For the past four years, my coverage of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has followed something of a ritual. The riders would ride the track. The riders would talk to the media about how awful the track was, the bumps, the different types of asphalt, the drainage covers, the joints between the tarmac, the corners which were too tight. I would write about what the riders had said in my nightly round ups. And I would receive an email complaining about what I'd written from IMS' otherwise excellent media office.
It's hard to blame Indy's media office for such a reaction. They are the best media office of all the circuits on the calendar, by a country mile, better organized and providing useful and timely information on everything happening on the track. It is part of their duty to handle criticism of the circuit, especially that coming from a bunch of Europeans only using half the real Speedway track, and requiring corners. They were only doing their job.
They will have a much easier job this weekend. Rider reaction to the changes made at Indy has been overwhelmingly positive, with barely a whisper of criticism of the track. The single surface on the infield is a vast improvement, the changes to the track layout make it much more suitable for motorcycle racing, and most of the bumps have been removed. The circuit is "more like a normal track," as Marc Marquez put it. Pol Espargaro concurred. Indy is "more of a motorbike track" the Tech 3 man said.
There were still a few negative comments, and riders pointing out problems, but nothing much different to any other track in the world. Indy is just another circuit now, much the same as the rest. It is hard to see many riders putting it in their top 3 favorite tracks any time soon, but it is no longer the first circuit everyone mentions when naming where they would rather not have to go. That is a huge step forward for IMS, and testament to the enormous amount of work and effort put into the new layout. It is also an encouraging sign of the circuit's commitment to MotoGP. With Austin and Indy, the US looks set to retain two races for the foreseeable future. More importantly, fans and riders will be happy to go to both.
The biggest threat to the two US MotoGP rounds is the dearth of American talent. With Colin Edwards set to retire (sooner, rather than later, it now transpires, with money issues rumored to be behind Edwards' early withdrawal from racing), Nicky Hayden hamstrung by a slow Honda and a severely damaged wrist, and Josh Herrin struggling to get his head around the Moto2 class, the future looks bleak for American racers in MotoGP. The merest sliver of hope is that Cam Beaubier's name is being bandied around in connection with Pramac Ducati, but beyond that, the names are few and far between. There are plenty of talented racers, but no way of getting them into racing at the international level. The AMA has all but disintegrated under the auspices of the DMG, and it is hard to see where new talent will come from. The factories have left, and AMA meetings cut back from three days to just two.
That the problem needs to be addressed is self-evident, and Dorna – still keen to crack the US TV market, the most lucrative in the world – is rumored to be working with Wayne Rainey on arranging an FIM-backed North American championship to take on the AMA. Their problem is that the AMA is run by the Daytona Motorsports Group, run by the France family, one of the richest families in the US. When it comes to lawyers, the DMG bows to no one, and is willing to defend their interests.
That, however, is a problem for the future. What of the race at Indy this year? The changes to the circuit have indeed made it less of a favorable circuit for the Hondas – there are fewer first-gear corners, Jorge Lorenzo said, and the changes make the track flow more – but that doesn't appear to have affected Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda man was, as ever, the fastest on day 1, beating second-place man Andrea Iannone by nearly a quarter of a second. The Pramac Ducati rider's time is impressive, as is the fact that Andrea Dovizioso is in fourth and Yonny Hernandez finished in seventh. That does not mean that Indy is a Ducati track however: the three Desmosedici riders ran line astern behind Valentino Rossi while the Movistar Yamaha was on a hot lap. It bumped the Ducati men way up the order, but does not reflect their real pace. Come Sunday, the Ducatis will be a good deal further back.
The Ducati will be getting a new engine, although this will come only on Saturday. The new engine is mooted to have more power, which should help along Indy's massive front straight. Speeds are already high, with Alvaro Bautista clocking 342.5 km/h, 6 km/h faster than last year. A bit more top speed should make the Ducatis hard to beat down the front and back straights. Whether Cal Crutchlow gets the new engine remains to be seen. The Englishman himself does not expect to do so, and given Ducati's policy, his expectations may well be correct.
Other expectations were met. With the paddock assembled once again, MotoGP's silly season switched to high gear. Both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales admitted they were close to a deal with Suzuki, though both men were cagey when questioned about it. Jack Miller gets closer to a deal with HRC almost every day, and the rumor mill suggested he may not be the only rider to make the leap straight to the premier class from Moto3. Respected Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles of AS reported that Yamaha was keen to sign Alex Rins and take him straight to MotoGP. This confirms talks I have had with several senior Yamaha figures, who expressed an interest in Rins, citing a lack of available talent in Moto2.
Rins himself dismissed such rumors. He was grateful for the interest Yamaha was showing in him, he said, but said he will only go to MotoGP "if the world ends next year, which isn't going to happen." Rins' wit is as sharp as his riding, always a good sign for a top racer.
The weather remains a worry, with rain showers falling on Friday, and more expected on Saturday. That could throw MotoGP FP3 into disarray, which explained the rush for a good time on Friday afternoon. It would be a shame for qualifying to be ruined by the weather, but going by the lap times, it may be the only hope of stopping another Marquez whitewash. One day he will be beaten, but judging by the first day of practice at Indy, it won't be this Sunday.