has taken pole for all three MotoGP races, Tito Rabat has done the same in Moto2, and Jack Miller has been on pole for two out of three Moto3 races. There's a similar pattern in the races as well, with Jack Miller having cleaned up in Moto3, and Marc Marquez winning both MotoGP races so far. The only interlopers are Alex Rins, who nabbed a Moto3 pole at Qatar, and Maverick Viñales, who gatecrashed the Moto2 party at Austin. Then again, if you were hoping to have your party gatecrashed, you'd definitely want it done by a man called Maverick.
The routes Marquez, Rabat and Miller have taken to domination of their classes are markedly different, though. Rabat is the most lackadaisical of the three, always leaving it to the last minute before laying down a scorching lap with which he secures pole. His advantage is usually slim, but enough to get the job done. Rabat's leadership of the Moto2 class is sheer consistency, getting the results he needs when he needs them, and always being on the ball.
Jack Miller's reign in the Moto3 class is a far more Machiavellian affair. His three pole positions have been a triumph of strategy, spotting a weakness in his opponents' defenses and exploiting it ruthlessly. Traditionally, pole for Moto3 has always been settled in the dying seconds, with a mass of riders all drafting each other in an attempt to set the fastest time. This poses a real risk, however: get stuck in the wrong group, or get baulked on your final fast lap, and any chance at pole is gone. Miller has recognized that, and adapted, pushing hard early when track space is plentiful, then taking another shot towards the end once times start to drop.
His strategy is paying off. In Argentina, he laid down the law in the first ten minutes of qualifying, then cranked up the pressure towards the end, dropping his times every time his rivals got close. Just how composed he was could be seen by his crafty use of backmarkers. Towards the end of the session, Miller had collected a large group of hangers on, all looking for a slipstream. The Australian kept hounding round the track on pole pace, yet simultaneously managing to put slower riders between him and the riders trying to get a draft in the middle of corners. His qualifying performance was a sign of a man in control, using the tools he had at hand to subdue his opponents. With Miller in this form, he will be a tough man to beat on Sunday, despite the fact that such a fast circuit lends itself to the Moto3 forte of slipstreaming.
Marc Marquez, on the other hand, rules with an iron fist. His reign is unchallenged. Since warm up for Qatar – the race where Marquez had just come back from injury after six weeks off the bike, and was riding with a broken leg – he has topped every session but one, the first session of free practice in Argentina. Even that was a session he gave away, both Repsol Honda riders having decided to save their tires in FP1, using just a single rear for the entire session. Even that was turned to his advantage, Honda vetoing a proposal by Bridgestone to allow everyone an extra tire, as they still had plenty.
It's not just the number of sessions he is fastest which is worrying, however, it is also the sheer ruthlessness with which he imposes his will. His advantage over the rest of the field is huge, the Spaniard taking pole by three quarters of a second. In Moto2, 0.742 seconds covers the first 12 riders. The gap between pole sitter Marc Marquez and second-place man Jorge Lorenzo is as large as Lorenzo's advantage over Bradley Smith in seventh, and only a little less than the gap between Lorenzo and Andrea Iannone, who qualified in eighth. At the moment, nobody has anything for Marc Marquez, and it is hard to see where any resistance might come from.
Jorge Lorenzo has at least found something so far this weekend. It is a much calmer Lorenzo who sits in the Movistar Yamaha garage in Argentina. Lorenzo has been closer, but a set up change ahead of qualifying made the biggest difference, putting Lorenzo back on the front row. His goals remain modest, at least as stated. A podium, or at least top five is what the 2010 and 2012 world champion is aiming at, with the most important thing not to make any more mistakes. Some frustration is still shining through Lorenzo's demeanor, however. Speaking to MotoGP.com, he bemoaned the engine development freeze, fearing he would not be able to catch Marquez all year. They are stuck with only electronics and chassis updates, and unable to put up any resistance worthy of the name. Lorenzo looks at Aleix Espargaro – once again, the NGM Forward rider put the Open class 2013 Yamaha M1 into fourth, and he has been impressive all weekend – and rues the riches he could have had if Yamaha had switched to the Open category.
At least Lorenzo does not have to worry about getting the 2014 medium tires to work in Argentina. The fast and flowing nature of the track – the second fastest circuit on the calendar, according to a press release by the circuit designer Jarno Zafelli and a far superior effort to the Hermann Tilke designed tracks which blight the calendar – means that the hard rear works well, and even the medium tire with the heat resistant layer gets up to temperature. Riders can use either compound front or rear, and choice will depend solely on conditions. There is still some concern over the abrasive nature of the track, but most of the worries have passed. The track showed massive improvement between the two sessions on Friday, but there was not much difference from Friday to Saturday. The track is also still treacherous once you get off line, and into the sections which have not yet been cleaned. 'If you run off line, then you have to keep your knee on the ground, it's so slippery,' Jack Miller commented.
Three other performances from Saturday are worthy of note. In the hands of Nicky Hayden and Scott Redding, the Honda RCV1000R production racer is starting to show some promise. Both men were impressive during Q1, with Hayden eventually beating out Redding by the slimmest of margins to go through to Q2. Hayden has taken his time to adapt to the bike after spending so long on the Ducati, but he is slowly starting to make the transition.
Hayden's improvement puts the performance of Scott Redding into real perspective. Despite being handicapped by the production Honda, Redding is fast enough to badly trouble the 2006 world champion. You have to wonder just how quickly the Englishman would have adapted if he had been on a satellite machine rather than a production racer. To be so close to Hayden this early in the season, even regularly ahead of him at times, shows great promise. Redding has a strong future in MotoGP.
The other Englishman, Bradley Smith, is also worthy of praise. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider messed up FP3 by not putting in a fast time early enough, and found himself having to go to Q1 before heading to Q2. Smith was never in any real trouble in Q1, using his first run to work on a set up option which turned out to be the right direction. For his second run, he turned up the wick and took top spot. In Q2, he turned it up another notch, ending the session in 7th and heading up the third row of the grid. But he is close, very close to the men ahead of him: just 0.009 off Valentino Rossi in 6th, and less than two tenths of a second behind Aleix Espargaro in 4th.
From the evidence of qualifying, it would be hard to bet against the three championship leaders who claimed pole in Argentina on Saturday. Marc Marquez' victory in MotoGP looks set to be measured in months rather than milliseconds, and Jack Miller looks smart enough to manage the Moto3 race to his advantage. Only the Moto2 race looks totally open – less than a second covers the top nineteen (19!) riders – yet here, too, the wise course of action would be to back Rabat, or perhaps Viñales, to take the win. The track itself looks like it will lend itself to racing, with three or four spots around the track ideal for passing. Carnage threatens at Turn 1, especially in Moto2 and Moto3, while the last couple of corners – 13 and 14 – also look to provide some spectacular action. The crowds which have massed all weekend has shown how overjoyed South Americans are to have MotoGP back in the region. The fans deserve some great racing, the track looks like it can provide it. Now it's just down to the riders.