There is a lot to love about the Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin. As an event, it is fantastic: the facilities at the track are great, the city of Austin is a wonderful place to visit, with a lively party atmosphere downtown, and a million other things to do. The landscape the track sits on is great for spectators, and the surrounding countryside is charming.
It is a race the riders love, and they have grown to love the track. "I like this track very much, it's very good," Valentino Rossi says of the Circuit of the Americas. "It's good to ride because it's very difficult, you have emotional corners, so it's good." The bumps around the track have made it much tougher to ride, but the layout is still a favorite among many of the MotoGP paddock. It is highly technical and has a bit of everything: hard braking, hard acceleration, fast corners, slow corners, flowing combinations of corners which reward precision.
As great at the track is, it still produces rather lackluster races. The average margin of victory over all six editions has been 3.458 seconds, and that is discounting the time lost to the inevitable easing off to celebrate in the certain knowledge that victory is in the bag. The gap has never been under 1.5 seconds, and there has never been a closely fought battle for victory, or even the podium spots, in the history of racing at the track. The result of the MotoGP race in Austin is usually set in stone before the halfway mark.
Even the normally mental Moto3 races are decided by seconds rather than hundredths. Only two of the six Moto3 races run so far were won by a margin of less than a second. In Moto2, the winning margin has only once been under two seconds. That was in 2015, when Sam Lowes beat Johann Zarco by 1.999 seconds. The result in Moto2 has never been close.
Why are the races at COTA so processional? That is a difficult question to answer. The track has some truly magnificent corners, perhaps the finest being the fast, downhill, slightly off camber sweep of Turn 2. But very few of them combine in such a way as to allow a rider to counterattack once they have been passed. Two of the four tightest corners lead onto long straights, giving the rider making the pass a chance to escape.
There are not enough sections with a variety of lines for riders to choose an avenue of attack, the section from Turn 7 through Turn 9 being an honorable exception. The technical nature of the Esses means that if you make a mistake in Turn 3, you lose ground all the way to Turn 9 which you can never make up again, inevitably spacing out the field. The Circuit of the Americas is the circuit best equipped to host a round of MotoGP. But it never makes for thrilling racing.
What happens at COTA is that 24 riders turn up on Friday to watch Marc Márquez take pole on Saturday, then take victory by a country mile on Sunday. 2018 was no exception. Or rather, 2018 was exceptional for the blatant way in which Márquez casually disregarded the competition and laid waste to the field. It was a response to Argentina, he said, and the events of that race. "It's the first time that I approach the race in a different way," he told the press conference. "Normally every year I was waiting behind somebody and then attack at the end because then the race is shorter and I prefer it like that. Honestly, after what happened in Argentina, today I changed my strategy and I tried to lead from the beginning and open the gap, because I feel in the practice that it was possible."
After the torrid events of Argentina, and Marc Márquez' wild and ill-judged charge through the field, Race Direction may have wished for a much quieter time at the race in Austin. That was precisely what Márquez gave them. Unfortunately for the fans, it was also pretty uneventful for them. Anyone decrying the melodrama of Argentina were given an object lesson in being careful what they wish for.
But Márquez' achievement should not be undervalued. It was an utterly dominant display of just how vast the Repsol Honda rider's superiority is at COTA. Having been demoted three places on the grid for getting in the way of Maverick Viñales during qualifying and forced to start in fourth, he gained two places off the line and into the first corner, then sat on the tail of Andrea Iannone, who had taken the lead after an outstanding start. Once the bikes hit the back straight, Márquez gave his Honda RC213V its head, and powered past the Suzuki and into the lead.
Iannone hung on valiantly for three laps, but by the time he crossed the line to end lap 4, he was already over a second behind. Seeing the gap, Márquez pressed home his advantage, taking another second out of Iannone on lap 5, then gradually pulling away until he had a comfortable lead. After Maverick Viñales had passed Iannone for second, Márquez stepped up his pace to prevent the Movistar Yamaha rider, and the only man he regarded as a rival at COTA, from getting any nearer.
"When I saw I had five seconds, and Viñales was there, then I pushed a little bit more," Márquez told the press conference. "I increased to seven seconds and then I stayed there to just finish the race." If he hadn't cruised across the line in extravagant celebration, losing 3 seconds in the process, Márquez win would have been by the biggest margin in the dry since the Le Mans race in 2016.
Title chasing heating up
Victory in Texas puts Márquez right back in the championship hunt. He is back in second place, and just a solitary point behind new championship leader Andrea Dovizioso. That is in stark contrast to last season, when he left Austin trailing Valentino Rossi by 18 points. And it is important as the Grand Prix circus heads back across the Atlantic for the meat of the championship at circuits all over Europe. "It’s important to come back in the top of the championship, second but fighting for the top after a zero in Argentina," Márquez said. "But for me the most important is how I feel with the bike. The feeling is sweet. I’m enjoying a lot. But now the most important is see how it works in Europe. In Europe is completely different tracks, narrow, smaller. We must maybe change the setup, but the base what we have now in this kind of circuit like today is working really good."
It was a good day for Maverick Viñales as well. Like Márquez, his 2018 season is unfolding very differently to last year. In 2017, Viñales came to Texas having won the first two races, then crashed out on the second lap trying to hurry through the early laps and stay with Marc Márquez. This year, Viñales has two solid point scoring finishes, and has grown stronger at every race. The Movistar Yamaha rider had outstanding pace throughout the weekend, matching the lap times of Márquez during FP4 on Saturday.
It looked like he might be able to take the fight to Márquez at COTA. When I asked Wilco Zeelenberg, rider analyst to the Spaniard, if he thought that Viñales could win at Austin, Zeelenberg clamped down on excessive expectations. "First of all, he has to finish a race and aim to get on the podium," the Dutchman said.
Viñales did exactly that on Sunday, and despite his desire to win every race in which he starts, he finished the race pretty happy in second. "Honestly, we enjoyed this weekend so much," he told the press conference. "Even if we still didn’t feel we are at the maximum level we can be, we feel quite strong. We know we improve quite good things from Argentina and we have a way to go to improve even more. We start to understand how to go fast on this 2018 Yamaha bike. But I’m actually really happy. Today I think this was the maximum we could do."
Second place in Texas puts Viñales on the right track to perform once MotoGP returns to Europe. The improvements made to the bike had put Viñales and Yamaha into a positive upward spiral. Those improvements were part of a holistic process in which both rider and bike get better together, Viñales explained. "In motorcycle racing, it’s all one piece. If something is missing then the rider cannot push as he wants. The small changes we did give me the chance to push a little bit more the bike, to feel more confidence with all the bike. To improve the bike lap by lap, trying to understand better. But we did a big improvement on the electronics."
What Viñales really needs is a couple of days testing with no interruptions, he told the press conference. "It looks like my season is going to start when I have two days full test where I can push at the maximum and we can try really big different things. On the weekend it’s so difficult to try things, even more if you have wet track, dry track. But anyway, I’m really happy. The team is working well. I know we are getting back stronger and stronger."
Viñales had passed Andrea Iannone after the Italian had been forced to abandon his attempt to stay with Márquez. The Suzuki rider had been unable to hold off Viñales, but once behind the Spaniard, he managed to secure third place, the first time Suzuki have managed back-to-back podiums since 2008. More importantly, Iannone's podium came on top of a very strong weekend, the Italian always in contention and qualifying on the front row.
"I think it’s a good result for us after a really good weekend," Iannone said. "I’m really happy. In any case, it’s important, now we come back in Europe and last year Jerez and Le Mans are two difficult tracks for us. But I think in any case this year we arrive in a different situation. I arrive with a good energy, with a better feeling with the bike. For sure I hope we continue this way."
Turning up the heat
Iannone's podium meant that Valentino Rossi lost out. That was painful for the Movistar Yamaha rider, as his intention had been to get on the podium in Texas as a step up for the start of the European leg of the season. "The race was not so bad, but it was a little bit worse than I expected," Rossi told reporters after the race. I hoped to have 2'05.5, 2'06 pace because Friday afternoon and also Saturday afternoon I was on that pace. And I know that with that pace I can fight for the podium, the target was to fight for the podium."
The sunny weather and highest track temperatures of the weekend left Rossi just outside the perfect setup window. "Unfortunately I suffered more with the heat, especially with the front tire. I never suffered during the practice, but today, especially in the fast corners, I was too much in the limit. So I had to slow down a little bit, try to stay close to Iannone for the podium, but he was stronger than me. At the end unfortunately, I wasn't able to fight."
The solution to his problems would not have been to switch to the harder front tire, Rossi said. "We need to make a different balance of the bike maybe, because for us, the hard front doesn't work," he told reporters. Had it not been so cold on Friday and Saturday, Rossi felt he would have a better chance at getting the setup right.
A good result from a bad result
Andrea Dovizioso's situation was perhaps the polar opposite of Valentino Rossi's. The factory Ducati rider had suffered through what looked like being a catastrophic weekend, qualifying in eighth but never truly competitive. At a circuit where Márquez was certain to dominate, Dovizioso looked like losing a lot of points to the Spaniard.
A complex sequence of events helped prevent that. First, Dovizioso made the decision to switch to the aerodynamic fairing, which helped with a lot of the wheelie the bike had been suffering with in the first-gear corners leading onto the longer straights. Second, Cal Crutchlow crashed out in front of him, moving him up a place and taking out a serious rival for points. And thirdly, Dovizioso could use the horsepower and braking ability of the Desmosedici GP18 to trounce Johann Zarco with three laps to go.
Finishing fifth 13 seconds behind the winner was not the result he had hoped for, Dovizioso said, but he was still relatively satisfied. "This is not a good result," he told us. "This is not a good gap. But in the way we start this weekend, I’m happy because Friday we were very far, and especially without the feeling, a good feeling. That is even more important. I think we took the right decision with the fairing and with the setup. We arrive quite late, but it was good to arrive with the speed. At the end I took the maximum."
Dovizioso and Ducati had already pinpointed COTA as a track where they would struggle. "We already knew before the race we couldn’t be fast in this track, because we know where we improve during the winter, and we knew here it was a problem. So I can’t be happy about that because we confirm still our negative point is too big. But at the end, we are first in the championship. The championship is very close, so it’s not too important, but at the end after three races it means we managed the three races not in a perfect way, but in a good way. About that, about my style, my riding style, this weekend I’m happy because it was very, very difficult."
Leading the championship means that Dovizioso returns to Europe in much position than he did at the same point in the season as last year. "Last year here we went home with a big gap from the leader," he said. "The positive thing is we have to wait for Mugello, if it will be like last year or not."
The real threat was that with so many competitive bikes and riders, it was easy to lose a lot of points on a bad day. "I’m not so relaxed about that because it looks like all the riders are stronger than last year," Dovizioso said. "Suzuki is stronger. A lot of rider are strong that struggled last year. So when you can fight for the podium like this weekend, you can lose a lot of points. This is not the best for our championship."
Five in ten
There were rides worthy of note throughout the field. Jack Miller and Aleix Espargaro came through the field from eighteenth and nineteenth on the grid respectively to finish ninth and tenth. Espargaro's tenth place finish on the Aprilia RS-GP made it five manufacturers in the top ten, a sign of both the equality of the manufacturers, and of the huge improvements the Aprilia have made. Knowing that this is their worst track, Aprilia have elected to stay on at Austin for an extra day of testing on Monday.
Tito Rabat had another very strong showing on the Reale Avintia Ducati, finishing in eighth ahead of Miller and Espargaro, and also of Jorge Lorenzo on the factory Ducati. Lorenzo was as disillusioned as we have seen him, publicly expressing doubts over the efficacy of the Ducati Desmosedici GP18. "I'm very disappointed and very sad. Today is not a good day for me. Difficult to accept this result, but there is no other way than to forget this race, think positively, keep working very hard, as hard as I am working now, and the results for the moment are not coming."
He had faced a litany of problems, Lorenzo said. "Firstly at the start, it is a little bit more difficult to start with the new bike than last year. Probably we didn't choose the right tire on the rear, it was very hard and it was spinning so much and moving so much. Very physical track and with the new bike I believe that I struggle more physically, especially in the braking. We have to find a solution for the future."
Though Lorenzo still believes he will achieve some mastery of the Ducati, it is hard to see how much longer either party will be willing to stick with the other. Lorenzo will be forced to take a pay cut whatever happens, and so he may choose to try his luck with another factory in the hope of being more competitive on a different bike, and just swallow the loss in wages. A decision on his future may yet take a while, however, as Suzuki, who have been linked to Lorenzo, are rumored to be looking at much younger riders.
The physically demanding nature of the COTA track drew superhero comparisons with Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider had ridden just a week after having a fractured wrist pinned, an injury that would normally take six weeks to fully heal. But he had not circulated slowly at the back in the hope of lucking into some points. Instead, he had taken advantage of some freshly applied painkillers to push hard at the start and secure as many points as possible.
He had not expected to finish as high as seventh that morning, when he had been suffering badly with the pain. "Honestly, this morning I felt very bad in the warm up, I felt sore and I felt with not so much energy," Pedrosa explained. "But just before the race, I could recover and they helped me with the pain for the race. So I could have a little bit less pain at the beginning of the race, and this was very important, because when I started I felt a little bit less pain and this allowed me to focus more in the race. And of course I didn't have more power by having less pain, I couldn't do things faster, but I could be more focused."
Pedrosa had hung with the second group for as long as possible, before being forced to admit defeat. "I stuck with the train for as long as I could, and then tried to keep the pace for as long as I was able to," the Spaniard told reporters. "I struggled at the end to control my bike, but I still had some gap behind and I could manage it. I was behind Dovi and Zarco, but it was very difficult for me to approach and to attack, because as I said, I was more cruising than managing the bike like I have full control. But the effort was worth it, and we have some points. I came here just to try and see if I could, because this track honestly is so tough physically that it wasn't in my mind that I could do even the practice. So we finished the race, and this is the best way to give the fans something back for all the support I got these days."
It was an incredibly tough performance by the Spanish veteran, in perhaps the toughest weekend of his career. There had been other races where he had tried to ride injured, but at those, he hadn't been fit enough to make it past free practice. "In the past I had some injuries that I tried to ride but I wasn't able to do it, I could see that I lacked so much control of these powerful bikes that I put myself at risk or others at risk, so I decided to not do the GP after some practice. But this weekend, I said, I might try and of course to do one practice is not the same as to do the whole weekend, so for sure one of the hardest, now I'm completely finished."
The Moto2 and Moto3 races were a little more exciting than the MotoGP race, but even they were pretty spread out. In Moto2, Pecco Bagnaia took victory with an impeccable display of patience, waiting until half distance and then leaving Alex Márquez for dead. But the ride of the weekend was surely by Márquez' teammate Joan Mir. The rookie found himself bumped wide at Turn 1, and finished the first lap in 24th. Eighteen laps later, he crossed the line in fourth, having made his way clinically through the field. Mir's race was a masterful piece of racecraft, and bodes well for the Spaniard for the rest of the season.
In Moto3, Jorge Martin took an impressive win, and also the lead in the championship. He held off challenges from Enea Bastianini, with Marco Bezzecchi finishing third. This is the second podium in a row for the Italian, Bezzecchi making a lot of impact in Moto3. The Moto3 championship is turning out to be a fascinating spectacle this year.
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