Ever since he first entered the MotoGP class, Marc Márquez has owned the Circuit of the Americas at Austin. In 2013, in just his second ever MotoGP event, he was fastest in all but two practice sessions, then went on to win the race, becoming the youngest ever MotoGP winner in the process. A year later, he was fastest in every session, and extended his advantage over his teammate in the race, winning by over four seconds. The gap to third that year was demoralizing: Andrea Dovizioso crossed the line nearly 21 seconds after Márquez had taking victory.
With two one-two victories for Honda in two years at Austin, does anyone else really stand a chance? Surprisingly, it seems there might be. Much has changed over the past year: the renaissance at Ducati, the improvements at Yamaha, both of the bike and, more significantly, of the riders. And with Dani Pedrosa out with injury, Márquez faces the challenge from Movistar Yamaha and factory Ducati alone.
It is also easy to forget that the 2014 race was a real anomaly. First, Jorge Lorenzo took himself out of contention early. An out-of-shape Lorenzo arrived at Austin under pressure after crashing out at Qatar. He got distracted on the grid and jumped the start by a country mile, his race over even before it began. Valentino Rossi struggled with a front tire that chewed itself up, putting him out of contention almost immediately. And though the Ducatis were better than they had been before, the GP14 used in the first few races was a far cry from the much better GP14.2 which Ducati raced at the end of the year. Finally, Márquez himself was brimming with confidence, having won the first race of the season despite having broken his leg just four weeks before.
Marc Márquez arrives in Austin this year with a lot more pressure on his shoulders. The Repsol Honda man had a pretty terrible start to the season at Qatar, messing up the first corner, running wide, and forced to play catch up throughout the race. He did well to fight his way up to fifth place, but he showed none of the pace he had used to dominate practice. He lost ground to the leaders lap by lap, eventually finishing over seven seconds adrift.
He also faces a much tougher challenge than last year. Though the layout of the Austin circuit plays to the strong points of the Hondas, they are no longer alone in their strengths. The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 has revolutionized the Bologna factory's fortunes, and proved to be a formidable opponent at Qatar. The bike turns, and it accelerates, and it's still pretty strong on the brakes. There is still room for improvement, especially in the early part of the corner, but the devil is in the details. In previous years, the devil was in the Desmosedici.
Ducati's double podium at Qatar invigorated the two Andreas. Dovizioso pushed Rossi hard for the win at Qatar, and came within a whisker of depriving him. Iannone chased hard early, but had to let the other two Italians go at the end, still delighted to score his first podium in the premier class. Both men now know they can run at the front, and take on both the Honda and the Yamaha. So much of motorcycle racing at the highest level plays itself out in the minds of the riders. The confidence which the two Ducati men gained at Qatar will give them another couple of tenths at Austin. They have the speed, they have the bike, and most importantly of all, they have the will to compete with Marc Márquez. They will be fierce rivals in Texas.
The Ducatis appear to have Honda spooked. The speed the GP15 showed won the front straight at Qatar was not far off that of the Honda RC213V, but more worrying was the way they got out of the corners. Rumors are circulating that Honda have decided to turn up the wick on the factory bikes, allowing the engine to use another few hundred revs. The bike currently revs to around 17,250 RPM, so another few hundred would see it closing in once again on 18,000. The 81mm bore limit was supposed to make that impossible. Apparently, nobody told HRC.
Then there are the Yamahas. Valentino Rossi comes to Austin off the high of a win at the season opener. He is sharper than he was last year, more convinced of his ability to win races, and maybe even another championship. The YZR-M1 is stronger in acceleration, much better in braking, and the fully seamless gearbox brings the bike a step closer to the Hondas. At the ripe old age of 36, Valentino Rossi is a serious contender again, and will not be rolling over easily.
Jorge Lorenzo will also be no pushover. The Spaniard arrived fit and hungry at the start of the season, and ran at the front for the first half of the MotoGP race at Qatar. A problem with his helmet liner caused him to lose vision, losing touch with the battle for the podium. But he still leads Marc Márquez in the championship, and will know from 2013 that he can compete at Austin if the bike is good enough. That looks like being the case this year.
While Austin looks like being positive for both Ducati and Yamaha, things will be a whole less rosy for Suzuki and Aprilia. The circuit's two straights come after slow corners, the hairpin of Turn 11, and the sharp left of Turn 20. It is hard acceleration where the two newcomers are losing out, and where they will struggle. At least the Suzuki turns, allowing Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales to make up ground through the difficult series of left-right combinations which snakes between Turn 2 and Turn 11. The Aprilia RS-GP has a lot more work to do before it is competitive, and so Alvaro Bautista and Marco Melandri will have to soldier on, using this race as a test. They have a lot more testing to do this year.
The best hope for both Suzuki and Aprilia is the weather. The forecast for the weekend has been as changeable as a teenager's moods, though the one constant throughout has been rain. It will rain at some point over the weekend, the big question is when. Qualifying looks almost certain to be run in the wet, the weather forecasters all agreeing on that. But Friday and Sunday could either be all wet or all dry, or a little bit of both.
Rain would negate a lot of the advantages of the faster bikes. Unable to put down the power, they will have trouble fending off the more agile slower bikes, and highly motivated Open class machines who can sense an opportunity when they see one. The most intriguing question is how the GP15 will hold up in the wet. Though it would not turn in the dry, its predecessor, the GP14, was a formidable weapon in the wet. Has the GP15 retained that ability on a wet track? If it has, it will make the GP15 a formidable weapon indeed.
Wet weather would put the dampers on a weekend for both the satellite Honda riders. Cal Crutchlow had a strong first outing on the LCR Honda, finishing as the first satellite rider, and not far off the tail of Dani Pedrosa. Crutchlow is making good progress on the Honda RC213V, and Austin is a track where he has a good chance of a result. Wet weather would leave Crutchlow with a lot to learn, not having had much time on the bike in the rain.
Rain would also put Scott Redding's process of adaptation back. The Marc VDS Honda rider has struggled to adapt to the factory Honda RC213V so far, and needs as much dry time on the bike as he can get. It is not just Redding, of course: the Marc VDS Estrella Galicia 0,0 MotoGP team was put together at the end of last year, and are still finding their feet as a pit crew. That process is speeded along most of all by dry track time, wet weather merely confuses the issue, making it hard to make sense of data, and find the right base set up.
The other satellite riders may well benefit more from poor weather. Bradley Smith is the most experienced satellite man on the grid, now in his third season in MotoGP. He has time on the bike, and time in the wet, and is well placed to take advantage if it rains. He had a strong outing at Austin last year, finishing 5th, just behind Stefan Bradl. If the opportunity presents itself, Smith will need to seize it.
Teammate Pol Espargaro is another strong candidate, though he has had less time in the wet. That will be the Spaniard's greatest challenge, adapting to the bike in the rain. He gained experience in the wet in 2014, which will help make a difference. With 2015 likely to be a do-or-die year for the younger Espargaro, he will need to step up, wet or dry.
The GP14 is a known quantity in the wet, offering both Yonny Hernandez and Danilo Petrucci a chance of a real result if it rains. Hernandez put in a solid performance at Qatar two weeks ago, and is growing in his role at Pramac Ducati. Petrucci has shown flashes of brilliance, and will need to consolidate those performances in Texas.
Will rain make a difference to the Open class riders? It could very well. Riding at his home race, Nicky Hayden will want to chase a good result, and with the rain taking away the need for a perfect set up, this could be an excellent chance for Hayden to shine once more on the world stage. Both Stefan Bradl and Karel Abraham are accomplished wet weather riders, and rain could help them to post a decent result as well.
Rain for the Moto2 class could pose an interesting challenge. The series got off to a surprising start at Qatar, the favorites all crashing out or suffering mechanical problems. The weird string of events leaves Jonas Folger leading the championship, with Johann Zarco not too far behind. Austin will be a chance for the title favorites to reset their season, and try to score points. Sam Lowes and Tito Rabat were heavily tipped before the start of the season, and need to play it safe and start scoring points to get back some ground on Folger, Tom Luthi, and perhaps even Alex Rins. Rins has been the surprise of Moto2 so far, the rookie showing quick pace and a real sense of competitiveness. Rins could be a genuine dark horse, but he will need to build on his result at Qatar, whatever the weather at Austin.
As for Moto3, rain could end up breaking up the tight-fought bunch which usually contests victory in the smallest Grand Prix class. Given Romano Fenati's proven ability in the wet, he should be able to capitalize on the opportunity which the rain could offer. He will have to hold off strong challenges from Moto3 veterans such as Alexis Masbou, Efren Vazquez and Danny Kent, of course, but this weekend may offer just the opportunity. Even if it stays dry, Fenati could be in with a chance. The KTM did well here last year, Jack Miller just beating Romano Fenati to the line. Austin will be a test of just how close the KTM still is to the Honda, or whether the NSF250RW really is a superior motorcycle this year.