Have Race Direction suddenly decided to have a crackdown on jump starts? After a long period without a single jump start, we suddenly have three in two races. Look at the video, and it's clear the reason Race Direction issued two more penalties for jump starts is because two riders moved on the grid in Austin. A random statistical distribution tends to be lumpy, not smooth, and so random events look like they are clustered together. And at the point of the race where the riders are most intensely focused, occasionally mistakes will occur. Sometimes even simultaneously.
The two culprits in Austin were Joan Mir and Maverick Viñales. Mir's infraction was the smallest, barely moving and then almost coming to a stop. He was quietly seething after the race, angry at a penalty he felt he didn't deserve, and at the disproportionate nature of the penalty for the tiniest infraction in which he didn't gain an advantage, like Cal Crutchlow in Argentina. "It ruined my race," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "All the weekend for this. It ruined my whole weekend. When I see my lap times every lap and the pace that I had, it makes me even more angry because sincerely we had today a great pace to fight for the podium or top five, sure."
Would Joan Mir have been in the fight for the podium? Looking at his pace, the podium would have been optimistic. He was running 2'05s and 2'06s, which would have put him somewhere around sixth, seventh, eighth. But that would have been a very strong result for a rookie who is starting to come good, on a bike which, as Alex Rins demonstrated at COTA, is capable of winning.
Maverick Viñales owned up to his false start. "We were so close to make a good start, and on the start I just put full gas. First two or three seconds okay, and in the last moment start to move. I didn’t release the clutch, nothing," he said. A simple case of the clutch dragging and creating some small forward motion. "The good point at least I overtake some riders in the start," he joked, after being criticized for being a poor starter.
Viñales also believed his pace was good enough to be in the fight at the front. And the ease with which he banged out 2'04s and low 2'05s suggests that he was correct. That would have put him with Alex Rins and Valentino Rossi. Two Yamahas on the podium would have been quite the turnaround from last year.
Though Viñales owned up to the jump start, he also made a couple of capital mistakes. The most obvious one was running through the Long Lap Penalty lane, before entering for a ride through. Viñales had been caught out after the discussion among the riders in the Safety Commission about alternative penalties for a jump start which wasn't blatant. The Long Lap was one penalty discussed instead of a ride through, but it was just an informal discussion, with no rule change applied. (As Cal Crutchlow pointed out, it would hardly be fair if he had been punished with a ride through at Argentina, and then the Grand Prix Commission had changed the penalty after Argentina, giving Rins and Mir much less severe penalties). "It was just that I misunderstand. It was all my fault," Viñales said.
This is a recurrent problem among some riders. They only focus on the rules they absolutely need to know, and are often not even aware of the precise details of those rules. That can cause confusion, as it did for Viñales. But they have no one but themselves to blame for that: with MotoGP as tight and as close as it is, every detail counts. Riders (and teams) can no longer afford to make those sort of silly mistakes. Viñales needs to be 100% certain of the fixed penalty for a jump start before he lines up on the grid. Being confused about that is a strike against him.
This error is compounded by Viñales' mistake at the start. There is a simple way to prevent the bike creeping forward due to clutch drag: keep your foot on the back brake at the start.
Rins is in the hunt
Alex Rins took Suzuki's first win in MotoGP since Maverick Viñales at Silverstone in 2016, and was also the first new winner in the series since the same result. Rins was helped by the fact that Marc Márquez crashed out, of course, something we will come to later. But there is no doubt that the Suzuki has made a massive step forward in the past two years. And Alex Rins has shown signs of being able to compete at the front of each race, and even for the championship. "Like I already explained in Qatar, I think Suzuki and Rins will fight for the championship," Andrea Dovizioso said after the race. Austin was confirmation of that.
The competitiveness of the Suzuki is the result of hard working putting together the right pieces of the puzzle, Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio explained. "We pay a lot of attention on selecting the parts. We develop different parts and different things and the job is to select properly the parts, to really choose what gives you an advantage, what gives you the improvement. Maybe a new chassis comes, automatically it's not better. You have to evaluate deeply. A new engine comes, is it better or not? New swing arm, better or not? New suspension, better or not?"
For Brivio, the championship is not yet the focus. "I think we have to think race by race and then see what happens, then if we work and don’t make so many mistakes maybe at the end of the year when the line close maybe we might have some good position. The championship is a long way and we know there are very strong riders that are fighting for the championship in the last two or three years and they will get back in Jerez, once we go in Europe they will be very strong. But we are there, why not? We try to do our best."
Márquez finds a way to beat himself
Did Alex Rins owe his win to the fact that Marc Márquez crashed out? Perhaps. Then again, you might say that Marc Márquez crashed out because of the pressure he felt coming from the riders behind, including Rins, Valentino Rossi, Jack Miller. Each year at Austin, Márquez' advantage dwindles some small fraction. Each year, that makes it harder to win in Austin. This was the year his streak came to an end.
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