Sprint race number three is in the books, and despite the crashes – three in the ten-lap sprint around the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas – everyone made it back to the pits pretty much in one piece and ready to go for Sunday. After the attrition of Portimão and Argentina, this was a welcome change.
Saturday underlined once again what a massive change the sprint races are for MotoGP. They change everything: there is no such thing as "it's only Friday" any longer, as Friday determines who gets through to Q2 directly, and who has the stress of trying to pass through Q1. With qualifying counting for two races rather than one, a spot on the front two rows is now utterly vital.
Conditions had changed too. A very heavy fall of rain overnight had flooded into some of the temporary offices in the paddock, and left the track green and still damp in the morning. Then, when the sun came out, temperatures soared, track temps creeping up towards the high 40s°C.
That left the track slick, and caught a lot of riders out. "Difficult," was how Brad Binder characterized conditions. "I had about four highsides on the first lap. So it was a bit challenging! I kept losing the rear on the first lap for some reason. Every time I cracked the throttle it just let go. So I lost so much time in the opening two laps until the rear tire started to feel normal."
Binder had a clear idea of why the grip was so poor. "It was hot out there," the Red Bull KTM rider said. "The grip was really low compared to what we've had all weekend and you really had to adapt all your markers a lot to just stay safe and not make any huge mistakes."
"For me, firstly, the rain overnight washed off or at least dirtied or something. The track was off this morning compared to yesterday, and it was like you could see in the Q2 I mean, I've never seen so many crashes I think in a quali ever. The race was also super slick. So it was important to be clean and not make mistakes, to not throw away any points or opportunities."
The MotoGP grid is starting to realize that the rewards of a sprint race are relatively threadbare unless you are on the podium, and are adapting their behavior accordingly. Stefan Bradl, who had watched the first two sprint races as HRC test rider and part of the German-language Servus TV presentation team, and had now got a taste of a sprint race in the flesh, as it were, substituting for the injured Marc Marquez, had a typically incisive view. "In the end it’s really, you have to risk a lot and in my eyes looking from outside watching and now taking part, my opinion is there is for some riders more to win, but for most there is very little to gain and so much to lose."
It was Pecco Bagnaia who gained the most from the sprint race. The reigning world champion had put the Ducati on pole in the morning, taking over a tenth off the previous pole record despite the less than ideal conditions. Bagnaia got a solid start together with the remarkable Alex Rins, and only managed to put some space between himself and the LCR Honda rider when his Ducati GP23 got into its stride down the back straight, and motored away from Rins' RC213V. From that point on, though Rins put up a stout defense for a couple of laps, Bagnaia reigned supreme. It was a display worthy of a champion.
Rins eventually ended up second, holding off challenges from Aleix Espargaro and Jorge Martin, despite making mistakes and running wide. Rins was clearly outgunned by both the Ducatis and the Aprilia, but he held his own at a track that he loves. Why Rins can manage to get the Honda on the podium where his former teammate Joan Mir and current teammate Takaaki Nakagami can't, we will dive into a little later.
On a side note, Neither Rins' sprint race podium in Austin nor Marc Marquez' sprint podium in Portimão will count toward concession points. The same applies to Brad Binder's magnificent win in the sprint in Argentina. If a Honda ended up on the podium in every sprint race, but couldn't get a podium in the Sunday grand prix, then Honda would be granted concessions. The same applies to both Yamaha and KTM, as neither of them had finished on the podium in a grand prix either.
Jorge Martin took the last slot on the podium, the Pramac Ducati rider putting on a strong display despite struggling with the flu all weekend. The antibiotics had kicked in at just at the right time, and Martin profited from a mistake by Aleix Espargaro while battling with Alex Rins, the Aprilia rider running wide and allowing Martin to come through. Martin held Espargaro at bay to take third, despite the Aprilia rider mounting an all-out assault on the last lap.
"As soon as I overtook him I felt so weak, so I just waited for his overtake," Martin told the press conference. "I was just going slow and braking hard, and finally, I could use that to beat him. You know, I was super slow but I was just taking my time to understand how to manage the battle. It wasn't easy but I was cleverer than him today and I hope tomorrow I feel better. I will try to rest today a lot and to gain a lot of energy tomorrow!"
Brad Binder finished 3 seconds behind Aleix Espargaro in fifth, while Marco Bezzecchi crossed the line in a respectable sixth place, picking up just enough points to continue to lead the championship by a single solitary point.
There were plenty of losers to go with the winners, most as a result of a crash. Alex Marquez had been sitting pretty for a podium in the early laps, before losing the front at Turn 12 battling with Jorge Martin. Fabio Quartararo crashed out just before the halfway mark, then went on to demonstrate incredible pace in the second half, almost matching the pace of Bagnaia. We will return to the complicated subject of Fabio Quartararo and Yamaha a little later.
By this measure, Luca Marini's mistake – starting from the front row but making a mistake into Turn 1, and finding himself shuffled well down the field before fighting his way forward to finish seventh – is relatively minor. But Marini's mistake is illustrative of the problems faced by riders racing at COTA at the moment.