2016 Austin MotoGP Friday Round Up: Marquez' New Style, Viñales' Bright Future, Smith's Personal Revolution

After the drama of Argentina, the first day of practice at the Circuit of the Americas was pleasingly normal. The track was not perfect, but it was the normal kind of not perfect, Friday-green-track-not-perfect. A week ago, a filthy unused track left everyone struggling for grip and worried faces. On Friday, there were a few concerns over tire wear, especially on the right-hand side, but they were minor compared to Argentina. It was just another Friday in Texas.

And just like any other Friday in Texas, Marc Márquez was slaying the field. The Repsol Honda rider was fastest both in the morning and in the afternoon, and though Jorge Lorenzo kept Márquez honest in FP1, FP2 saw him go seven tenths of a second quicker than anyone else. His gap over the rest made the gaps look massive, just six riders within a second. Take Márquez out of the equation, and a second separates places two and fourteen. The field is actually quite close, as long as you disregard the man out in front.

Márquez vs The Rest

How does Márquez do it? Other Honda riders complain of a lack of acceleration, a problem reflected in their positions: Dani Pedrosa is eighth, well over a second behind Márquez, Cal Crutchlow tenth, and the two Marc VDS Hondas right at the bottom of the timesheets. Does Márquez not have the same issue? "In acceleration when I compare data with Dani his is better," Márquez said. He was making the time up elsewhere, though. "In the end you must gain in the corners when you lose in the acceleration."

The gains Márquez made were perhaps related to the style required by the new engine, with the counter-rotating crankshaft."It looks there is less stopping in the first gear corners," Márquez explained. "You must use more Yamaha style, you go more wide in the corners, and prepare well the exit. In these tight corners I was able to turn quicker but now I need to go wide and come back. So I change a little but the riding style but still it is good at this circuit."

That had an effect on the speed of the bike. "The speed is more related to the exit of the corner. We are struggling but in the first corners, using this line and coming more back, we are losing less. This is one thing. Then in the change of directions the bike looks slightly better. Last year was maybe faster changing direction. This year is slower but you can more keep the speed. It’s strange. It’s the character of the bike." The change of lines required more confidence on the front, Márquez said, and that is something the Repsol Honda rider has in spades.

Lorenzo's land?

Is the advantage Márquez has a reflection of the real state of play? Jorge Lorenzo was not convinced. "Our potential was much better than fifth," he told the media, explaining that an issue with the engine on his number one bike had slowed him down, putting him on the number two bike, which used a different setting. He expected to be much faster on Saturday, once they put everything they learned together, and tried to set a lap time. "I don’t know as fast as Marquez, because it looks like he loves this track and he is really fast," Lorenzo said. "I don’t think it is the Honda making the difference, it is him; he loves the track and is very comfortable with it."

Perhaps most impressive of all was Maverick Viñales, the Suzuki rider finishing in third sandwiched between two Ducatis, a tenth behind Andrea Iannone, and just ahead of Scott Redding. Once again, Viñales was over three quarters of a second faster than his teammate. "I think that Viñales demonstrated today that he can stay with the top guys for all the season," opined Valentino Rossi. "Because we go in a very different track, and in three tracks, the Suzuki with him is very strong. I think he rides so well, he's a clever rider, and he understand the way to use the MotoGP. So I think him together with his bike, they are growing up a lot."

The discussion was relevant, because Viñales is looking increasingly likely to be Rossi's teammate next year. Consensus in the paddock is that the Spaniard is set to leave Suzuki at the end of 2016 and switch to Yamaha, to take the place of the departing Jorge Lorenzo. Such speculation is based on solid evidence: one source indicated to me that Suzuki staff were already regarding the battle to retain Viñales as lost. The deal is not yet done, but it will be, soon enough.

Out of the frying pan ...

What did Rossi think of Viñales as a teammate? The Italian handled such speculation characteristically well. "It's not a big difference if Lorenzo remain, or Viñales come, or also Iannone, or also Pedrosa," Rossi told the media. "It's true for sure that with Viñales will be very hard, because he is very young, and he have a good talent, and I think that he will become one of the top riders of MotoGP very soon."

Prominent among the leaders were the Ducatis. Half of the top twelve were Ducati riders, with Andrea Iannone the fastest of the bunch, the rest not so far behind. Scott Redding was once again impressive, and confident of maintaining his momentum throughout the weekend. Loriz Baz was also extremely fast, ending the session in seventh, two tenths behind Valentino Rossi.

An uncanny insight into the future.

I went out to watch FP2 from trackside with John Laverty, brother and manager to Eugene, and the man who also acts as spotter for the Irishman, watching Laverty and his competitors, comparing riding styles and looking for strengths and weaknesses. His first thought while standing near the top of Turn 1, following the riders as they sweep right into the long, fast section of right-left combinations, was that most of the Ducatis seemed to be struggling with the front pushing wide. How did he know? Laverty demonstrated what he meant by craning at the neck, leaning up and out from the bike in an attempt to try to make it go where he wanted. In what felt like confirmation of John Laverty's observations, Eugene crashed at Turn 2 about five minutes later, pushing the front too far, and not being able to reel it back in.

The only rider not to be pushing the front so hard through Turn 2? Loris Baz. The Frenchman looked comfortable, and was rewarded with a decent lap time.

If the front of the field was interesting, the rear of the field was positively fascinating. That Tito Rabat should be 21st should come as no surprise: the former Moto2 world champion is yet to find his goal in MotoGP, and is lapping at a distance behind the rest of the field.

All is not necessarily what it seems

But the names near him gave pause for thought. Jack Miller suffered a big crash in FP2, which set the Australian back considerably. Bradley Smith, best satellite rider of 2015, was way down in 19th, far lower than he had any business being.

Smith is determined to do something about that, he said, and talked of making radical steps to make an improvement." We're struggling, but I knew that that would be the case today, Smith told reporters. "We're reinventing our whole setting and our whole way of trying to make this motorcycle work, because we weren't finding it where we were. We were lost and nothing seemed to be working, so completely reinventing everything I've learned in the last 24 months. We did that in the afternoon, so I was actually quite pleased I went as well as I did. We changed a lot of things, from riding position to suspension to geometry, so today was the first day of preseason testing.

"That's what we're doing at the moment, because we're not getting closer. We're constantly fighting for something that's not there and not working. So I decided, it's time to scrap everything that we've done so far and try something different."

It seemed to make a difference, Smith told reporters. "The bike seems to react better to me, I seem to be able to make it do more what I want it to do, it makes more logical sense when we're making changes, so I feel that we're in the ballpark. It's just going to take a little to figure it out. Maybe it won't be this weekend, but I hope to figure it out in the next couple of races. Whereas I saw no potential with the other setting. It's a brave move to do, but I scraped two eighths in the first two rounds, and it certainly wasn't going any better, so it was time for a change."

Smith's issues reflect the difficulty the riders and teams face in MotoGP. The Monster Tech 3 team may have had the data modeled, but such plans rarely survive their first contact with reality. The changes affect everyone, from Honda to Aprilia, from big team to small, up and down the paddock. New tires new electronics, and more: there is a lot of work still left to do for the teams. At least conditions permit that in Austin.


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Comments

Another year, same result.  COTA is local, and proud to say it.  The track is a masterpiece.  It's the most difficult track on the calendar.  Elevation, mind bending straight, and lots of difficult turns.  The most physically demanding circuit on the riders on the calendar.  No small feat when you factor in every track on the Earth.  

But can someone catch Marquez and make a fight if it? 4 years in a row?  Please give us a race.  Jorge, Iannone, Andrea, someone latch onto Marc and make it honest.

Rossi is certainly doing his best to nudge the three remaining toes of Lorenzo's foot over to the Ducati Garage cheeky but seriously, that looks a done deal. Silly season about to kick up in earnest. An article on speedweek is suggesting that Marquez also wants to get in on the action too but I think it's nothing more than a tactic to beef up those coffers.

Just a tiny bit of correction. Miller suffered that crash in FP1, not FP2. The way the back of that bike stepped out was just scary.

 

...If they lose Viñales.  I'd like to see them do well and take the next step together.  But, I guess the lure of a works YZR-M1 will just be too tempting for the man.  One plus point is they won't have too much trouble securing a replacement, as all the other riders in the paddock can clearly see the bike is capable of running at the sharp end.  Assuming they'll be retaining Espargaro's services, who else will be riding for them next year?

Please stay with Yamaha. The old Jedi master's mind tricks can't work on the track anymore, but seem to be working in the pits.

Interesting that Smith will be using his time left at Tech 3 to learn development skills. KTM should thank Yamaha.

He's supposedly getting a monster contract from Audi/Ducati/Philip Morris which will be (financially) difficult to reject. On top of it, the Ducati is proving its worth every single session and at Yamaha, Lorenzo will never get the attention that he wants/expects. Especially not now that Valentino has already signed until the end of 2018.

It'll still be a tough decision though. Basically, Lorenzo is happy at Yamaha (https://motomatters.com/news/2009/11/03/lorenzo_i_hope_to_stay_with_yama...) and he has a competitive bike that suits his style. It's a big unknown should he step on the Duc. On the other hand, since dall'Igna joined Ducati, it's much more likely that any issues will be resolved for Lorenzo to become champ again.

My money is on Ducati but hey, guess we'll know in a few weeks time :)

I suppose I can claim without too much fear of contradiction that there two vantage points and subset of the two from which one can look at MotoGP. What vantage spectators like me choose to view determines how we look at the unfolding of the championship and more importantly the silly season's speculations.  If your primary interest is in the riders then the focus is on the rider, but there are some like me who give a little bit more importance to the brand of motorcycle before looking at the rider. I am a Kawasaki fan, and as one, my thoughts are not very rational (fans can never be rational, otherwise they wouldn't be fans). When Kawasaki was in MotoGP I was a little crest fallen that they were always the undisputed leaders in claiming the woodenspoon. But the very same person, that is me, finds it difficult to accept the role that Kawasaki is playing in WSBK where it is the big grown up bully in a toddlers pen (okay that is a bit of an exaggeration but it does have something to say truthfully about what Kawasaki is doing).  I became a Valentino Rossi fan seeing him rise in the ranks in the 125cc and 250cc categories before going to Honda for the 500cc class. Still I chose to ignore that he was riding the brand of bike that I least like which happens to be the Honda (again don't know why but I don't like Honda too much despite having immense respect for their technological skills). When Wayne Rainey was riding in MotoGP I took to liking Yamaha and when Rossi went to Yamaha, I was quite happy. Those were the days when I was still a Rossi fan, now I am no ones. I now only look at the bikes and for some reason unknown I am beginning to gravitate towards the underdogs Ducati and more so Suzuki. 

I like the fact that Suzuki is beginning to look like they are now coming closer to challenging the big two and I always suspected that there is a little bit of a talent deficit in Aleix Espargaro despite his heroics on the CRT machines and the Open Class machines. I also do not think Pol Espargaro is a great talent. I will stick my neck out and say that at best his days in MotoGP will the equivalent of Cal Cruthclow's, but the younger Espargaro is not a character like Cal Crutchlow so he will be out sooner than Crutchlow. Vinales at Suzuki and riding for the championship is what I would like to see, just as much as I would like to see Aprilia also rise up in the ranks and stop MotoGP from being a two (manufacturers) horse race. Ducati maybe can become a challenger but I doubt if Jorge Lorenzo is the man to do it. That is probably my prejudice against the man perhaps but I think the real Lorenzo was the one we saw in the 250cc races, where he was wild because he did not have the electronics to support the "metronomic precision" that he is being associated with in the MotoGP class. 

So from my vantage I am not just into the rider, primarily the manufacturer and then the rider. But with motorcycles becoming like Android devices (more electronics and less of the mechanical element) and the riders' real abilities  being hidden by the abilities of the geeks in the back end, the visceral and raw part of racing, a hall mark of the days of the 500cc days are long gone. I was hopeful that at least there would be a WSBK that would have machines as they are manufactured and raced against each other (not like in India where Honda runs a single make series as does Yamaha and now Suzuki as well), but that is not going to happen. The fact that WSBK has lost all visibility on TV is perhaps indicative of an intent of killing the series slowly. F1 is worse than MotoGP and I am anyway not so hot on cars and F1 cars are cars by stretching both imagination and definition, so I will watch MotoGP. But I really do not know for how long since the manufacturers are all trying to make drivers and riders the least consequential be it on the streets or on race tracks. What is the point of this post? Honestly I do not know. I can hazard a guess though; it could be that everything like brands of motorcycles and the people who ride them are just puppets being controlled by the geeks and their laptops sitting hidden away from view and so it is the increasing loss of human intervention in racing which I probably am unable to accept. I wonder what is it with us? Why are we working so hard to make ourselves redundant?