Normally, the Grand Prix of the Americas, as the MotoGP round at COTA in Austin is known, is a straightforward affair. 24 MotoGP riders line up on the grid, and 23 of them stage a fierce battle over who is going to come second behind Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider has won every single one of the five editions staged at the Circuit of the Americas. In fact, the Spaniard has never been beaten in any of the nine MotoGP races he has contested on American soil, at Laguna Seca, Indianapolis, or in Austin.
Will someone finally break Márquez' winning streak in the US? On the evidence of the 2018 season so far, the only person capable of beating Márquez at one of his strongest tracks is Marc Márquez himself. In Argentina, the Repsol Honda rider managed to thoroughly sabotage his own race. First by stalling his bike on the starting grid – a grid already thrown out of kilter by the changing weather. Then by trying to make up for the time he lost serving a ride through penalty for a multitude of infractions at the start by charging through the field like a wrecking ball, slamming into one rider after another, taking out his arch nemesis Valentino Rossi, before being hit by another penalty, this time adding 30 seconds to his race time and demoting him out of the points.After the race and in the intervening days since, Rossi has gone on the attack, calling Márquez a dangerous rider who is a threat to everyone on the track with him. He doesn't feel safe on the track with Márquez, Rossi said. Rossi's remarks, while understandable, should be seen within the wider context of his vendetta with Márquez, after he lost the 2015 championship, which Rossi blames entirely on deliberate interference by Márquez. Further stoking the fire, Rossi was pictured in a social media post with a framed picture of the Argentina incident lying on a sofa at his dirt track ranch.
Whatever the root of Rossi's remarks, there can be no doubt that they are a distraction, both for Márquez and for Rossi himself. When the pair arrive at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, they will face questioning on one subject only. And that won't be Márquez' chances of winning on Sunday.
Easier makes it harder
Along with the distraction of relitigating the Argentina race, Márquez will have another obstacle to face, though for many, it will be regarded as an improvement. Two weeks ago, the Circuit of the Americas embarked on a program to help smooth out the worst of the bumps which litter the circuit, created by the mixture of cars which use the track, and pull up ripples in the braking zones. There is some question as to how well the work has been done – reports are that the circuit chose to try shave the top of the bumps, with mixed results. But after the complaints from last year, any improvement will be welcomed.
Why will improving the track surface be a handicap for Marc Márquez? The Repsol Honda rider has been exceptional at managing difficult circumstances and difficult surfaces – one of the reasons he came through the field so fast at Argentina. A smoother track creates quite literally a more level playing field.
The playing field is already more level in other ways. The 2018 Honda RC213V is a better bike than last year, extra power meaning the rider doesn't have to put everything into the braking zones. It is arguably a better bike everywhere, an advantage in a year when both Yamaha and Ducati have improved their bikes some areas only by sacrificing others. The Suzuki has now also proved itself to be competitive with the top three marques, Alex Rins taking his first podium in MotoGP in Argentina, and Suzuki's since Maverick Viñales left.
This level playing field means we find ourselves heading into Austin with Cal Crutchlow leading the championship. The LCR Honda had taken a strong start in Qatar, vying for the podium for part of the race, and winning with a brilliant display of patience in Argentina, waiting for just the right moment to strike while Johann Zarco, Alex Rins, and Jack Miller battled it out in front of him. With Marc Márquez taking himself out of the running, Crutchlow is defending the honor of HRC, and proving that he has matured as a rider and become a genuine threat at every race. If Márquez stumbles in Austin, there is every chance that it will be Cal Crutchlow who picks up the pieces.
He is helped by his incredible fitness. Though Crutchlow likes to brag that he never trains on a motorcycle – an exaggeration, he doesn't ride much motocross, but he does make regular appearances on MX bikes, pit bikes, and Supermoto bikes – he does spend an awful lot of time on a bicycle, racking up tens of thousands of kilometers a season.
That fitness comes into its own at the Circuit of the Americas, which is probably the most physically demanding track on the calendar. A combination of the endless Esses, from Turn 3 all the way to Turn 10, plus heavy braking at Turn 12, the rigors of the uphill braking for Turn 1, before the rollercoaster ride down through Turn 2 make the circuit a punishing one for the riders' bodies, and especially for their cardiovascular systems. If you're not fit, you're not going to be competitive in Austin.
The physical nature of the Austin track offers a tough choice for Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard fractured his wrist in Argentina, after being forced wide onto a damp patch of the track by Johann Zarco. He will be traveling to Texas in the hope of making a decision there on whether to race, but there are easier circuits to come back from a fractured wrist.
If Honda's hegemony is to be broken at last, then you would expect it to be Ducati which is doing the smashing. Andrea Dovizioso does not have a bad record at Austin, finishing second in 2015, and being in contention for second in 2016 until Dani Pedrosa took him out in Turn 1. Last year, the Italian struggled over the bumps, especially down the back straight. A smoother track should help him, and to be honest, he needs the help right now.
These next few circuits are tough for the Desmosedici – Austin was a difficult race last year, and Jerez has never been a strong circuit for Ducati, so salvaging as many points as possible will be important if Dovizioso is to sustain his title challenge. The good news is that Dovizioso is second in the standings with 35 points, 3 points behind the lead Crutchlow, but more importantly, 15 points ahead of Marc Márquez. There are still 17 races to go, but Dovizioso needs to get through the first part of the season as strongly as possible before hitting the Ducati's weakest tracks in the latter half of the year.
How Jorge Lorenzo will fare in Austin is open to question. It has never been one of his favorite tracks, even on the Yamaha. Last year, he managed to be relatively competitive until he started having problems with his front tire. But after a dismal showing in Argentina – Lorenzo struggles badly in mixed conditions with unpredictable grip – added to a crash in Qatar, he needs to add to his total of a solitary point. Lorenzo's marriage to Ducati is looking increasingly moribund, with rumors growing that he is in serious talks with Suzuki to take the place of Andrea Iannone on a bike which would much better suit the natural high-corner-speed style of Lorenzo. Lorenzo will be picking and choosing his races for the rest of the season, but Austin does not look like being a race which will make his target list.
Staying away from distractions
Austin will be a target for the Yamahas, however. Valentino Rossi has had a strong run at the Circuit of the Americas, despite the dominance of Marc Márquez and Honda. The Italian finished on the podium here last year, despite an incident with Johann Zarco which saw him docked three tenths of a second for exceeding track limits when the Frenchman left him little space to escape through the Esses. He had a podium in 2015 too, though he crashed out in 2016 trying to make up too much time through the treacherous Turn 2. Rossi has gotten better and better in Texas, and could turn this in his favor.
But he will have to avoid the distraction of the Argentina aftermath, however. Normally, Rossi has been very good at compartmentalizing issues with other riders, but his hatred of Márquez burns hot and it burns deep. Success in Austin will depend on whether he lets it burn out of control.
Maverick Viñales will be looking to get his season back on track, after a disappointing start to 2018. After winning the first two races of 2017, this year he fought with the front group in Qatar, and was best of the rest in Argentina. Austin is a track that suits the Movistar Yamaha rider: he was fourth there in his second year on the Suzuki, and looked like posing a real challenge to Marc Márquez last year. But a crash on lap 2 left him out of the race, and fuming. He didn't want to blame the crash on the tires, Viñales told the media afterwards, but he and the team had ruled out every other possible explanation.
You get the distinct feeling that Viñales is not too far off a breakthrough. Though he continually looks dejected after every race, Viñales has been close enough to being in contention at the two first races so far. If the dice rolls his way in Texas, he could find his momentum again.
The Fast Frenchman
Perhaps the most interesting prospect in Austin is Johann Zarco. It is a track that suits the Frenchman, as he demonstrated by battling with the Movistar Yamaha of Valentino Rossi for a large part of the race last year. He made huge steps forward last year, and another step again over the off season and in the first couple of races of 2018. At Qatar, he led for most of the race, before a tire issue saw him drop through the field. In Argentina, the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider looked set for his first win until Cal Crutchlow pushed home his advantage at the end. It didn't stop Zarco trying, but the win stayed tantalizingly out of reach.
That win is coming for Zarco at some point, that much is obvious in the way he is riding. A few things need to fall into place for the Frenchman, and Texas could be the place where this starts to happen.
Alex Rins is another rider who has been on the verge of a breakthrough. The first part of that came in Argentina, when the Ecstar Suzuki rider finally got on the podium on the Suzuki GSX-RR. After missing a significant part of the 2017 season due to injury, Rins is finally riding at the level everyone hoped for when he moved up to MotoGP at the beginning of last year. The Spaniard crashed out of the leading group at Qatar, then bagged the podium he had been chasing at Termas De Rio Hondo. The Circuit of the Americas suits the Suzuki, so Rins must be eager to see what he can do at the track.
His teammate Andrea Iannone will also be hoping to make an impression in Austin. The Italian veteran has been outshone by his teammate so far this year, but Iannone has also shown real signs of the speed which he proved he possessed in previous seasons. Iannone's place in Suzuki is looking very tenuous indeed, with Jorge Lorenzo rumored to be lined up to take his seat next year. Iannone needs to put some results on the board to prove he deserves a shot in another factory.
The Circuit of the Americas will be the scene of more than just racing. Significant announcements are expected at the Texan track. That Randy Mamola is to be inducted as a MotoGP Legend is already known. That Alex Rins will announce a two-year extension of his contract with the factory Suzuki team seems a pretty safe shot.
But some satellite teams could make announcements as well. The German-language website Speedweek is reporting that the Marc VDS team will announce a switch from Honda to Suzuki for the next three seasons. The timeframe of that announcement is in line with what MotoGP teams told me back in February: if they are to switch manufacturers, then they need to have contracts signed and in place by the end of April, and Austin is the last race in April.
The reason Speedweek gives for Marc VDS choosing Suzuki over Yamaha is simple: Suzuki offered more competitive machinery, the latest bikes rather than year old machines. Whether the Angel Nieto Team takes on the Yamahas remains to be seen, but at the Jerez Moto2 and Moto3 test in March, the team did not deny they were interested in at least talking to Yamaha about a move.
The Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin, Texas promises the fans surprises aplenty. It has been a weird and interesting season so far. Let's see how long this can continue.
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