When riders get off to a blinding start in the first couple of races, it is easy to get carried away and start penciling their name onto the championship trophy. Doing that after just two races is plainly ridiculous. Doing it after three races is hardly any better. Yet the temptation to do so remains strong: when a narrative presents itself, it is hard to resist following it.
That has been the case so far this year. In Moto3, Joan Mir has looked untouchable winning the first two races from tough fights. In Moto2, Franco Morbidelli had dominated, controlling races from start to finish. And coming into Austin, Maverick Viñales had won the first two races of the season quite comfortably, nobody anywhere close to being able to match him.
During practice, a new narrative presented itself in MotoGP. Marc Márquez has dominated the racing at the Circuit of The Americas since it first joined the calendar, winning all four races held there before this year. Maverick Viñales has dominated the opening two races of the year, and came to Austin looking capable of ending Márquez' winning streak.
Duel of the century?
Through free practice and qualifying, the two men traded blows, swapping times at the top of the timesheets. They had half a second or more over the field, and looked set for an epic showdown during the race. If Marc could beat Maverick, he could get his championship back on track, and take the wind out of Viñales' sails. If Maverick could beat Marc, he would claim his place as the new boss of MotoGP, by stealing Márquez' crown at the Repsol Honda's strongest track.
It was easy to get suckered into the narrative, and write the story beforehand of the epic battle which was sure to unfold. But reality intervened, as is its wont. Maverick Viñales' challenge to Marc Márquez lasted just under two laps, the Movistar Yamaha rider slipping off at Turn 18, only his third crash on a Yamaha, but a costly one. Viñales' crash proved that the season is long, and that there is always a lot of racing to be done before Valencia. Any conclusions drawn this early in the championship are inevitable premature, and subject to being contradicted and discarded by events on the ground.
In reality, the race in Austin devolved into a war of attrition, with the rider best able to manage tire degradation triumphing in the end. Maverick Viñales had known this from the beginning, repeating his mantra "we must work for the last ten laps" over and over. But a crash which was inexplicable to him meant he never made it past two laps, making the last ten laps irrelevant.
Why did Viñales crash? The Movistar Yamaha rider was at a loss to explain it. Speaking late on Sunday afternoon, he could only shake his head in disbelief. "I don’t know," he said. "I’m like you now. I don’t know. We check everything. It was all the same. The same speed. Even it was a little bit lower speed than in the morning. We had the same fuel in the tank, so it was a strange crash. I can’t tell you anything about it. It happened."
Viñales did his best not to blame Michelin for the crash, while simultaneously making it clear he believed the front tire was to blame. "I didn’t feel so good with the front tire already from the first lap," he said. "Something strange. I know the tire was not as good as this morning. For sure because on the left side I had some warning on the second lap, at the start of the second lap."
What could have caused the crash? There are any number of explanations. The bumpy track has been difficult all weekend. Viñales may have been slightly off line compared to other laps, and hit a patch of track with fractionally less grip. He could have been pushing hard to try to stay with the Repsol Hondas. The tire could have been performing slightly worse than normal, either because of manufacturing tolerances or because of the way it had been handled. Most probably, it was a combination of several of those things.
In the end, though, the cause doesn't matter to Maverick Viñales. The Movistar Yamaha rider is convinced that neither he nor his team did anything wrong, and so there is nothing to be learned from the experience. He has to get up, dust himself off, and think about Jerez.
Viñales' crash may have changed the dynamics for Marc Márquez, but it didn't change his plan. "It didn’t change my plan on the race because my plan was one plan," he said. "Try to understand the situation, try to understand the race. The mistake of Argentina was a big mistake and I don’t want to repeat again."
Márquez sat behind Dani Pedrosa for a few laps, nursing the hard front tire he had decided to fit five minutes before the race. He hadn't tested it much in practice, and had to judge its performance carefully. "In the beginning of the race I was just trying to take care, trying to understand where was the limit of this tire because I didn’t try a lot on Friday. I was behind Dani trying to manage the race, and then when I saw that he was suffering a little bit, and also Valentino was struggling. I say okay time to attack."
Pedrosa put up a stout defense when Márquez first passed him, the two swapping places several times before Pedrosa was forced to let Márquez go. It took Márquez over half the race, but in the end, his pace was just too much for anyone else to follow. He cruised home to a comfortable victory, his advantage over three seconds.
Looking at the result, it was another typical Márquez win in Austin. Yet if anything, this was a far more conservative win on Márquez' part. "The race was slower but we need to understand also that the temperature increased a lot," Márquez said. "I was able to ride faster because I feel quite good, but in the end victory, 25 points is the same winning plus two seconds or plus ten. This is something that I understand already some races ago. "
This win makes it five wins out of five at Texas for Marc Márquez. It also means he has never lost a MotoGP race on American soil. ("We need to speak with Carmelo, to have more circuits in the USA for the future," Márquez quipped.) Marc Márquez remains unbeatable in America.
It also means he got back a huge chunk of points in the championship. Márquez went from 37 points down on Viñales to just 12 points down, and moved up from eight in the championship to third. If anyone had any thoughts of handing the trophy to Viñales after the first two rounds, they will have had to put them very firmly out of their heads in Austin.
Viñales' crash meant that Valentino Rossi has ended up leading the championship, for the first time since Sepang in 2015. It is the story of Rossi's recent history in MotoGP, performing well through consistency, rather than winning every race. Rossi has been on the podium in all three races so far, and his race in Austin is arguably his best of the year. He was quick through practice, and carried that on into the race, biding his time, passing Pedrosa at the end of the race, and going on to finish a comfortable second.
Rossi's race was not without controversy, however. On lap seven, he nearly came together with Johann Zarco, and was forced to sit the bike up and run across the tarmac on the inside of Turn 3. In the process, he gained a third of a second on the man ahead of him, Marc Márquez. That gain was later nullified, but the whole situation caused a storm of debate among fans.
What actually happened? At the start of lap seven, Rossi was leading Johann Zarco, who had been snapping at his heels for a while. Rossi made a mess of Turn 1, missing the apex and running wide. That put him too far to the inside for Turn 2, which he knew meant his run through the Esses all the way down to Turn 11 was completely ruined. Zarco saw an opportunity which was too good to pass up. "It was necessary to do it like this," Zarco explained, "because there was an opportunity to pass him, and if I asked myself, 'can I do it?' maybe I crash. So, necessary just to do it. "
Zarco squeezed into the inside of Turn 3, just as Rossi turned in, trying to close the door. The two were almost level at that point in the corner, but being on the outside, Rossi was forced to sit up. He sat up, ran on, and rejoined the race a long way ahead, on the tail of Márquez rather than just in front of Zarco. What's more, he did not give up the ground gained either before or after the incident.
After careful review, Race Direction decided to hand Valentino Rossi a penalty of 0.3 seconds, which is how much advantage Rossi gained with that maneuver, according to timekeeping. Although "penalty" is perhaps the wrong word. "The thinking behind the penalty was that you can't gain an advantage by leaving the track," Race Director Mike Webb explained. "There was clearly an advantage because he got closer to Marquez. So we negated that advantage."
It was clearly not Rossi's fault he left the track, Webb acknowledged. But Rossi did not give up the gain he made by doing so. What Rossi could have done is shut off the gas once he rejoined the track, dropped off the back of Márquez and returned to being just ahead of Zarco. But Rossi held onto the gains made by cutting across the tarmac.
The penalty seems incredibly petty, and given the final gaps between Márquez, Rossi, and Pedrosa, also completely irrelevant. It is perhaps better to think of this not as a time penalty, but as a race time correction. It is a more accurate reflection of the time on the track, but applying the correction seems more like nitpicking than judiciously application of the rule of law.
Valentino Rossi was far from happy with the penalty. "For me it’s not right, because I have two choices: or I do like this or we touch and we crash," Rossi said. I read here that it’s gaining advantage and for sure I gain some advantage. 0.3 is okay, but for me the problem is not Race Direction, the problem is Zarco because he’s always very fast. He rides the bike very well. He has a great potential, but this is not Moto2 and if you want to overtake you have to overtake in another way. He always arrives too late. For me you have to stay more quiet."
Was it a harsh move by Zarco? That seems like an exaggeration. Rossi made a mistake at Turn 1, which meant he left the door open at Turns 2 and 3, and Zarco leaped at the chance. The Frenchman drew level with Rossi, but could not pass him. Meanwhile, Rossi was still trying to close the door despite the fact that Zarco was already on the inside of the corner. Who was to blame? They both were. And Race Direction took that and decided against apportioning blame when both parties were the offenders.
Et tu, quoque
Marc Márquez could not resist getting in a punch of his own. "Of course, it was aggressive but in the beginning everybody’s pushing 100%, I’m an aggressive rider," Márquez said of the incident. "Valentino is an aggressive rider. We also overtake in the past very strong. We overtake in the present and we will overtake in the future really strong. So if you are aggressive and you overtake strong, you need to understand that also the other riders are aggressive. It’s always like this. It’s racing." The subtext of Márquez' explanation is that Rossi himself is far too aggressive making passes, and that this time, his chickens have come home to roost.
Rossi blamed Zarco's aggression on having come through the rough and tumble of Moto2, where the closeness of the machines meant that riders had to be more aggressive when they wanted to pass. "For sure Moto2 is different than 250 because everybody has the same bike, more or less everybody, or especially the same engine, the same tires, the same brakes and everything. So that makes overtake more difficult. Always the races are very tight and is difficult to make the difference. Maybe is that, but I don’t know if is the case."
Dani Pedrosa added that one issue is that adapting to MotoGP is more difficult than many think. It is not just a matter of jumping on a bigger bike, it's also important to understand that everything happens at higher speed, Pedrosa explained. Corners approach faster, bikes brake harder, riders push for every inch on the track. The rhythm of riding is different, and adapting to the faster tempo at which everything happens can be a problem.
Not for Zarco, however. The Frenchman was faster than anyone expected in MotoGP. It is easy to forget that Zarco is a rookie, when he looks like he's been riding for years. A quick poll of team managers gave the same results: Nobody expected Zarco to be this quick this fast, and all were surprised at his speed. Zarco is seventh in the championship, and closer than ever to being genuinely competitive.
If Zarco has been impressive in Austin, the Ducati riders have underperformed. Riders on Desmosedicis have been on the podium every year since 2014, and they had arrived in Texas expecting to match that, or perhaps even better. This was a Ducati track, they felt.
All of the Ducati staff were disappointed on Sunday. Andrea Dovizioso finished the race as fastest, but even he was only sixth, some 14 seconds off the pace. Senior Ducati officials complained of a very tough weekend, and that they had expected more of their riders. Jorge Lorenzo had made another step forward, but though he matched the pace of Dovizioso in the first part of the race, graining on the right side of the tire meant he couldn't use the tire properly, and lost a lot of ground in the last 10 laps or so. This is not what Ducati Corse expected, however, either from the experienced Andrea Dovizioso or new boy Jorge Lorenzo.
If the narrative in MotoGP was broken, it was broken in entirely different directions in Moto2 and Moto3. But that is a discussion for another day, and later in the week.
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