Does Marc Márquez still own the Circuit of the Americas? So far, there has been just one session of practice which the Repsol Honda rider did not head. But as that was Q1, a session he had managed to bypass by heading up every other session of practice, it seems fair to say he does still own the place.
How does he do it? By the simple procedure of being faster than everyone else everywhere: braking later, carrying more speed, changing direction faster through the switchback section, losing out only slightly in acceleration and top speed. Every rider you ask about him says the same: Márquez has some special magic around COTA, using lines that only he can manage. He is just about unstoppable here.
That doesn't mean he can't be beaten. "Nobody is unbeatable," Jorge Lorenzo said in the press conference. "You have to make a race, and finish a race. Anything can happen with these new tires. You can have some engine failure, or crash or make a mistake." If there were a year where Márquez could be beaten, Lorenzo intimated, this is it.
And if there were a bike to beat Márquez, it is the Yamaha. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi have been fast throughout practice, and both start from the front row beside Marc Márquez. For Rossi, this is something of a turnaround. In 2014 and 2015, he proved to be competitive in races, but was badly hampered by his dismal qualifying. Counting a second row start as a decent qualifying was a measure of just how poorly he did in the fifteen-minute battle for the grid.
All that has changed in 2016. Qatar was his worst qualifying position of the year, starting the race from fifth, well within his target from the previous year. At both Argentina and Austin, Rossi has ended up on the front row. Where has the improvement come from? Rossi remained vague when asked this question in the press conference. He and the team had worked on being more consistent, but the Michelin tires had made a difference. The added feel from the French rubber made doing a fast lap much more comfortable, Rossi said.
Is there more to it than that? Since his return to Yamaha, Rossi has worked harder and harder, striving to make himself competitive. Perhaps this latest improvement is the result of yet another change to his training program. Perhaps he has spent time at the ranch practicing pushing flat out for a single lap right out of the pits. Perhaps, but we do not know. That is one of the perks of having your own flat track ranch.
The Ducatis are also likely to be at the front again, Andrea Iannone being especially impressive during practice. So good, in fact, that the Italian qualified in fourth, not far behind Valentino Rossi. He will not start from there, of course, having been penalized three grid spots for taking out his teammate in Argentina. There is a real sense of justice to this punishment: Iannone falls from fourth to seventh on the grid, and from the second to the third row. Teammate Andrea Dovizioso – the man Iannone took out – had qualified seventh, but as a result of Iannone's penalty, moves up a row on the grid to sixth. The victim at least benefited from the punishment.
The Ducatis have been historically strong in Austin, something Bradley Smith had an interesting explanation for. "It's the same situation in the first three races," Smith said. "Qatar's always like that, Argentina and here, because these tracks don't get ridden on enough, and they don't get regular weekly use. I think that's why always see Ducati quite strong in these first three races in the last few years, because they search for grip better than the rest of the bikes." The more rubber gets laid down, the more grip the track produces, and the Ducatis are always the first to benefit. Whether this trend continues into Europe remains to be seen.
Maverick Viñales should also be a fixture at the front, but the Suzuki rider felt he had made his job harder than need be. The Spaniard had been blindingly fast on Saturday morning, but his team had made a change to the bike in the afternoon, looking to improve grip with the tire in the later stages of the race. That had meant that the rear had not been pushing the front on a used tire, and so the team decided to keep that set up for Qualifying. That turned out to be a mistake, as a brand new tire immediately started pushing the front with that set up. Round COTA, that is a major issue, with several spots where danger lies in wait.
Viñales was angry that he had not been able to go back to the old set up in Qualifying, believing he could have been on the front row without the change. He would not be using the new set up in the race, either. "Even if the bike is a little bit better with endurance," Viñales said, "the first laps, I lose too much from the first four riders."
The other thing Viñales would not be using is the harder (medium) rear tire. "With the soft tire, we can do all race, and maybe more." Still, the arrival of the medium rear was much appreciated in the paddock. Michelin had been forced to send two different shipments of tires to Austin after Argentina, with only the soft available on Friday, the medium being flown in in time for FP3 on Saturday morning. The medium was a hit with most of the other factories, but not with Suzuki. It was too hard to be used.
It was too hard for Dani Pedrosa as well. The Repsol Honda rider qualified in eighth, nearly 1.2 seconds behind his teammate. Pedrosa lamented the direction he felt MotoGP had taken, explaining how the Michelins had changed over the past year. As Michelin gathered more data, the tires became harder, and this was a massive disadvantage for Pedrosa. The grip he once had was gone, the bike just spinning up instead of actually providing actual drive and acceleration.
"Obviously because in the grid there are many more riders where the average weight is higher compared to mine, the tire become a very stiff tire. This afternoon I tried the hard compound – the tyre that is working for the top riders – but I couldn't make any better than 2m 8s. this means no temperature and I couldn’t get any load on the tire. I had to go back to the softer specification, " Pedrosa told the media. It seems like the broader issue with the Michelins from Pedrosa's perspective was that they were built for heavier riders who are on mower powerful bikes.
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