It is becoming a familiar refrain. At the end of each day at the Circuit of the Americas, the riders express their admiration for the event, for the setting, for the venue. And they express their dismay at the state of the asphalt, at the bumps in the track – the most common comparison was with speed bumps put in to slow traffic – and at the danger that entails. The Grand Prix of the Americas is one of the paddock's favorite events at one of their favorite venues, at one of their favorite track layouts. It is also the race with the worst asphalt.
Despite this, opinions are split, though not diametrically opposed. There are those who think the track is dangerous now, and who fear we will not be able to return if the track is not resurfaced, and there are those who feel that the track is fixable, and not quite as bad as the more apocalyptic predictions suggest.
Not at Grand Prix level
Aleix Espargaro always wears his heart on his sleeve, and so predictably does not hide his concerns about the state of the track. "Super dangerous," was how the Aprilia rider described it. "I’ve never ridden a track like this. It’s not at the level of MotoGP. Not at all. I don’t think we can race here one more year with these conditions. Absolutely no way."
"It’s super bumpy in many corners," Espargaro said, but that was not the real problem. "In most of them, you can handle it. Corner two is a disaster but if you lose the front there, you are only at 120, 130 km/h." The real danger is in the straight, the Spaniard feared. "In the straight in sixth gear it’s super difficult to maintain the throttle open. It’s very dangerous and we are one-by-one. I don’t want to think about what’s going to happen in the race." He had broken both steering lock stops down the back straight, as the front end shook violently, he said.
Danilo Petrucci agreed with Aleix Espargaro. "I think this doesn't reach the standard for a MotoGP track," he said after FP1. "I mean, it's unbelievable why we are riding here. The track and the circuit in general is unbelievable in a positive sense, but the asphalt is unbelievable in a negative sense. It's a shame, because it could be very, very much faster, but you have to ride trying to deal with the bumps."
Isle of Man vs Circuit of the Americas
The bumps were now so bad that he could not keep the throttle pinned down the back straight, the factory Ducati rider said. "The main problem is that we checked the data from last year, and in some parts we were able to keep the throttle open, this year it is impossible. The risk is that on that part, you change gear, and if you hit the limiter when the bike jumps, when the rear tire jumps, and if you hit the limiter too much, the problem is that you can break your engine."
Jack Miller had a different perspective on the track. When he was asked whether he agreed with Espargaro and Petrucci that COTA was not a Grand Prix track, he suggested wryly that they just needed to be riding faster. "I passed both of them around the outside and the inside down the back straight this morning. No dramas," the Australian commented. "It's a Grand Prix track. It's one of the best on the calendar, it just needs to be fixed a little bit more."
The bumps may well be intimidating when you first take them in FP1, Miller said, but were not so bad once you had had a session to wrap your head around them. "For sure when I came here this morning I was thinking, 'alright here we go' on the first lap. I kept it flat down there and went to the smoothest point last year and that's now one of the bumpiest spots, so had to switch that up. But it's not too bad."
Cal Crutchlow struck some middle ground between the two extremes. He suspected that Miller's comments had more to do with the fact that the Pramac Ducati rider is extremely competitive in Austin. "Jack would say it’s fine," Crutchlow commented wryly. "I think he’d prefer it. It’s not bumps it’s weaves! Huge weaves. If Jack has a bad day or doesn't finish the race because of the bumps he’ll say it was a disaster."
Crutchlow's issue with the track was the fact that it was getting worse every year. "The problem is that I rode here in 2013 when it was like a millpond and it was amazing," he said. "Now it is just getting stupid. I completely agree with Jack in that it adds fantastic character, in some of the places where you have to manage a lot and the bike is shaking. It makes riding a MotoGP bike…thrilling. But it is dangerous as well, there are no two ways about it."
That thrilling mixture of bumps, high speeds, and fear made the back straight into a unique experience, the LCR Honda rider explained. "The straight is mad, honestly," he said. "There is not another straight like it, not even in BSB or something like that. I’m used to riding on these circuits so to me it doesn't make much difference, and I love the Isle of Man TT as you know so I cannot really complain. It sounds like I am complaining but I’d like it smoother."
Where do the bumps come from? The ground beneath the circuit keeps shifting, a consequence of being built on what was once a lake, many eons ago. The track is built on clay, and when severe storms hit the area, heavy rains mean that the layers the track sits on start to move. You can see it in some of the roads which surround the area: there, once-flat roads suffer from heavy undulations, taxing the suspension of hire cars on their way to the circuit.
Despite the state of the track, times were faster in FP2 than they had been here last year. That is a consequence of two things, perhaps. Firstly, the asphalt has more grip than it did last year, the bikes throwing up a lot less dust than they did after the track was ground down last season. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, because heavy rain is expected for Saturday morning, creating an imperative for the riders to set a fast lap time now, in the almost certain knowledge they will not improve their lap time on Saturday morning.
It was Maverick Viñales who ended the day as fastest, fractionally ahead of Marc Márquez. But Márquez' second place might have been a first, had he not been pushing so hard that he nearly managed to highside himself.
The group going directly through to Q2 were an interesting bunch. Both factory Yamahas were in the top three, Viñales and Valentino Rossi sandwiching Marc Márquez. Jack Miller just edged out Cal Crutchlow, both of whom were very close to the leaders. Alex Rins headed up the second group in sixth place, a fraction quicker than an impressive Pol Espargaro on the KTM. Rins could have been closer to the front had he not been held up by Aleix Espargaro on his final lap, while Pol Espargaro was just delighted to have found a quick lap out of the RC16.
The big news – or is it? - of the day from a technical perspective was the appearance of Honda's swing arm spoiler, modeled along the same lines as the Ducati's. But Honda's uses just a single vane to control windflow, rather than the most subtle triple-vane construction used by the Desmosedici GP19.
Officially, the spoiler is for bracing the swing arm to increase stiffness, but even Marc Márquez could not deliver that line without breaking into laughter. "Yes, of course it's obvious, you saw, we tried something on the swing arm for the 'stiffness'," Márquez laughed as he explained it."But I felt something there that was interesting, but sometimes it's better to come back, just try to analyze, try to understand, and of course we need to take more information about this."
The Repsol Honda rider spoke freely about the purpose of the spoiler, and the differences he felt with the device. "One of the differences is the braking point," he said. "It's downforce. So it's an aerodynamic thing, but still we need to analyze more. Because it also has some negative points, some positive and some negative points, so we need to understand which is better for our riding style."
Why was the Honda spoiler ruled legal? "It complies with the guidelines," was the answer I received from Danny Aldridge. And that was all the information he was willing to supply on the issue.
That wasn't the only tech update on display on Friday. There were a whole range of tank support pieces from multiple manufacturers, each looking slightly different, and presumably performing a slightly different function.
For Ducati, the tank support is aimed at making the bike more controllable, Danilo Petrucci said. "We are trying some different shapes to make the bike more comfortable," the factory Ducati rider explained. "It's not bad. For sure I tried many solutions to make the bike more easy to ride. But it's half and half. It's not day and night. For Jorge it was different, because he sat in a different position compared to me, and it was more helpful for him. But for me, sincerely we are trying to do our best, but I ride this bike since 2016, so..."
The idea is to give the rider more control of the bike through his legs, especially under hard braking, Petrucci explained. "It helps to move the bike," he said. "Our proposal is to move the bike with the legs, but it's quite difficult to do it. But we are trying everything, because for example in the Argentina race, the average difference between me and Dovi was 4 hundredths a lap, so it's the details which make the difference, so we are trying everything. Fortunately for this race, we don't need details, we need something more."
Finally, there was a ceremony in which the entire Hayden family gathered to see Nicky Hayden's number retired from MotoGP. The number 69 will forever remain linked with Hayden until the end of days.
But the ceremony in the press conference room was not the real celebration of Hayden's life. Later, after the action on track had ceased, the many denizens of the paddock filed out to Turn 18, now rechristened Hayden Hill, to celebrate the life of America's last MotoGP champion. Marshals, mechanics, media, and more all gathered to mark the life of the rider who touched so many hearts in life, and remains as strong a symbol of what a racer should be, both as a human and as an athlete.
Nicky Hayden meant so much to so very many people. To see so many people gathered to celebrate him is the most fitting tribute imaginable.
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