"I thought Laguna Seca was a tough track to learn, and then I came here." Bradley Smith's verdict on the Circuit of The Americas at Austin, Texas, after six laps on the scooter around the track. Smith's words sum up the general feeling about the newest addition to the MotoGP calendar, mind-boggling sequences of decreasing and increasing radius turns, with blind entrances, complex combinations and a few hard-braking hairpins with tough entrance points. Even the long back straight undulates, the huge, slightly bowed, 1200 meter length of tarmac rising and falling, leaving you wondering where you are along it.
The setting is beautiful, in the rolling low hills to the east of Austin, just beyond the airport, and the facilities are quite simply overwhelming: modern, well-equipped, brightly lit, attractively designed. Indeed, both the factory and Tech 3 Yamaha teams are delighted with the facility: after a battery fire at 1am, it was only the circuit's outstanding sprinkler system and alert response by the fire service which prevented the fire spreading out of control, destroying maybe eight or twelve MotoGP machines, and causing upwards of $50 million of damage.
And yet the track is far from perfect. "The track is better to look at than to ride," Valentino Rossi described it to the Italian press. The track has a number of outstanding sections, the fast sweeper of Turn 2 and the three consecutive right handers of Turns 16 through 18 standing out above all. It has some extremely challenging and technical sections, especially the Esses of Turns 3 through 5. Getting it right in each section is crucial: end up wide in one place, miss the apex by a foot somewhere, and you are off line for the next section, which means you'll also miss the entry for the corner after that, and before you know it, you've lost half a second and can throw away your lap. Many of these corners demand precision, and above all, knowing where you need to be on the circuit for the next corner, and the one after that, and the one after that.
But while each turn is intimately connected with the next, it does not flow. You need to be in the right place to approach the coming corner, but that does not mean that you arrive in the right place from the previous one. On a truly flowing track, like Phillip Island, Mugello, parts of Assen, each corner places you naturally where you need to be for the next, and you can focus your mind on getting the most out of that turn. At Austin, you need to concentrate, force the bike to get over to the correct point on the track, aim the bike at the exit point you want for the next corner, not the best one for this. Phillip Island flows naturally, Austin, the riders say, flows unnaturally.
With such a hard track to learn, surely the five men who spent two (Yamaha) or three (Repsol Honda and Stefan Bradl) days at the Austin test in March will have an insurmountable advantage? They will be hard to beat for sure, but every man - and in the Moto3 class, girl - on the grid is a professional motorcycle racer, and has faced these challenges many times before. It will take thirty laps or so - basically, the first day of practice - but by the end of Friday, they will all have a pretty good grip on the track's secrets.
Of course, the trouble is that the five men who were here for the test included the four best motorcycle racers in the world, along with a solid candidate for fifth place, too. "You can't lose anything to these guys, the top five or six are on the limit as it is. If you've lost three days of track time, it's nigh on impossible to compete with them," said Cal Crutchlow at the pre-event press conference.
Fastest at the test, and making an impressive debut at Qatar with a podium, Marc Marquez comes into Austin highly tipped to win, and break Freddie Spencer's 31-year-old record as the youngest rider to win a premier class Grand Prix. The Repsol Honda youngster led all three days of testing at the new track, leaving Austin with an advantage of six tenths of a second over the his teammate Dani Pedrosa, and more than a second over 2012 world champion Jorge Lorenzo. It seems not just plausible, but entirely probable to suggest that Marquez might win his first MotoGP race at just the second attempt.
Marquez himself is less convinced. Testing is not the same as racing, that was what he had learned at Qatar, he insisted. Being fast at a new track was nice, but was nothing like a guarantee of success. As for Spencer's record? It was not something he was thinking about, he said. When somebody comes along and beats your record, nobody remembers it was you who held it before them, Marquez explained. The youngster is impressively adept at deflecting pressure; opinion in the paddock is that he is impervious to external pressure because it can never match the pressure he puts on himself.
As much as a Marquez win fits his fairytale ascendancy to the premier class, it is a very, very long way from being a done deal. The competition is fierce, and much more motivated than at the test. Chief among his opponents is teammate Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda man keen to make up for his fourth spot at Qatar. There, two weeks ago, Pedrosa struggled with set up and with grip, something which should be less of an issue at Austin, especially once the Moto2 and Moto3 classes have been out to lay some rubber on the track.
Most of all, Pedrosa needs to get his championship challenge back on track. Fourth in Qatar meant he gave up twelve points to Jorge Lorenzo, a big hole from which to start the season. Austin represents his best chance of clawing a lot of those points back, especially if he can keep his teammate Marquez between himself and the reigning champion.
But beating the Yamahas will not be as simple as it was at the test. Though the Yamahas appeared to be at a disadvantage in March, the timesheets were not telling the whole story. Honda had prepared a full-scale onslaught for Austin, combining the test with a media offensive, producing hours and hours of promotional video, which had in turn covered the cost of the test for them. Yamaha had done the test on the cheap - a relative term, given that it still cost in the region of 350,000 euros - sending only one bike for each rider, and taking those bikes from the test team in Japan, rather than the bikes which Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi had been riding at the Sepang tests. They were there with just a skeleton staff, to keep costs down, leaving a slightly worried Wilco Zeelenberg at home to fret over the possibilities of something going wrong in his absence, Lorenzo's team manager used to accompanying and coaching Lorenzo at every test.
Now, Rossi and Lorenzo are at Austin in full force, though the fire in the Yamaha garage put a bit of a dampener - quite literally - on their preparations. The Yamaha team spent the day cleaning water from the sprinkler system out of all of the cases and storage boxes, tool chests and spare parts storage, though by 6pm, the garage was spic-and-span and ready for the bikes to be warmed up.
Rossi's weekend was made even tougher by his problems with travel: held up at passport control at Chicago for two-and-a-half hours, he missed his connecting flight, then had a later flight canceled due to severe weather on the route between Chicago and Texas. The Italian ended up flying to Houston, and then driving up in a taxi from there, a tiring three-hour drive no matter how comfortable the vehicle you are traveling in. "It is like going to the race in Australia," Rossi joked, after a long and exhausting trip.
With everything working, and better equipment, and - hopefully - a fully rested rider pairing, both Lorenzo and Rossi should be more competitive than at the test. The nature of the track favors Honda less than it appears, Wilco Zeelenberg told me. The diverse nature of the track meant that there were places which favored the Hondas, and places which favored the Yamahas, offering the possibility of closing down a gap which had opened up. Though passing might be difficult, there would be opportunities, and all four top riders were capable of seizing them. With Jorge Lorenzo keen to limit any losses at Austin, before heading back to a series of tracks which favor him and the Yamaha, the reigning champion will be much tougher to beat than testing suggested. Lorenzo's aim is to build as much of an advantage in the first half of the season as possible, and defend his lead later on. Key to that strategy is not throwing away the cushion he already has by finishing too far behind Pedrosa at Austin.
While Pedrosa may be Lorenzo's main concern, he may also have to deal with his teammate. Valentino Rossi keeps deflecting questions about whether he considers himself a candidate for the championship, saying that before he can think about that, he needs to win a race first. His second place had been a boost, he conceded, saying he was "very, very happy" about it, suggesting that the result had steeled his resolve. Austin is not the place for a Yamaha victory, but a Rossi win will come relatively soon, with Mugello an obvious - and immensely popular - candidate.
Of the rest, Stefan Bradl holds a clear advantage, the LCR Honda man having also tested here back in March. Both Nicky Hayden and Ben Spies had also ridden the track, racking up thirty or more laps during the launch of the Ducati 1199 Panigale R. The two Americans will be spending less time trying to figure out which way the track goes, and more on trying to get their Ducatis ready to race. That will not be easy, but knowing the track leaves one less variable to think about.
The Austin circuit may end up being kind to the Ducatis. Although there are a few spots where fast sweepers will create problems with the understeer the Desmosedici suffers, there are maybe three or four places where getting drive could be crucial to success. The Ducati has drive, on new tires at least, and so Hayden, Spies, Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone could perform better than expected.
But if you were to only catch one race at the Circuit of The Americas this weekend, then the most excitement could come earlier. The Red Bull Rookies will become the first motorcycle class to ever race at the circuit, a class which always provides excitement. Moto3, too, could end up being great to watch, as the lack of power, major elevation changes and technical track means that the riders try to hang on to as much corner speed as is humanly possible. Making a break will be impossible, at least that was the opinion of Bradley Smith, which could mean that a massive group enters the final section together. It would not be the first time a Moto3 race was decided that way.
Tomorrow, though, speculation ends, and motorcycles will take to the track in anger for the first time. Time gaps will be huge on Friday morning, falling to more reasonable proportions by the end of the afternoon. It promises to be an intriguing race at Austin on Sunday, and that must surely be good for motorcycle racing in the USA.