It never rains, but it pours. Especially around Austin, where warm damp air blows in from the Gulf of Mexico, and the rising terrain of the start of Hill Country generates turbulence which causes the towering clouds to dump their burden of moisture onto the earth below. That happened early on Saturday morning, when the heavens opened and a torrential rain drenched the ground, causing deep puddles and running streams throughout the area east of Austin which houses the Circuit of the Americas. And it happened again in the late morning, a brief but enormously intense storm dumped another centimeter or so of rain onto the track in the space of a quarter of an hour.
Both rainstorms were accompanied by thunder and lightning, which caused the most problems for the organizers. Lightning poses a significant danger, not just to anyone foolish enough to try to race a motorcycle in a thunderstorm, but to corner workers, the fans and the staff who work around the track. Lightning strikes regularly claim lives in Texas, so when a thunderstorm hits, it gets taken very seriously indeed.
It never rains but it pours in the metaphorical sense as well. After Friday's raft of complaints aimed at the bumpiness of the Austin track, Saturday started off with track action being first delayed, and then canceled, and fans being locked out of the circuit for safety reasons. It was very much an inauspicious start to the weekend.
No track time, no experience
All this meant that the teams and riders lost a lot of valuable setup and practice time. FP3 was canceled for all three classes, and FP4 started off with a track damp enough to require wet tires, though it dried quickly enough that everyone had switched to slicks by the middle of the session.
That put some riders on the back foot. Franco Morbidelli, for example, had wanted to try a different setup on Saturday morning, but the cancellation of FP3 left only FP4, and the damp patches on the track made assessing a big change to the weight distribution of the bike pretty much impossible. And so Morbidelli was left with no option but to try out the setup change during qualifying, and hope that it would work out. That proved not to be the case, unfortunately.
But the loss of FP3, and – especially – the mixed FP4 was more costly in terms of tire choice than setup work, Marc Márquez explained. "Basically, where you lose is to understand the tires," the Repsol Honda rider said. "The rear tire will be an important choice tomorrow. Then another thing of course is the setup, but the setup is the same for everybody. You lose one session so you can play less with the setup." That was not necessarily a problem, he said. "In the third race everybody more or less have a good base. We start with a good base. It’s more to understand the lines and to understand the tires of the GP."
Cal Crutchlow expanded on this. "Sometimes on a Saturday morning to lose the FP3 is not really a disaster, because it’s like a qualifying session anyway," the LCR Honda rider said. "But to lose the FP4 is more difficult. We couldn’t do anything in FP4. Sure, we went out on the slicks but I didn’t feel fantastic. As you saw from the pace, it was only Marc really on the pace or able to do the race pace lap times. Tire choice is the big one. Yesterday I used the hard rear tire but now we have some doubt because we don’t know how it will behave for the race. We’ll have to assess the situation in the morning warm up, but then the warm up is colder. It’s difficult losing a whole day."
That lack of time spent assessing tire degradation is prompting some riders to take a gamble. For Jack Miller, for example, the predicted cooler temperatures suggest that he might be able to race the soft tire. "Hopefully we will be able to go out in morning warm up and get some laps in on the soft-soft compounds," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "Tire wear hasn't really been an issue here, so interested to get out there and see how that plays out."
Michelin boss Piero Taramasso agreed that the soft tires – front and rear – could very well be a race option on Sunday. "It's possible, yes," he said. "We have no wear issues, so we can use the soft in the front, the medium, even the hard, which was tested by Alex Rins on Friday. Also the rear, all three rears are a possibility. All the choices are open."
That lack of track time ended up adding value for riders who had to make it through to the second qualifying session from Q1. "For sure I got three laps more experience," Danilo Petrucci half joked, though he did not make it beyond eighth place in Q2.
Jorge Lorenzo gained the same benefit, but immediately lost it again through no fault of his own. As he finished his first flying lap, his Repsol Honda RC213V twitched, and immediately lost power. The chain had jumped the sprockets, a repeat of the issue suffered by Marc Márquez in Argentina. Lorenzo was forced to dump his bike against the end of the pit wall, and sprint back to the garage for his second bike.
Lorenzo was cautious in apportioning blame, though he was clearly concerned. "It happened also to Marc in Argentina, so it's the second time," the Spaniard said. "Clearly it's a problem, it's a thing that happened probably too much. The team will investigate and understand what we can do to avoid it in the future."
Mechanical failures are extremely rare in HRC, so for the Hondas to suffer the same problem at two consecutive races is a real red flag. What might be the cause? MotoGP.com pit reporter and former 500cc race winner Simon Crafar put forward a credible theory: perhaps the carbon fiber swing arm has a little bit too much flex, just enough for the chain to jump the sprockets.
Not his first rodeo
Poor grip, a lack of track time, and rough conditions all ended up meaning just one thing: Marc Márquez extended his run of poles at Austin to seven. Nobody else has been on either the pole or the top step in Austin, Márquez having monopolized MotoGP in the US.
It wasn't all plain sailing, however. When the cameras showed Márquez on track, it was clear just how hard he was working to get the bike to work, the Honda shaking its head violently down the back straight, causing Márquez to roll off, something which goes entirely against all his instincts.
What was holding him back? The strong winds which continued to gust around the track. "The bumps are one of our weak points," Márquez said. "We are trying to analyze why. Of course the setup that we have on the bike and especially on the electronics is to ride without the wind and today was really windy there and then was shaking and still some water there. Was shaking a lot. I believe that on the race tomorrow will be less wind. Today in that part even on the fastest lap I couldn’t be full. I was just closing a little bit to be safe. With the second tire I tried to be full and was shaking too much. So we need to analyze. If it’s windy we will change the setup. If not, keep going with this one."
The wind had played havoc with everyone's lap times, messing with their brake markers at different points around the track. "The tail wind was shocking," Jack Miller said. "I went in there first lap, braked where I normally was braking yesterday, probably going about 30 km/h faster than normal, and I swear to god I nearly took off at the top of the hill, I was going that fast. I said, oops, this ain't gonna be good. It was there, and then you get to the back straight and there's a massive head wind, and I'm braking later than we were yesterday, and even then, you'd sit up and you'd say '****! There's no way I'm stopping for this!' and then you're slowing down almost too much, and have to release the brakes. It was really sporadic, you could feel it comes in gusts. So, hard to read really."
Kinder weather, tougher competition
With the weather expected to be much more clement – still relatively chilly for Texas, but with bright sun and next to no wind – conditions should pose less of a challenge. That should make the field a little closer than it looks, at least on paper. Marc Márquez remains the man to beat, the fastest over a single lap but with inexorable race pace. But Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow, who sit beside him on the front row of the grid, will also play an important factor in the race. Challenging Márquez for the win is difficult, but not impossible, and the tactic will be to stay with Márquez for as long as possible, and wait for the right moment. If Márquez gets away early, that moment may never come.
Jack Miller heads up the second row, with the pace to run with Rossi and Crutchlow. Alongside him sits the surprise of qualifying, Pol Espargaro posting the KTM's best ever qualifying at just the third race of the season. Espargaro is riding the KTM the way it was designed, and that is working for him.
Espargaro's teammate, on the other hand, is in the throes of despair. "I feel sad," Johann Zarco summed up his day when asked to. "Sad to be slow and fighting with the bike, even when I'm going slow." Zarco's problems remain the same: the bike doesn't work the way he wants it to, and his only hope is to get to the Jerez test where KTM might be able to bring him something, and he might have time to sit down on the bike and try to figure it out.
The big loser from qualifying was Andrea Dovizioso. The Ducati rider believed that the track condition would improve as the session went on, but he also believed he would only need a single set of tires in Q1 to get through to Q2. So he sat in his garage for a couple of minutes, and played his cards, but his opponents had a much better deck. Dovizioso was left stuck in Q1, and starting from thirteenth. He has a lot of work to do to try to limit the damage in the championship. There could be a bit of a shake up in the championship on Sunday.
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