The Grand Prix of the Americas is one of the MotoGP paddock's favorite races, because of the setting, the atmosphere, and the city of Austin. The layout of the Circuit of the Americas is beloved by many a rider. They love the challenge of threading the needle of Turns 2 through 10, the braking for Turn 11, Turn 12, Turn 1. They love the run up the hill to Turn 1, the sweep down through Turn 2, the fact that the back straight is not straight, but meanders like the straights at many great tracks. The front straight at Mugello wanders, the Veenslang at Assen is anything but straight, that adds an element of challenge to a straigeht.
What the riders don't love are the bumps. The bumps turn the Austin racetrack into a rodeo, the MotoGP bikes into bucking broncos. At close to 350 km/h along the back straight, the bikes become very difficult to control. The bumps turn into whoops, a motocross track taken at light speed, and almost impossible to ride safely. Turn 2, that glorious sweeping downhill right hander has a bump in it which threatens to unseat anyone who takes it at the speed it begs of a rider.
Whether the work undertaken to try to address the problem will be sufficient remains to be seen. "I check a little bit and I know that they did a few modifications," Marc Márquez said. "They didn't do what we asked in the Safety Commission. But we will see in FP1 what is going on, how is the track." Past experience holds out little hope. The area around Turn 10 has been resurfaced, and the top of some of the larger bumps has once again been shaved off. That didn't make a great deal of difference last year, but we will have to wait until Friday to see if it has been effective for the 2019 race.
The bumps have ruined what is otherwise a beloved layout, Cal Crutchlow explained. "When I first came here in 2013 it was fantastic, honestly," the LCR Honda rider said. "I said it was the best track I had ever ridden. And now, it could be one of the worst for all the riders because it is so difficult to manage the situation every lap on the bumps. Turn 2 looks horrendous. They resurfaced Turn10: randomly done one corner of the track. Turn 12 on the back straight still looks very bumpy. We don't know until we ride it."
Andrea Dovizioso was not optimistic. "I'm worried it's not possible to really fix the problem that exists with the track," the factory Ducati rider told the press conference. "And that is very bad because I think it's one of the most beautiful tracks in our championship. So I think the situation is not nice. Not nice to manage this. The problem is there are bumps everywhere and with the bike it’s very difficult to ride. Not just to be fast. Looks like the asphalt or the dirt under the asphalt moves almost everywhere."
The problem, it appears is that the ground the track is built on still has a tendency to move, throwing up new bumps in different places each year. "I think it's definitely gotta be to do with the ground around here," Jack Miller – scion of a mining engineer – explained. "Looks like a lot of clay and if I remember correctly directly after the first year we were here they had a lot of rain, which could cause it to move. But the track was bumpy, especially the back straight, and then last year they ground it down and the bumps actually became bigger and longer. So I'm interested to see if the work for this year is an improvement or if it's just trying to patch another job and not that great."
Long waves, not short bumps
The bumps are quintessentially different from the normal type of bumps you have at a circuit. At most tracks, especially those which also host F1, the track gets rippled up under braking, creating a lot of short wave-length high-frequency ripples on corner entry. The bumps in Austin are caused by the soil moving, creating long wave-length undulations.
"For example in Jerez, we had some vibration on the entry of some corners," Aleix Espargaro said. "But here, for example in the back straight, 300 km/h and you have undulations on the track, and it's very dangerous. The front moves a lot and it's very easy to crash. Difficult when you are in a group also, because they are very heavy bikes and very fast bikes."
Bumps like those are one reason the Ducati can struggle to be competitive in Austin. The bike has never handled bumpy tracks well, though it has improved a little over the years. Factory rider Danilo Petrucci had some concerns. "We have to understand if the track has changed because there is new asphalt in some parts," the Italian said. "But it is not a secret that it is difficult for us with a lot of tight corners and slow sectors and a lot of bumps, which is not good for us as our bike is not so stable on the bumps."
Why do the bumps upset the Desmosedici? "I don’t know why they are a problem for us. Maybe for me it is because I like the bike very, very stable. I don’t like the bike with a lot of movement. I don’t know why our bike doesn’t absorb the bumps so much. Maybe it is for the same reason we struggle on tight corners as we need more space to turn the bike."
Good for Honda, bad for Ducati
The opposite was true for Marc Márquez, Petrucci believed. "This track is almost perfect for Marquez and his Honda. Especially this year as they improved the engine so with the long straights and acceleration it will be a bigger problem. It was just a problem before as Marquez always won the race here but I think this year he is more competitive than other years."
Cal Crutchlow had an explanation for why Marc Márquez and the other Hondas go so well at COTA. It was all because it was a low grip track, the LCR Honda rider said. "I have to say that on that kind of circuit we are very good. [on] A track that doesn't offer a lot of grip we seem to find it more than the others even if our bike is probably not the best grip-wise. Like Phillip Island."
Do the other bikes need more grip than the Honda to be fast? "Well they complain that they have no grip but if they rode a Honda then they’d really complain," Crutchlow quipped. "If you look at Jorge, he can only ride on tracks that have grip. It seems the situation that on a non-grippy track he has no rear grip. We ride the bike in a different way. Don't get me wrong, I like a grippy track and I think you have to be at your best to manage a non-grippy track like Argentina."
Slowing him down?
So can Marc Márquez be beat at COTA, a track full of left handers with no grip, suiting the reigning world champion down to the ground? "Nothing is impossible," was the answer the riders in the press conference gave when asked. But none of them believed it would be particularly easy either.
Could Marc Márquez' recovering shoulder slow him down, if it was giving him too much trouble while trying to ride? "It's true that this track is one of the most difficult tracks about physical condition, but I feel fit," the Repsol Honda rider told the press conference, before admitting that he still felt the shoulder from time to time. "The thing is that on the hard brake points, still sometimes I feel something on the shoulder but I think it will be not a big problem. In Argentina, for example, I felt but it was not a problem to ride."
Márquez had changed his preparation slightly for Austin, given the challenges posed by the circuit. "I was training in another way to prepare for this Grand Prix, and I feel much better in the shoulder," Márquez said. "I feel a big improvement after Argentina and like I say in Argentina it was not a problem to ride the bike, but you feel something. But now I feel 100% and nearly a normal shoulder. This is the most important and for racing it will not be a problem."
More power, less work
The Honda is now easier to ride, which helps of course. Danilo Petrucci, who had not seen much of the Hondas during testing, got a close up view of the RC213V in the opening races. "I never rode the Honda but when I follow the Honda riders since the Sepang test I understood from you guys they were working on the engine," the factory Ducati rider said.
"I saw the bike had more power on the straights but also more stability cornering when they got back on the throttle," Petrucci explained. "This is the main point as in the past I always watch them from behind and when they opened the throttle they always slid a little bit more and the bike was unstable but this year it is not. They have improved the engine but also the smoothness on the throttle. At least from what I see from behind their engine is smoother and more powerful compared to last year."
There was of course also much talk about Cal Crutchlow's jump start in Argentina. The near unanimous consensus was that Crutchlow's punishment was harsh, but that the rule on jump starts as it stands is the best compromise to deal with all contingencies. Andrea Dovizioso certainly expected the subject to come up in Friday's Safety Commission meeting. "It will be funny in the Safety Commission tomorrow for sure and it will be important to speak about that," the Italian said. "Because the rules are clear. I think Cal didn't gain anything from what he did, but he moved a little bit. So we can think and speak about that."
There would be some debate over whether the current rule could be improved, Dovizioso told the press conference. "We have to try to understand if exist another way to manage this situation. I mean, it was clear Cal didn't gain anything and didn't do it on purpose, but the rules say if you move you make a mistake. So I think it's very hard to accept that, if I was Cal, I can understand how angry he is. But for sure we have to speak in the Safety Commission, if we can, because if you have to interpret it every start is difficult. I think that's why they decided to have those rules but it's bad to lose a race like this. Really bad. Especially when your pace is good."
One rider who will not be bringing up the subject in the Safety Commission is Cal Crutchlow, however. "I don't plan to attend to be honest," he said. "Not as a backlash, but I have a lot of media to do tomorrow. Plus I don't really care now. I have already had my jump start and I don't plan to get another one."
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