It has been a decade, but it is here at last. The last time a rider from the United States of America took pole position in a Grand Prix was in 2010, at Indianapolis, where Ben Spies set the fastest time in qualifying. The last time an American rider was fastest in the intermediate class was Kenny Noyes at Le Mans in 2010. 2010 was a good year for Americans in racing.
Are we likely to see a revival of Americans in Grand Prix racing? Unlikely, given that there is only one rider from the US current in the entire series. But that doesn't preclude seeing a lot of success for the US this year. Joe Roberts has found something this year. The American Racing team (owned, ironically, by someone who is not American) have taken a big step forward with the Kalex, and the bike suits Joe Roberts' riding style much better than the KTM did.
He proved that during the test here last weekend, where he was inside the top ten, and half a second behind Jorge Navarro, the quickest rider at the test. Roberts stepped it up a gear on the race weekend, being fastest on Friday, breaking the lap record at the track, and leading Marco Bezzecchi by a quarter of a second.
"After topping the time sheets yesterday I was sitting at dinner thinking, 'Wow, this is great. But I actually have to do this again tomorrow at the time it counts,'" Roberts told the qualifying press conference. That was precisely what he did, though literally by the slimmest of margins. First, Jorge Navarro broke the lap record during Q2, and three minutes later, Luca Marini did the same, working together with his Sky VR46 teammate Marco Bezzecchi. Then, a few seconds later, Joe Roberts crossed the line with exactly the same time as Marini.
How did Roberts end up with pole position? The American's second quickest lap was a 1'58.447, five hundredths of a second faster than Marini's second best of 1'58.502. The rules state that in case of a tie, the second best laps of each rider will be taken into account, and if those are tied, the third, and so on until a tie breaker is reached.
What was more impressive was that Roberts did the lap on his own. The Sky VR46 riders had worked together, Bezzecchi towing Marini to his best time, then Marini returning the favor – a testament to how well-run the team is, Bezzecchi telling us yesterday that riding for the Sky VR46 team was like being in a full factory team. But Roberts had gone out completely alone on an old tire, come back in for fresh rubber, then exited alone again and punched in a couple of blistering laps.
Can Joe Roberts convert his pole into a victory? The American's pace is very strong, but he is not the only one. Luca Marini is quick, as is Jorge Navarro, Remy Gardner, Bezzecchi, Lorenzo Baldassarri, Jorge Martin. Aron Canet, so fast in the test, could not convert his speed in the test into a good qualifying position. What's more, the Aspar rider appears to be having issues with his right arm, icing his forearm and ripping open his suit as soon as he enters the garage.
Canet is displaying all the symptoms of arm pump, but when I asked team manager Gino Borsoi about it, he denied arm pump was an issue. The problem was the sleeves of the suit being too tight, Borsoi insisted. We will see soon enough whether that is the case or not: if a photo appears on Canet's Instagram feed in the next few weeks of him in a surgical gown giving the thumbs up with Dr Mir, then there will have been a bit more to it than just tight leathers.
As for the other riders, managing the front tire will be crucial. There are those who struggle with the new Dunlop front, a larger section tire chosen to match the rear better. Jorge Martin was among those Moto2 riders, the Red Bull KTM (ironically riding a Kalex-framed Triumph) rider suffering a lot of graining on the right side of the front tire. The Ajo team dropped the forks through the triple clamps, lifting the front a little to try to relieve the issue in FP3, which seemed to help.
"The big problem was the front," Martin said. "After ten laps I am losing the front, so we said, we need a big change. We need another bike. We tried less weight on the front, a bit higher, and it was much better. I felt quite comfortable. We can see the tire that is okay after seven, eight laps."
The underlying problem is that the gap between the two front tire options is too large, at least according to those with problems. "I think tomorrow we will see a race with a group at the beginning, at least, because I think in my case I will try to save the front tire as much as possible," Jorge Navarro said. "The difference between the soft and the hard is too big to use the hard. With the hard, you are constant, but you are constantly slow. At the end, I prefer to use the soft, be strong for at least ten laps and then struggle a bit. I think we all will try to save the front tire, to arrive to the last part of the race with a good feeling and with the possibility to fight."
Managing the change
But there are also riders like Luca Marini, who believe the new, wider section front tire is a big improvement. "For me, the front tire this year is much better," the Italian said. "The bike is more in a good balance. I don’t understand how the other riders are struggling with this. From my side, everything is going good. We have a good tire in the front."
That may prove to be the difference in the race, between the riders who feel comfortable with the new front tire, and the riders who don't. Marini and Roberts are both strong and comfortable with the front Dunlop, and are the riders to watch. But we could also see a big group trying to win the race as slowly as possible, trying to keep as much tire for the end of the race as they can.
It wasn't just Speed Ups and Kalexes at the front. The NTS chassis had its best qualifying in Moto2, RW Racing's Bo Bendsneyder finishing a very impressive fifth place, also his best qualifying result in the intermediate class. The bike had made a big step forward, the chassis having shed a lot of weight over the winter. But NTS had also added more adjustability to the chassis, giving the team more setup options. Bendsneyder had worked on fitness and motivation, with changes inside the team to improve the atmosphere. The package as a whole was an improvement, and that paid off in qualifying.
Finger brakes are the future
One interesting development in the Moto2 class is the growing number of riders using a scooter brake, a hand-operated brake lever on the left handlebar, the clutch lever moved down and out of the way, as it is only used once at the start of the race. I counted eight riders using a scooter brake: Jorge Navarro, Thomas Lüthi, Joe Roberts, Fabio Di Giannantonio, Marcel Schrötter, Aron Canet, Jorge Martin, and Xavi Vierge, while Remy Gardner was using the more traditional thumb brake.
Unlike the MotoGP systems, the Moto2 systems are combined, with lines operating a single set of pistons in the caliper (MotoGP systems have two independent lines, from foot brake and hand brake, going to separate pistons).
For some, this is the first step on the way to switching to a scooter brake. Jorge Navarro was typical: "I am trying to use it, because I am used to using the foot," the Speed Up rider said. "For me, my brain is programmed that when I brake, I go with the foot. Then I have to change this, but it takes time. I need a bit of time for me to make this, but in a GP I have to be as competitive as possible. The laps that are not very important, I try to get used to it, but at the end the important laps I make with the foot brake. But it’s a good thing to work for the future because for me it’s interesting."
Joe Roberts, on the other hand (pardon the pun), has completely transitioned to a scooter brake. "It’s like every time I tell my foot to do something it doesn’t really do it like I want it to," the American joked. "So we decided to go for the hand brake. Honestly inspiration from the MotoGP guys. I’ve seen a lot of guys who have used that. We decided to try it in the test in Jerez and I didn’t ask them to take it off. It works great. You have better feel with your hand, in my opinion. So now we have the autoblip it’s not really necessary to have the foot brake anymore. We’ve taken it completely off."
If Moto2 looks like being a race of attrition settled by half distance, Moto3 is likely to be the usual insane race-long battle, ending in a last-corner dive for the line. "Actually there is no plan," Red Bull Tech3 KTM rider Deniz Öncü said after qualifying in eighth in just his sixth Grand Prix start. "Because everybody will be like a kamikaze, so..."
The more experienced hands said that position would be crucial. "I think the biggest thing is to try to stay out of trouble," John McPhee of the Petronas Sprinta team said. "Obviously, even at the front you can get in trouble, but if you're midfield or towards the back, it's a lot harder to come through without somebody making a mistake. So to try to be in the front group and to keep as much as possible out of trouble. Top six is my kind of aim."
Watch for the riders who are practicing their passes out of the slipstream in the race. That was Darryn Binder's plan, he explained. "Sometimes I try and plan it out during the race," the South African said. "If you can practice it during the race, get yourself into second and see how it goes down the straight, going third, fourth, see where the line is. Normally it’s a dog fight. But when it comes down to the last lap, like you said, you always just got to be careful that if you’re in second and that’s where you want to be, that the guy in third doesn’t get you and then screws your whole plan. So it’s difficult. Sometimes the last lap you’ve just got to wing it."
Beyond Sunday, there are signs of developments of the next races. The Grand Prix Commission met on Saturday morning to discuss a few minor tweaks to the rules, and naturally, the fate of the next few races was discussed. In Austin, the SXSW festival and conference has been canceled, by order of the mayor. This appears to have been a move aimed at saving the organizers from bankruptcy, however, after several tech giants banned their staff from attending. Some 410,00 people attend that event, many of whom are on business expenses, and able to spend money freely. That brings a lot of money into the city of Austin, money the city cannot afford to lose in the long term. So SXSW was canceled in 2020, in the hope of being able to organize it again in 2021.
Did this change anything? A decision on the Austin MotoGP round was expected either next Friday, or the Monday after, sources with knowledge of the discussions told me. Dorna wanted to avoid a situation like Qatar, where the race was canceled a week before it was due to happen. Deciding three weeks in advance would give a better chance to plan. And if Austin was canceled, starting the MotoGP season in Argentina was also an option.
In reality, though, nobody really knew what was going to happen, the sources told me. Dorna, IRTA, the FIM, and the MSMA were working closely together to try to ensure that racing resumed as soon as possible. Contingency plans were being made, and nothing was being ruled out. Postponing races was an option, as was racing behind closed doors, with just the bikes present, and no crowds, as is happening with some soccer matches at the moment.
But the situation is developing very fast. On Saturday night, reputable Italian newspapers reported that Italy was about to impose travel restrictions on people from twelve Italian provinces, including Rimini, Pesaro & Urbino, and Lombardy. Those just happen to be the provinces where most of the MotoGP riders live, and where the MotoGP teams have their headquarters. The province of Bologna, where Ducati are based, is not included in the restrictions, but Venezia, which includes Noale, home of Aprilia, is.
The ban would prevent anyone from moving in and out of the affected provinces for anything but the most urgent business. Whether the authorities consider motorcycle racing urgent business isn't clear, but it seems unlikely. All sporting and cultural events have been canceled, and shop openings restricted to weekdays.
If riders and team members can't leave, say the Rimini area, then that would prevent MotoGP from racing. The restrictions are due to come into force on March 9th and last until April 3rd, according to the news reports, which would make it impossible for those involved to travel to Austin. Unless, of course, they all packed up and left for areas outside the quarantined zones before midnight on Sunday.
On the other hand, the situation around the COVID-19 corona virus is developing so quickly that anything is possible. The disease is on the verge of being declared a global pandemic, at which point efforts to contain the virus are likely to cease, with the authorities turning to focus on mitigating the effects, and far more localized restrictions. The Austin race could be canceled by the end of the week, or it could be declared to be going ahead, or it could be canceled and then put back on again six times between now and next Sunday.
The 2020 MotoGP season, and the first half of the year 2020, is very much being lived in the conditional tense. All is provisional, nothing is fixed, and nothing is certain until it has happened.
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