The press room is usually a pit of cynicism. Races and laps which have the fans on their feet are met with polite applause at best, mild disinterest at worst. But not today. After Marc Márquez had parked his ailing Repsol Honda against pit wall, vaulted over the wall and sprinted back to his garage, jumped on to his back up bike – fitted with the wrong front tire and a far from perfect set up – then set off on his out lap, making it back across the line with three seconds to spare, and post one of the most fearsome laps ever witnessed aboard a MotoGP bike, the room erupted in heartfelt and solid applause. There was no cheering, no utterances of joy. Just loud and prolonged applause, appreciation of what we had just seen. We knew we were witnessing a piece of MotoGP history, and were in awe of what we had just seen. If you ever wanted to see the definition of awesome – something that will fill you with awe – then just watch that lap by Marc Márquez.
It was not just that he had broken the track pole record. Cal Crutchlow had already paved the way, taking a tenth of Márquez' best time from last year. He was the firs, but would not be the last: Crutchlow was soon surpassed by Jorge Lorenzo, who was in turn deposed by Andrea Dovizioso. But where his predecessors had shaved away a tenth at a time at the pole record, Márquez uprooted it and trampled on it, putting a third of a second between himself and the Ducati GP15 of Dovizioso, and taking six tenths of a second off his own pole record.
The most depressing thing for everyone else is that Márquez' pole lap was right on the ragged edge, and full of mistakes. He was close to outbraking himself all the way round the track, on the gas too early, nearly crashing multiple times in that lap. He lost a couple of tenths when he got on the gas too hard and nearly highsided on the kerb. Yet he still finished a third of a second faster than anyone else on the grid.
Scott Redding had watched the lap back on TV, was fairly resigned about what he had seen. "Marc was definitely putting it out there," Redding acknowledged, "but that's typical Marc. It doesn't scare you to see a lap like that but he probably could have gone faster if he was smoother but you saw today that he jumped onto the number two bike and did his lap time straight away. It was the same in the past with Stoner so I kind of expected it but it was still impressive."
That was what Marc Márquez had taken away from it. It was not his best ever pole lap, he said. He had made too many mistakes. It was, as veteran journalist Dennis Noyes remarked, reminiscent of Valentino Rossi's win at Phillip Island in 2003. There, the Italian showed his true speed, compensating for a ten second penalty given for passing under yellow flags by upping his pace by nearly a second a lap. He had been holding something in reserve, which when unleashed left his rivals powerless to resist. At Austin, it was Márquez' turn to show his hand, showing just how much he had in reserve for when he needed it, after looking like he may have been off the front row.
Why had Márquez been forced into this position? Honda's normally extraordinary reliability had let them down. The Spaniard had seen a warning light on his dash, one of the warnings which the HRC staff had impressed upon him were serious, and meant that he needed to park the bike as soon as possible. Was it gearbox or engine? He didn't know, Márquez claimed. He hoped it was not a sign of an engine problem; with 17 races left to go losing an engine already would leave Márquez in trouble towards the end of the season.
Could it be related to the extended revs of the Repsol Honda RC213V? When asked, Márquez denied he had any new parts for this weekend. Given that engine revs are controlled by software, this would be technically true. But Márquez merely insisted that this was still under investigation by HRC. It was not immediately clear to him whether the issue was with the gearbox, or with the engine. The truth of the matter is unlikely to ever emerge.
Does Márquez' incredible pole time mean that the race will be a walk in the park? From the look of the times in FP4, it is hard to see who can beat him. Márquez posted three laps in the 2'03 barrier, then two more which were quicker than anything but Jorge Lorenzo's two best laps. His race rhythm is fearsome, Lorenzo the only other rider likely to get close to the Spaniard. Can Márquez make a break and wrap victory up early? Undoubtedly.
Of course, all this requires it to remain clear on Sunday, something which is almost impossible to predict. The weather has been notoriously unpredictable all weekend, with rain staying off when it had been forecast, then returning with force when least expected.
The prime defender against a Márquez onslaught will be Jorge Lorenzo. The Movistar Yamaha rider was already better on Saturday than he had been the day before, as the treatment started to kick in. Lorenzo is a cut above the rest, but whether he can hang with Márquez remains to be seen.
Andrea Dovizioso had put the Ducati into second, a measure of the Desmosedici GP15. Yet Dovizioso also feared Márquez' domination, admitting that if he had his heart set on it, the Spaniard could escape. The Ducati is struggling more here at Austin than at the first race in Qatar, braking and corner entry not working as well at the more flowing layout of the Qatar track. Márquez' tactic was clear to the Italian: make a break, and hope that no one could catch him. So far, so good.
Though he ended up just fourth on the grid, practice left Valentino Rossi very happy. He was fast, not far off the pace of Márquez. The improvements made in braking, including with the seamless gearbox, had made the Yamaha much more competitive.
This was a feeling shared by Bradley Smith. Though he was ultimately frustrated by his performance at Austin, a misfire causing him to finish way down in tenth, Smith was happy to have posted a strong time on Friday.
I went up and stood on the inside of Turn 1 at Austin, seeing the bikes brake up the hill, then turn at the top and get ready for the first of the long complex of right-left flicks. It proved to be instructive: the fast bikes were getting on the gas and out of the corner fast, flowing down to the long right hander of Turn 2. The Hondas and Yamahas seemed to jump out of the corners, where the Ducatis looked slower, coming out of the turns more smoothly.
It was heartening to see both Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding setting decent laps. Both men are now up to speed with the RC213V, having found their way around the bike. Redding, in particular, has benefited from a modified set up to make the bike stiffer. They had been going round in circles trying to get the softer tire to work, chasing a softer set up. But Chris Pike, Crew Chief to Redding, said they had gone much stiffer in suspension, the bike now over 10% more heavily sprung. That had put Redding up front, with a decent chance here at Austin of a top six finish.
While Márquez seems a shoe-in for the win, the battle behind him could get interesting. Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are in good shape in terms of times, though Lorenzo is still struggling with bronchitis. He is now in his third day of antibiotics, and should be fit enough to last the entire race. Lorenzo's fitness will be key: Staying with Márquez from the start will be possible. Staying with him to the end will be much tougher.
Of course, all this presupposes that it stays dry. If it does not, then all bets are off. The weather could play a crucial role on Sunday.
In Moto2 and Moto3, there were far more surprises. Xavier Simeon was the surprise Belgian winner of pole at Austin, taking advantage of opportunities given by others. Sam Lowes had been looking good, until yet another crash put him in trouble. But Simeon, Lowes, Tito Rabat and Johann Zarco are all very closely matched. It will come down to who has the calmest head on their shoulders, and seize the opportunities which present themselves.
Rather surprisingly, Moto3 could turn out to be the least interesting of the three classes. Danny Kent topped qualifying by nearly half a second, the man in third nearly three quarters of a second behind him. Kent was convinced that he was strong enough to drop the others, and actually make a break. If he does get a gap, then catching him will be hard.
Where has Danny Kent's sudden improvement come from? Hard work and training, doubling up on distance, while getting to work on the weights. Kent is two kilograms lighter than in 2014, and much more settled both on the Honda and in the team. Confidence, Kent said, is key: no confidence, no results. The key for him is to try to make a break, and leave the rest of the Moto3 field behind.
With flaky weather forecasts and leaden skies, how the weather turns out on Sunday is a complete unknown. Rain or shine, though, they are going to be three fantastic races here in Texas. We deserve nothing less.