If the big question at the Circuit of the Americas was "Who can beat Marc Márquez?" then we found out the answer on Sunday: Nobody. There were only two brief moments during which Márquez was not leading the MotoGP race. Off the line, Jorge Lorenzo was a fraction quicker going into Turn 1, but Márquez turned earlier and already had the lead on the exit. Lorenzo tried once more into the hairpin of Turn 11, but overshot and ran wide, Márquez taking back the lead immediately.
After that, Márquez was gone. Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo kept Márquez honest for a couple of laps, but the Repsol Honda rider's relentless pace forced them to concede. Márquez went on to win his fourth straight Grand Prix of the Americas, and his tenth straight win in the United States of America. Since ascending to MotoGP, he has never been beaten on American soil.
There are plenty of adjectives you could throw at Márquez' performance – imperious, dominant, superlative – but perhaps the best word to sum up Marc Márquez at the Circuit of the Americas is "Unbeatable." His rivals will have to wait another year to try to find a way of stopping him.
The problem with performances such as that of Márquez' is that it robs the race of excitement. The race was basically settled by a quarter distance, Márquez lapping relentlessly in the 2'04s, where the rest of the field could only manage 2'05s. It can be a joy to watch Marc Márquez so visibly wring the neck of his Honda RC213V around COTA, but you did so knowing the race was a foregone conclusion.
Ten green bottles ...
That does not mean the race held little of interest. Behind Márquez, a fascinating race unfolded, with significant consequences in the championship. Rider after rider crashed out, prompting claims among observers that there are serious problems with the Michelins. As we shall see, that would be putting it a little too strongly, as the causes of the crashes were many and varied. But at its heart, the issue remains that Michelins are not like Bridgestones, and you can't afford to ride them like that.
All of the crashes were over the front, as the riders pushed a little too hard to try to keep up. The riders had a choice between two usable front tires, with nobody opting to use the hard front. Aleix Espargaro explained the difference between the two as follows. "The 36 [medium] compound is quite soft, and if you ask too much of it, you lose the front, immediately. The 34 [soft] is much better, but the problem is that we block in a straight line."
Leaving aside Michelin's arcane and incomprehensible numbering system (which nobody understands, and which Michelin refuses to explain), the rider choice boiled down to the following: They could either opt for a front tire with a softer construction, which had enough feel, but was too soft under braking, and lacked stability. Or they could go with a soft tire with a stiffer construction, which was better under braking but lacked feel, giving no warning when you reach the limit.
Paying the penalty
Rider after rider used the same word to describe the dilemma they faced: mistakes. You cannot afford to make any mistakes with the Michelin front, or you will be punished mercilessly. This is in contrast to the Bridgestone fronts, which were exceptionally forgiving. "It's really tricky for the rider when we are full tank, and we are really nervous for the race to make no mistakes," Aleix Espargaro explained.
It would be a mistake (there's that word again) to regard Michelin as being at fault here. In reality, it was the Bridgestones which were the outliers. Valentino Rossi explained the difference, after he had crashed out at Turn 2 when he hit a bump. "For me like this is quite normal. I think it is like with the Pirelli in Superbike. If you make a mistake, you crash." You could get away with a small mistake with the Bridgestones, he said. You can't do that with the Michelins.
Though Michelin continue to work on both construction and compounds for their tires, a lot of the problem is down to the teams still searching for the ideal set up, and riders still trying to unlearn habits picked up in the preceding years. They are succeeding more and more in that during practice, but it is a little different in the race. "In the practice it's difficult, in the race, full tank and race mode, it's extremely difficult," Aleix Espargaro said. Valentino Rossi concurred. "The Michelin tires have good performance, are good to ride and I like them. The problem is you can’t make a mistake."
There is perhaps another factor at play here, one raised by several riders themselves. Loris Baz and Stefan Bradl both agreed that pressure is also a major factor this year. With the field so much closer than before, and the differences in performance between the bike much smaller, riders are pushing harder to make the difference themselves. In a race situation, especially early in the race, that can lead to mistakes being made. And mistakes lead inevitably to an uncomfortable encounter with the tarmac.
Despite the fact that five riders crashed during the MotoGP race, there was not a single cause you could pinpoint. Cal Crutchlow owned up to his own crash, pushing the front into Turn 11 to try to compensate for a lack of acceleration elsewhere. Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa were doing something similar, but only Márquez managed to keep the bike upright.
Bradley Smith blamed his crash on oil on the track, left there from a blown engine during the first MotoAmerica Superbike race (won, incidentally, by Toni Elias, the former Moto2 champion reinventing himself in the US). Smith said he got a little off line following Crutchlow in to the corner, hit a greasy patch and went down. What convinced Smith the issue was one of something on the track was his second crash, later on. He had approached the same corner with a lot less lean angle, but with precisely the same result.
Both Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa owned up to mistakes in their own crashes. Rossi said there were two bumps in the corner he crashed at, and that perhaps he had changed his line slightly on that lap. "You have to be concentrated, precise and try not to make any mistake in the race," he said.
The biggest man in the paddock
Dani Pedrosa said he locked the front going into Turn 1, and that had caused his RC213V to get all bent out of shape. As he tipped it in, the bike was still moving too violently, and the front let go and put him on the floor. Adding insult to injury, Pedrosa's bike shot straight up the hill and wiped out the rear tire of Andrea Dovizioso's Ducati, the Italian taken out of a race through no fault of his own for the second race in a row.
How Pedrosa reacted to the incident is a mark of the true greatness of the man. Recognizing he had made a mistake, he rushed over first to see Dovizioso as the Italian lay on the ground. When the two men returned to the pits, Pedrosa went straight out of his own garage and into the garage of Dovizioso, apologizing first to the Italian, and explaining what had happened. He made no excuses, and accepted the blame, unlike so many other riders in the past. Dani Pedrosa is the biggest man in the paddock, and a genuine gentleman.
Dovizioso acknowledged that while speaking to the media afterwards. "I know Dani for many years," Dovizioso said. "Dani is not a rider who takes many risks normally. Everybody is on the limit. Mistakes can happen. But Dani is not a kamikaze, trying to overtake you every time on the brakes. So it’s bad, he made a mistake and this is the reality. When somebody makes a mistake and it creates a problem for another rider, it’s bad. But from Dani it’s different, compared to Argentina."
Turning things around?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the clash between Dovizioso and Pedrosa was the fact that Pedrosa was even in a situation which made it possible. All weekend long, Pedrosa had struggled, barely making an impression. In the race, the Repsol Honda rider was suddenly battling for the podium. What had changed? Not the bike. "The bike was the same as in practice," Pedrosa told the media. "I was just trying to ride it in a different way. I learned quite a lot in those laps so I hope I can benefit from that at the next GP."
Márquez' outstanding victory leaves him sitting pretty at the top of the championship standings. The Repsol Honda rider is the only one of the title favorites not to have had a DNF so far this year, so he leads the man in second place, Jorge Lorenzo, by 21 points, and Lorenzo's Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi by 33 points. But that situation is unlikely to last for long. Of the 21 regular starters on the grid, just seven have finished every race without crashing. There is still a very long way to go in the championship.
While it is all too tempting to speak of the failures, the successes are also worthy of mention. Jorge Lorenzo could not match the pace of Márquez, but he was clearly the second best rider on the grid, without question. Maverick Viñales bested his teammate once again, taking fourth after a difficult start. Aleix Espargaro was happy to take fifth, though less thrilled to have been beaten by Viñales. "Half the paddock want Maverick for next year, so my target is to beat him as soon as I can," Espargaro commented. Further down, Stefan Bradl managed a top ten finish, but was especially happy with the progress made with electronics. Aprilia have been struggling, but they are slowly closing the gap. Both Bradl and Alvaro Bautista have been working hard on improvements, and they are close to reaping the rewards of their labor.
The difference between those who crash and those who don't are also having an interesting effect in the championship. That Márquez, Lorenzo, and Rossi should be top three is barely a surprise. But that Pol Espargaro is fourth in the standings may raise a few eyebrows. Or that Hector Barbera should be first Ducati, the Avintia rider on the GP14.2 two points ahead of Andrea Dovizioso on the factory Desmosedici GP. Eugene Laverty is the best rider of the British Isles (to call him best British rider would open a can of worms too complex to examine here), a result achieved through consistency and persistence. Though we are only three races in, it is clear that the title race is going to be absolutely fascinating.
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If the MotoGP race was a foregone conclusion, both Moto2 and Moto3 threw up racing which was a little tighter, and a little more tense. Alex Rins may have led the Moto2 race from lights to flag, but the way Sam Lowes kept him honest for most of the race showed that the class is a lot more competitive this year than it has been. The top three – Rins, Lowes, Johann Zarco – look set to contest the championship, with all three being fairly evenly matched. After a few years of a relative lack of interest, Moto2 is finding its spark once again.
It is also worth noting Sam Lowes' second place finish. Speaking after the press conference, the Englishman put his result down to a change in attitude. He felt he could have caught Rins if he had pushed, but it would have meant taking too many risks, and probably ending up in the gravel. This year, Lowes settled for points, took over the lead in the championship (by a single, solitary point) and moved on to Jerez. Last year, as he put it, "I would have tried to catch Rins, crashed, and been sat crying in the back of the race truck."
The Moto3 race was equally intriguing, and exemplary of the career of Romano Fenati. The Italian allowed Jorge Navarro to escape, then chased down the Estrella Galicia rider, before leaving the Spaniard behind him. Fenati's race was a reminder of exactly what the Italian is capable of, when the stars align. It was also just what the team needed, after erroneous reports in the Spanish media that the Sky VR46 team were planning to expand into MotoGP. That had caused them problems with their sponsor Sky Italia, as their current plans only foresee them expanding into Moto2 with Fenati in 2017. Victory pointed the spotlight back where it belonged: on just how strong the team can be.
Fenati's revival was a blow for Jorge Navarro, who is inching closer to his first Grand Prix victory. It was not to be in Austin, also dashing the hopes of Spanish supporters. For a series supposedly dominated by Spaniards, it has been 18 months since the last Spanish victory in Moto3, Efren Vazquez the last Spaniard to win, at Sepang in 2014.
Brad Binder is also chasing his first win, but the South African came up short again in Texas. But his third podium in a row put him in charge of the Moto3 championship, leading the title race by three points over Navarro. Binder is killing it with consistency, but would kill for a win. It surely won't be long.
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