The most remarkable statistic about the Grand Prix of The Americas is surely this: Since his ascent to the MotoGP class, Marc Márquez has won every single race he has competed in at a circuit in the United States of America. He won both US races during his two years in Moto2 as well. In fact, you have to go back to 2010, and Márquez' final year in 125s to find the reigning world champion's last defeat on US soil. America agrees with Marc Márquez, though that does not automatically include all Americans as well.
So after a decidedly mediocre start to his defense of the 2016 MotoGP title, the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas is the right place to get his season back on track. He comes to COTA knowing he can win, and knowing he can win on an uncompetitive machine. That knowledge alone will be worth a tenth or two in Austin, perhaps enough to give him the edge over the all-conquering hero of the hour Maverick Viñales.
Why does COTA suit Márquez so well? It is really hard to say. Perhaps because it offers so many opportunities to make up time on the brakes. First, there's the uphill monster of Turn 1, perhaps the weirdest first corner of the season (fittingly keeping Austin weird). Then there's Turn 11, the hard, sharp hairpin before the long back straight, at the end of which there is Turn 12, another spot requiring hard braking. And at the end of the lap, the two final corners, Turn 19 and Turn 20, which are shorter, but just as fierce.
Perhaps it's not so much the braking, but more the strange section of combination corners stretching between Turn 2 and Turn 10. They are the kind of corners that reward the ability to turn on a dime, and the all-front-end, all-the-time Honda deals well with those. Or perhaps the corners through the Stadium Section, and around the Grand Plaza.
Too many notes
All those corners to not make for a great racing experience. Indeed, any track which has 20 corners probably has five or six too many. It's not just the number of corners either, it's their placement. The circuit layout is perhaps best described as finicky, with lots of turns squashed up against each other, then vast stretches of unbroken free space set out in straight lines. It is track design as arhythmic and atonal free jazz composition, the designers working so hard to impress their audience with their brilliance that it becomes indecipherable. Which is really just a way of saying that the track design is a mess.
Yet it is not without its attractions. The uphill climb to Turn 1, while riders are hard on the brakes before turning at the crest of the hill, is a nightmare for engineers and crew chiefs. It tests the brakes, but much more than that, it tests suspension setup, and the ability of a rider's crew to find a workable compromise that will prevent the front end from bottoming, yet not be far too stiff around the rest of the circuit.
Braking for Turn 1 is just the half of it. The next problem is having the courage to wait until you think you've missed the corner to turn in. Throw the bike on its left side too early, and you miss the exit of the corner and find yourself looking at the fence. Wait too long, and well, it's a good thing there's a gravel trap there.
It's all downhill from Turn 1, literally at first, and figuratively after Turn 2. The downhill sweep right at Turn 2 is slightly off camber: get it wrong (as so many do), and it's game over. Those first two corners are some of the most challenging on the calendar. From there, the track enters Ornette Coleman Bizarroworld. You may like that sort of thing. Myself, I'm not a fan.
The rider vs himself
Can Márquez triumph at the Bizarroworld he has owned since its inception? If there were a year you would bet against him, it would be now. Márquez' 2017 season is off to a rough start. A fourth place finish in Qatar, a position dictated by the use of the medium, rather than the hard front tire. Then crashing out of the lead in Argentina, pushing hard from the opening laps. The odds have not been favorable so far.
Is Márquez spooked by the rapid rise of Maverick Viñales? It has certainly been obvious throughout winter that the two Spaniards were a cut above the rest of the pack. Viñales has carried his testing from on through the first two races, racking up two race victories to add to his timesheet-topping tests. Márquez is clearly aware that his biggest challenge comes from the Movistar Yamaha rider. Is he feeling the pressure? Surely. But Márquez' history of operating under pressure is second to none. Anyone questioning Márquez' mental resilience should go watch the 125cc race at Estoril from 2010, then remind themselves he was just seventeen and a half at the time.
The bike isn't helping, of course, with Honda riders complaining that even with the new big bang engine, the RC213V remains very physical to ride, and has no grip out of corners. It is hard to tell just where the Honda stands at the moment, given the conflicting messages coming from Honda riders. Is it just a matter of fine tuning the electronics? Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Cal Crutchlow, and the Marc VDS riders will be hoping it is. Austin is probably a little too early to hope for a fix. Which may mean that Márquez finds himself with a lot of pressure on his shoulders once again.
Will the triumphant march continue?
The other half of the Márquez in Texas equation is whether Maverick Viñales can beat him. The signs are ominous for the Repsol Honda rider. Viñales goes very well around the Circuit of the Americas: he finished second in Moto3 the first time the series visited the circuit in 2013, then won the following year in just his second Moto2 race. The first visit on a MotoGP bike was less successful, Viñales finishing ninth aboard the Suzuki GSX-RR, though the bike struggled to compete in its first year in MotoGP. Last year, he crossed the line in fourth, an impressive feat on a bike which was still slower than the competition. Viñales is ready to tackle Texas, and that is a daunting prospect for anyone, let alone Marc Márquez.
Viñales is on a roll too. Fastest in testing, then leaving the first two races with a win to his name. He has mastered the Yamaha M1 quickly, and is nigh on unbeatable. His weaknesses are his starts, and the early laps of the race, where he tends to lose ground. His strengths are that once he is underway, he is nigh on unbeatable. Nigh on? Just plain unbeatable, on the evidence so far.
What of his teammate? Valentino Rossi has complained that the 2017 Yamaha M1 does not suit him as well as the older bike did, as he cannot brake as he wants to. He is undecided on where exactly the blame lies, whether it is the construction of the 2017 Michelin front tire, or an artifact of the weight and balance of the bike itself. The stiffer construction front will not be at Austin, so he may have to wait until the Jerez test to put the tire through its motions and assess whether it really is the tire or the bike. Until then, his fate is in the hands of his crew, and their ability to work with the weight distribution of the bike.
For someone who complains about the front tire and front end issues, Valentino Rossi is remarkably competitive. Third in Qatar followed by second in Argentina puts him second in the championship. Rossi is never far from the front come Sunday, either his crew or himself finding that little bit extra to make him competitive. If someone could bottle up Sunday, they could make a fortune selling it to Valentino Rossi on a Friday and Saturday morning.
Rossi arrives in Texas feeling confident. The Yamaha veteran has had a good run in recent years at the Austin track. He finished third here in 2015, and looked set to do better last year, but got a poor start and pushed too hard too early trying to catch up. Rossi will want to make amends for his crash last year, caught out at the treacherous Turn 2.
While Márquez and Viñales will command most of the attention this weekend, a lot of people will have one eye (or more) on the Ducati garage. There are plenty of reasons to be paying attention: not least because Andrea Dovizioso is a dark horse for the win in Austin. The Italian has two podiums at the circuit, in 2014 and 2015, and was in podium position when he was taken out at Turn 1 by Dani Pedrosa, in a very rare mistake from the Spaniard. Dovizioso finished second at Qatar, not far behind Viñales, and was then wiped out of the race in Argentina when Aleix Espargaro made a mistake.
The Ducati was already a proven package at Austin, and this year's bike is even better. The Desmosedici has a lot of things going for it in Texas, and having Dovizioso aboard adds just a little bit more.
Rumor mill on standby
Dovi, unfortunately, is likely to be overlooked for most of the weekend. His teammate Jorge Lorenzo will be soaking up the attention, despite the fact that he is eighteenth in the championship rather than third, like his teammate. After up-and-down results in winter testing, Lorenzo's season has gotten off to a moderately disastrous start. The Spaniard had a miserable start in Qatar, then got only as far as the first corner in the race in Argentina. That was in no small part his own doing, failing to set a quick lap on Friday, then finding himself stuck in Q1, and way down on the grid. Trying to make up too much time off the line was a recipe for disaster.
Yet Lorenzo claims he was confident, after making a breakthrough in Argentina. He finally understood that he had made a mistake changing his riding position to be much lower when he first got on the Ducati, and that he should have stuck with the original seat position, which puts the rider much higher up. If there is a track where he can take advantage of the new seating position, it is Austin, as it is a track where the Ducati is known to be a contender. If he is still struggling with the bike, then that will be real cause for concern in Borgo Panigale.
It would be foolish to write off Dani Pedrosa in Austin. The first two years the series visited the circuit, Pedrosa finished second. The third year, 2015, Pedrosa was forced to skip while he recovered from arm pump surgery. Last year, an uncharacteristic mistake saw him take out Andrea Dovizioso, an act he was immediately contrite about. This is a circuit where Pedrosa can be competitive, and he will need to be if he is to get his season back on the rails. Pedrosa, like Márquez, crashed in Argentina. He can't afford to do that again in Texas.
The other factories
For Suzuki, the big question mark is what they can do without Maverick Viñales. Andrea Iannone has shown a lot of promise on the 2017 GSX-RR, but he has also shown himself to be as error prone and thoughtless as he was at Ducati (and before that in Moto2 and 125...). The bike goes well around the Texan circuit, and Iannone has finished better each successive year he has raced here. Last year, he finished third, which bodes well for 2017.
Yet Iannone must also be cautious. So far, he has crashed out in Qatar after a braking mistake saw him hit the back of Marc Márquez' Honda, then a jump start in Argentina meant he was forced to serve a ride through penalty and ended up finishing sixteenth. What he needs is a solid points finish. Whether he has the patience to lock one up is another question.
Perhaps the most interesting variable in Texas is Aleix Espargaro. The Spaniard has been riding exceptionally well since his switch to Aprilia, and he has melded almost symbiotically with the RS-GP. Espargaro loves the way he can ride the bike deep into corners on the brakes and still turn it on a dime. That sounds pretty much ideal for a quick lap round COTA.
We can't forget the rich depth of the field in the satellite ranks. Cal Crutchlow already has one podium to his name this year, a brilliantly conservative ride in Argentina. The downside to that is that the Englishman may allow himself to be tempted into pushing for a stronger result in Austin, and at the moment, pushing that little bit harder on the Honda usually involves a trip to the gravel, and then to the Clinica Mobile.
Then there's the Tech 3 Terrors. Johann Zarco led the race in Qatar before crashing out, then finished a very solid fifth in Argentina. He has not won in Texas on the Moto2 bike, but he finished on the podium the last two seasons. Zarco's learning arc is steep, and where he may end up is a mouthwatering prospect.
His teammate is in a similar predicament: fellow Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider, and fellow rookie, Jonas Folger has gotten a blistering start to his career. Tenth in Qatar, followed by sixth in Argentina puts him sixth in the championship. Folger is a much better rider on a MotoGP bike than he was in Moto2, it seems.
Ducati's dark horses
The satellite Ducati riders are also to be watched carefully. Scott Redding, after all, sits in fourth in the championship. Since the switch back to last year's forks, the Pramac Ducati rider has made significant progress. He is a dark horse to be watched very carefully.
Alvaro Bautista has made more of a splash, however. The Pull&Bear Aspar rider – fielding a Ducati Desmosedici GP16, like Redding – has a fourth place finish and a crash. Bautista has been consistently quick during testing, and was impressively consistent in the second half of the race in Argentina. If the bike goes as well round the Circuit of The Americas as we think it will, Bautista could well cause an upset in Texas.
Whoever wins on Sunday, there will be an upset or two throughout the field, for such is the nature of MotoGP in 2017. Historically, the racing has not been great in Austin – a free jazz approach to track design leads to processional racing, it would appear. But this is 2017, and so far, the season has been nuts. As the locals like to brag about keeping Austin weird, then MotoGP ought to fit right in this year.
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