At the core of every great sport is great storytelling. Mighty heroes take one another on, and overcome insurmountable obstacles in pursuit of glory. The leather patches, helmet designs, and in in the current fashion conscious age, tattoos in motorcycle racing bear this out: everywhere you look are nothing to loses, against all odds', and never give ups. Motorcycle racing has so many truly great story lines that it doesn't need any artificial plot twists or turns to hold the viewer's interest.
Sometimes, though, it feels like the script writer for MotoGP gets a bit lazy. The hero whose efforts went unrewarded at one race goes on to win the next race. The villain of the piece one weekend immediately gets his comeuppance the following week. The plot lines are so self-evident and obvious that it they become more cheap made-for-TV melodrama than a grand sweeping blockbuster the sport deserves. It's all just a little bit too obvious.
So it was on Saturday in Austin. The story of the day had been telegraphed two weeks ago in Argentina: the reigning world champion Marc Márquez made a stupid mistake on the grid before the start of the race, then turned into a one-man crime spree trying to make up for the ground he had lost, culminating in a collision with his arch rival Valentino Rossi, reigniting the slumbering war which has existed between the two since the 2015 season.
Two weeks later, at the regular meeting of the Safety Commission, where the riders meet the series organizers to discuss how to improve the safety of the sport, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta promises that in future, the penalties handed down by the FIM Panel of Stewards would be more severe, to try to prevent a repeat of the reckless actions such as those committed by Marc Márquez at Termas De Rio Hondo.
The usual suspects
Then comes qualifying, and Marc Márquez, on provisional pole at that point, is found cruising on the racing line right in the path of Maverick Viñales, the young upstart who has been the only true challenger to Márquez' hegemony in the US, showing pace to rival that of the Repsol Honda rider. A penalty is unavoidable: Márquez is handed a three-place grid penalty, and will start from fourth on Sunday, directly behind Viñales. If you wrote that up as a script and sent it to a director, you would have it returned with a note telling you to try harder to be more subtle and surprising next time.
But MotoGP is not scripted – despite what the denizens of the darker corners of the racing internet believe – and we find ourselves in Austin retelling this hackneyed and unimaginative tale.
Of course, it is all a little more subtle than that. Márquez ended up blocking Viñales because he was trying to avoid giving Andrea Iannone a tow, and allowing the Ecstar Suzuki rider to take advantage of his pace at the circuit, as the Italian has done so many times before. Márquez was focused on putting space between himself and the rider ahead of him, rather than what was coming up behind him. At Turn 15, Viñales, who had been on a flying lap and on course to challenge Márquez' pole, found Márquez in his way and no way past. At one of the tightest points on the track, with few lines to choose from, there was no way to avoid Márquez, and so Viñales had to abort that flying lap.
Looking ahead, not backward
Márquez gave his version of events at the press conference. "Unluckily I was going out from the box," he explained. "I expected that nobody was coming behind and then suddenly I heard the engine. I was looking more for Iannone than for who was coming behind. When I heard the engine I went in as quick as possible, but looks like I had to stop the lap."
Andrea Iannone jumped in when the riders in the press conference were asked if they agreed with the decision to penalize Márquez, defending his – well-deserved – reputation for seeking a tow. "So, I think everybody on the track tries the best for himself," the Italian explained. "So, I went out from the pit. I saw Marc on the wall. I know Marc is really fast in this track and I try follow him." It is each to his own, Iannone said, and everyone did what they thought it took to give them the best shot at a result. "I always try my best for me. It’s racing," Iannone said.
The fact that Iannone had been fastest on Friday had made Márquez even more determined to stop the Italian from getting a tow. "I know that a far rider behind me can improve a lot his lap time, and Iannone yesterday was first," Márquez said. With his attention on Iannone, he had missed Viñales coming up from behind.
Price to pay
Was the penalty justified? Márquez was clearly breaking the rules by riding slowly on the racing line, though it did not look like the Spaniard deliberately got in Viñales' way. In previous years, qualifying penalties have been few and far between. Valentino Rossi was handed a penalty point for accidentally getting in Jorge Lorenzo's way at Misano in 2015, back when penalty points were a thing. In Austin, though, the FIM Panel of Stewards handed out two penalties, one to Márquez and one to Pol Espargaro on the KTM, for doing something very similar to Márquez and getting in the way of Tom Luthi.
Where did this sudden desire for more penalties come from? The Safety Commission bears much of the blame. In what could have been a heated discussion, Carmelo Ezpeleta led the riders towards a solution that appears to have been acceptable to everyone present. Danilo Petrucci takes up the story.
"I think Carmelo was very clear and he is very clever," the Pramac Ducati told us after qualifying. "I - I don’t know the word – I enjoy very much Carmelo, because from the first moment we went into this room, we all started to say 'No, you did this!' and 'No, you did this!' And Carmelo said, 'Please stop. Now from this moment the past is past, for the future the penalization will be more strict'. And then we discussed about some accidents of the past but Carmelo repeat, 'we cannot change the past but we can make the future better'."
Too many cooks
One suggestion put forward by some riders was to have an ex-racer in the FIM Stewards Panel, the idea being that a former racer would have a much better sense of what a rider was thinking when examining an incident. Ezpeleta deftly pointed out the weakness in that argument, Petrucci explained. "That could be an option, but Carmelo says, 'okay imagine you 24 are former riders, what is your opinion about the accident of a and b'. And everybody has a different opinion. So he says we cannot choose a former rider for the Stewards, but at least now we are more informed. That we will be penalized."
There had also been a suggestion that any contact causing another rider to crash could be an offense that would automatically be punished by a black flag. But it was obvious that this would create more problems than it would solve. "What can I say except that every accident is different and for sure every accident has to be analyzed and see what are the conditions, the scenario and everything," Petrucci said. "Because we cannot make a rule 'if you touch like this' or 'if you touch stronger'. It's like in football. There are rules but there is a referee."
The most important thing Ezpeleta told the riders was that they had to settle these disputes among themselves, and not fight it out in public, as that always ended up reflecting badly on the sport. "The thing that Carmelo said is that we have to solve our problem by ourselves and not by talking by the media," Petrucci related. "Because from the outside if we are always discussing about one rider to another, it looks like we don’t have any rules. And for the people watching it's not nice because they say MotoGP makes rules for this or for that or for another one. So I was very happy for Carmelo's word."
The general consensus among the riders was that they were happy with the outcome of the meeting. "Pretty happy in the way we were speaking to each other," Johann Zarco said. "It was calm and we were telling straight things to each other. So it has been like a real man's discussion and was nice." Aleix Espargaro was of a similar mind. "Everybody was very happy with this decision. They ask us to forget the past, just focus on the future and they promised us that they will be more strong. I hope that from here on they don’t have to act and everything stays normal."
For the whipping boy Márquez, he was happy as long as the penalties were fairly applied. "They said that there will be stronger penalties. I already checked today, it’s like this," he joked, referring to his own grid penalty. "Before there was a warning, and then a penalty. But no warning, nothing. Just penalty. If it’s the same rules for everybody, I agree."
But there were dissenters too. "I think it was impossible to come out of that Safety Commission with a clear idea of what they have to do, or what we can do about that," Andrea Dovizioso said. "But I think the only way it was like what happened to accept the request from them to be more restrictive, they will be more aggressive to make a penalty. I think this can help the riders to be less aggressive."
The fruit of that meeting was the penalty imposed on Marc Márquez and on Pol Espargaro, both pushed back three places on the grid for riding slowly on the racing line. But the penalties were really just a sideshow. Marc Márquez may have gotten in the way of Maverick Viñales, but that probably didn't alter the outcome of qualifying. Viñales was not overly concerned in the press conference. "It’s difficult to know," he said. "For sure, in the first lap your third and fourth sector are the best one. But I don't know. It’s difficult to say." It was not something he wanted to dwell on. "As I said, I don’t want to think on that. I think onto tomorrow. It’s important to improve the bike a little bit more, to be able to try to fight for the first places."
But the gap to Márquez is still substantial. The Spaniard took pole by four tenths of a second, the same gap that separates Viñales in second from Cal Crutchlow in seventh. Márquez may have been capable of going even faster if he hadn't crashed on his first bike, the Spaniard losing the front of his Honda RC213V and locking the front tire beyond any hope of saving it. Not that he didn't try, but at some point, the laws of physics catch up with even such a mercurial genius as Marc Márquez.
Márquez should be much more concerned with the pace of Viñales during FP4, however. The Repsol Honda rider was running 2'04.8s, while the Movistar Yamaha man was setting 2'04.9s. Viñales only needs a minor tweak to get right on the pace with Márquez, and perhaps keep him from making it ten victories on US soil.
A lot of the improvements have come from electronics, Viñales said. "I think race by race we’re going to go a little bit faster because it’s important to make the steps in the electronics. I think we’re going to get better race by race. Also I felt better with the bike, since I start to ride a little bit more aggressively. So I think we start to recover the feeling I get when I rode the Yamaha well. It was positive for me today."
It was an area where Valentino Rossi had felt some benefit from as well. The Italian was already happy with the 2018 chassis, which had a better balance than last year's machine. "For me last year I suffer very much with the balance of the bike, with the chassis, because the 2017 edition of the bike I don’t like," Rossi explained. "I’m not able to push at 100 percent. This is one problem."
"The other problem that is maybe also bigger, or maybe equal is that in the second half of the season Honda and Ducati did a huge step with the electronics," he continued. "This was put in the rules to lower the performance of the bikes but Ducati and Honda were better than Yamaha to understand the way to improve. The 2018 bike is better with the balance; I feel good, like always, like my good Yamaha. For the electronics I think that we need more time but in this racetrack and in this weekend I think we’re able to work in a good way. I think we are quite competitive but we have to wait for tomorrow."
Solving the chassis problems had also made the electronics issues less as well, Rossi said. "First you have to have a bike that you can push, that you can ride at 100 percent. And after that the electronics are secondary, I think. Last year I had a problem with both."
The big second group
Rossi is at the head of what promises to be a sizable group chasing the podium. Rossi's pace was strong during FP4, but so was Andrea Dovizioso, Andrea Iannone, Alex Rins, Cal Crutchlow, and Johann Zarco. The Suzukis, Hondas, and Yamahas have been strong all weekend, so it is no surprise to see their names there. But the Ducatis had been suffering throughout the first day of practice, and looked to be completely off the pace.
The switch to the aerodynamic fairing package had made a huge difference. The aero fairing helped stabilize the front over the Circuit of the Americas many bumps, Danilo Petrucci explained. The bike was "more stable over the bumps, and there a lot of bumps and hard braking. In that point the bike is more stable and we can fix a little bit the problem on the front." The bike was harder to turn, especially through the Esses, but it was also a little easier to control.
For Andrea Dovizioso, the fairing helped especially through COTA's many corners. "In this track you have to enter the corner a lot of times without the brake," the factory Ducati rider said. "And the fairing helps to do that, because it keeps the front low and that is positive. Still, with the fairing we are losing in some other parts, like always, but it's more benefits than the negative points. And with the fairing, the bike works a little bit better, so I have to change a little bit the riding style, because you can't ride in the same way, and I didn't have a lot of time, but I'm happy about that."
Even Jorge Lorenzo was confident about the race, qualifying in sixth alongside Valentino Rossi. The Spaniard had learned how to be very fast over a single lap on the Ducati, though he was less confident over the full race distance. "During all these days, we managed to be very explosive for one lap," Lorenzo said. "With new tires I could ride much better than with old tires. So I really made a very good lap time. I took profit of all the grip in the corners, and finally it was a pity that just for one tenth, I was not able to enter into the front row."
In race pace, Lorenzo felt that somewhere between fifth and seventh would be possible. Dovizioso was confident even of landing on the podium. "Yesterday, we did eighth but without any speed," he said. "Today we did a lap time with our pace, this morning and in FP4, so we did a big step. And I'm really happy about that, because it's very difficult to make a big change day by day. And I think we took the right decision, about the fairing about the set up. The bike is a lot more smooth, it was easier to control, the front was better. The conditions are very difficult for everybody, for the bumps, for the layout, and for the temperature. So I'm really happy about that, we have become contenders for the podium. "
The award for bravery on Saturday goes to Dani Pedrosa, who had expected to sit out on Saturday, and may as yet still decide to skip the race. He had been looking forward to the rain which had been forecast, but failed to fall in the end. "I was expecting with the rain that today I could ride more softly, and recover for tomorrow, but we had all dry sessions, and I to go as fast as I could for qualifying, and go directly to Q2," Pedrosa said.
But he was uncertain whether he could last the entire race distance, he explained. "I don't know if I can handle all the race, I don't know if I can finish," he said. "But we will plan a little bit more help for painkillers in the race. I hope that this can make a difference and help me to get through the laps."
Part of the problem was a lack of strength in his broken wrist, Pedrosa explained. "The brake is difficult, but also the control. The control is the most difficult. Sometimes it's difficult to control, yes. Changing direction and the brakes is the really tough moment. Where I lose the most is in changing direction. Also, moving the body from side to side I'm a little bit stiff there, I cannot put my body in the position the bike needs all the time. But still I cannot believe that I'm here today." Brave as Pedrosa may be, 21 laps seems like it might be a touch too much to ask.
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