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When riders get off to a blinding start in the first couple of races, it is easy to get carried away and start penciling their name onto the championship trophy. Doing that after just two races is plainly ridiculous. Doing it after three races is hardly any better. Yet the temptation to do so remains strong: when a narrative presents itself, it is hard to resist following it.
That has been the case so far this year. In Moto3, Joan Mir has looked untouchable winning the first two races from tough fights. In Moto2, Franco Morbidelli had dominated, controlling races from start to finish. And coming into Austin, Maverick Viñales had won the first two races of the season quite comfortably, nobody anywhere close to being able to match him.
During practice, a new narrative presented itself in MotoGP. Marc Márquez has dominated the racing at the Circuit of The Americas since it first joined the calendar, winning all four races held there before this year. Maverick Viñales has dominated the opening two races of the year, and came to Austin looking capable of ending Márquez' winning streak.
There is a move afoot among MotoGP riders to have qualifying changed. Or rather, to have the way the selection is done for Q1 and Q2. A lot of riders have complained about the current system of prequalifying using combined times from FP1 through FP3. The riders complain that they lose too much time to trying to set a fast lap in each session, just in case conditions change. The current counter proposal from the riders is to use just the FP3 times to select which riders go through to Q2 directly, and allow the teams to spend Friday focusing on setup.
Saturday morning exposed the weakness of such an idea. A combination of cold tires, strong wind, a bumpy track, poor tire selection on Friday night, and the narrow temperature working range of the Michelins saw eight riders crash a total of ten times in FP3. Alex Rins crashed so heavily he broke both the radius and ulna in his left arm, and put himself out of action for Austin and Jerez, and possibly for Le Mans as well. The rest escaped relatively unscathed, but with many a temper blazing.
Basing passage into Q2 solely on FP3 results was not without risks of its own, Valentino Rossi told the Italian media. "Today, that would have been a stupid idea, because we would have had to take a lot of risks in difficult conditions," Rossi said. If there had been a total of ten crashes in a session in which most riders hadn't pushed to improve their time, how many would have fallen if they had all been pushing to get through to Q2?
The jockeying for manufacturers among satellite teams has begun. First out of the gate is the Reale Avintia Racing team, who have renewed their contract for another year with Ducati. Ducati will supply two Desmosedici GP17s to the team for the 2018 season.
It looks like we have been wrong all along. As usual. All this time, we thought it was the engine which was the problem for Honda. This would be a major issue, as engine designs are sealed and fixed for an entire season in MotoGP, at least for factories which have gathered sufficient podium credits to qualify as competitive under the rules. With nine wins last year, and a MotoGP title, Honda definitely does that.
Maybe the problem isn't the engine after all, however. Honda riders are starting to express the apparently unpopular opinion inside HRC that maybe the solution isn't to rejig the engine again by playing around with firing orders, crankshaft counterweights, and other internal moving parts now set in aspic until the season ends at Valencia. Perhaps, they suggest, Honda could take a look at its chassis, and try finding solutions there.
Cal Crutchlow was the most vociferous, though that is an extremely relative term when speaking of rider statements about the Japanese manufacturer they ride for. "I think we need to start working with the chassis a bit more," Crutchlow told us after another hard day at a very physical track. "That's not a comment against my manufacturer, against my team, it's just a comment that we've looked at the engine for the last two years, and I believe that a lot will come from the chassis. Sure, some electronics, but I think it's chassis. I've ridden other bikes, so I know what the chassis is doing. And I believe that's where we could improve a lot. Because the engine is sealed, that's done, it's done and dusted."
If you wanted proof that MotoGP fans are smarter and more engaged than most people think (and arguably smarter, more engaged, and better informed than half the journalists in the paddock), then look no further than the section added to the press conference by Dorna featuring questions submitted by fans via Social Media. The questions submitted so far have been funny, interesting, and thoughtful (though of course, it helps that the hardworking Dorna Social Media staff carefully separate the wheat from the chaff beforehand).
They have managed to be revealing, coming at riders from unsuspecting angles and forcing them to let slip things without realizing it. Or sometimes, just gets them talking in a broader context, which helps provide a greater insight into the way the sport has changed, and the direction it is heading. And sometimes, they have just made us all laugh.
The question to Valentino Rossi, asking which of his rivalries should be made into a movie to match Rush, the dramatization of the rivalry between James Hunt Niki Lauda. There is no obvious answer to that question – Rossi's rivalries have been many, fierce, and bitter, with Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez, Sete Gibernau – but Rossi settled on his rivalry with Max Biaggi. "It was funny, because we also had a lot of funny stories out of the track," Rossi quipped.
The most remarkable statistic about the Grand Prix of The Americas is surely this: Since his ascent to the MotoGP class, Marc Márquez has won every single race he has competed in at a circuit in the United States of America. He won both US races during his two years in Moto2 as well. In fact, you have to go back to 2010, and Márquez' final year in 125s to find the reigning world champion's last defeat on US soil. America agrees with Marc Márquez, though that does not automatically include all Americans as well.
So after a decidedly mediocre start to his defense of the 2016 MotoGP title, the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas is the right place to get his season back on track. He comes to COTA knowing he can win, and knowing he can win on an uncompetitive machine. That knowledge alone will be worth a tenth or two in Austin, perhaps enough to give him the edge over the all-conquering hero of the hour Maverick Viñales.
Why does COTA suit Márquez so well? It is really hard to say. Perhaps because it offers so many opportunities to make up time on the brakes. First, there's the uphill monster of Turn 1, perhaps the weirdest first corner of the season (fittingly keeping Austin weird). Then there's Turn 11, the hard, sharp hairpin before the long back straight, at the end of which there is Turn 12, another spot requiring hard braking. And at the end of the lap, the two final corners, Turn 19 and Turn 20, which are shorter, but just as fierce.
Perhaps it's not so much the braking, but more the strange section of combination corners stretching between Turn 2 and Turn 10. They are the kind of corners that reward the ability to turn on a dime, and the all-front-end, all-the-time Honda deals well with those. Or perhaps the corners through the Stadium Section, and around the Grand Plaza.
If the two MotoGP races so far this year have had the kind of internal logic more commonly associated with a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the Moto2 and Moto3 classes have been rational seas of serenity. Which, come to think of it, also makes them more than a little like the more pious parts of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. These are topsy turvy times indeed.
When Moto2 first started, it brought the most harrowing and raucous parts of Bosch' work to mind, voracious insanity unleashed on two wheels, which sensible people feared to look at. (Fortunately, motorcycle racing fans are anything but sensible. It is one of their better traits.) But those days are now long gone, and the intermediate class has become processional, races decided almost before they are begun.
A nostalgia for the madness of the past keeps us watching, hoping to see a revival of the old ways. From time to time, the series livens up again, and we start to dream that our prayers have been answered, though such thoughts are usually dashed as soon as they arise. The Moto2 race in Argentina was very much a case in point. It started out processional, then grew tense, then the tension frayed, then renewed, only to end with bang. Literally, in the case of Alex Márquez, who ended a long way up in the air before coming down to earth with a solid thump.
The news that Michele Pirro is to serve as a track analyst to Jorge Lorenzo during his time at Ducati was greeted with interest at Sepang. It was unexpected, but looking back at it, a logical and highly sensible decision.
With a total of five Grand Prix titles to his name, why would Jorge Lorenzo want or need a track analyst? Come to mention it, why would Valentino Rossi, with nine Grand Prix titles and 114 victories to his name, employ a rider coach in Luca Cadalora?
Brad Binder has had surgery to fit a new plate to his broken left arm. The original plate, which had been fitted over the winter after he had broken the radius in his left arm, had worked loose, and was not holding the bone together properly. Binder has now had that issue corrected in Barcelona.
Along with a thrilling weekend of racing, several interesting items of news emerged in Argentina. Brad Binder and Remy Gardner were injured, and face surgery. Discussions were held in the Safety Commission on deciding who progresses to Q1 and Q2. And at a press conference, Dorna announced that the WorldSBK championship will be racing in Argentina in 2018, at a new circuit in the west of the country.
Binder breaks arm, Gardner damages ankle
First, to the injury news. Brad Binder had his best result on the KTM Moto2 bike so far, but his weekend was far from a success. The reigning Moto3 champion has been struggling all off season with a broken arm which was healing slowly, after a plate put in his arm to fix the broken bones in place had only partially succeeded in doing so. Speaking at the Jerez test in February, he described his arm as being "nowhere near where we'd hoped it would be." Progress has been slow since then.
Weird is still the new normal in MotoGP, though after Qatar, we appear to be entering the second half of the acid trip, the part where the hallucinations stop being overwhelming and start to take on a strange kind of internal logic once you learn to embrace the weirdness. You can sort of understand why motorcycling's premier class is throwing up the kind of bizarre surprises that it does, and the truths you held to be self-evident still have some roots in reality, though they are much, much shallower than before.
The Termas De Rio Hondo track remains one of the jewels in the crown of motorcycle racing, albeit one which could use a bit of a polish. The track is little used, which often leaves it dirty, while also becoming rather bumpy. Yet the layout is still glorious, and perfectly suited to the cut-and-thrust of two-wheeled racing, each overtaking point lovingly crafted to allow the chance to counter if passed. Layouts like that help create great racing, which is what we got in part. But the blemishes threw up anomalies, causing riders to crash out and the racing to falter.
There was still a spectacle to admire, in all three races. The day started well, with Moto3, though a break in the field cut the battle for the lead down to a group of five, with a deserving winner at the end. The Moto2 race threatened to turn into a snoozer, but the field tightened as the laps ticked off, creating last-lap drama that rendered the race memorable. And the final act was worth the wait, packed with drama and surprise.
MotoGP's weird and wonderful Argentina trip continues to confuse, with qualifying turning out as topsy turvy as ever. Or perhaps not quite as topsy turvy as yesterday: though the front of the MotoGP grid still contains more than a couple of surprise names (more on that later), there are the first signs that some semblance of normality is starting to creep back. That doesn't mean it's going to be 2009 again any time soon, when the grid basically predicted the finishing order, bar accidents, but bookies everywhere are worrying less about the chance of a rank outsider staging an upset. On Friday, all bets were off. On Saturday, they were hedging their bets again.
Oddly enough, part of that was down to the weather. It was a peculiar day in terms of weather, the morning starting cool and dry, but rain starting to fall at the end of MotoGP FP3. It dried out again after that, allowing Moto3 to start their qualifying session on a dry track, before the rain returned with a few minutes to go. MotoGP FP4 took place on a wet track, but the rain lifted and the track started to dry during qualifying. Q1 was wetter than Q2, and tire choice became crucial. Vacillating between the soft and the hard tires cost more than one rider passage through to Q2.
By the time Moto2 took to the track, a dry line was starting to form. Andrea Iannone had gambled on going out on slicks during Q2 but came straight back into the pits when it turned out to be impossible. The Moto2 riders went out on wet tires at first, but were quickly able to switch to slicks. With the track improving with every lap the riders put in, pole position was changing hands just about every time a rider crossed the line. In the last 22 minutes of qualifying, the pole time was slashed by eight and a half seconds.
The MotoGP riders will not have the additional soft front tire at their disposal for the Argentinian Grand Prix. In a meeting of the Safety Commission on Friday night, the riders agreed that they did not need the tire, as the current allocation of three fronts was sufficient for safety purposes.