If you’ve had enough of the rodeo puns by now, how about the seventh instalment of a spaghetti western where the rivals drop to the ground before the cowboy even starts the walkdown? That was pretty much the story of how Marc Marquez reclaimed his throne at the Circuit of the Americas. While the Honda man enjoyed the sweetest tasing donut of the last couple of years from the top step of the podium for a seventh time, Fabio Quartararo was almost as delighted to take second and put one hand firmly on the big trophy. Although he did a solid recovery job in the closing stages of the race, poleman Pecco Bagnaia could not reach the high bar he set for himself over the last couple of weekends and had to make do with the final podium place.
Missing out on pole did not seem to harm Marquez in the slightest, the Spaniard making a fine start to lead the way into turn one, ahead of Quartararo and Bagnaia, with Alex Rins immediately in the mix and attacking for third. Teammate Joan Mir also made some early progress up to sixth, while Johann Zarco dropped to 10th, behind Jack Miller.
Although Marquez had his lead unchallenged going into the second lap, the escape was pending, as he only found a couple of tenths on Quartararo and Rins, while Bagnaia dropped half a tenth back and was under pressure from Jorge Martin, Takaaki Nakagami and Mir. The pressure on the Italian was alleviated somewhat when Nakagami crashed out at turn 12 but he was also losing tenths on Martin in the early stages, while Brad Binder, Miller and Zarco were chasing them to soon join the group.
Back at the front, Marquez kept Quartararo just out of striking distance, but the duo kept close for the next few laps, while Rins and Martin were battling right behind. The Bagnaia-led group was also bridging the gap, with Miller playing wingman just behind the Italian and keeping Mir, Binder and Zarco at bay. However, Zarco did not even get a chance to challenge the men ahead, as he crashed out at turn one on lap five.
If until that point there was merely a hint at an escape plan, Marquez’s gap suddenly increased to over a second on lap six, while Quartararo was under fire from Martin. After a steady start, Miller was on the attack as well and climbed into fourth, ahead of Rins, Bagnaia, Binder and Mir, who did not seem to make much noise in the early stages and allowed some pretty significant gaps to build between them over the next few laps.
The biggest gap was still Marquez’s, the COTA king over two seconds ahead by the halfway point of the race, while Quartararo had ditched Martin, who dropped within reach of Milller. Although the Australian bridged the gap with relative ease, getting past the Spaniard was not an easy task and the rookie kept stretching away from his factory colleague. Another second down the road, Bagnaia found some pace mid-race to get past Rins and within a couple of laps had closed onto his teammate to challenge for fifth. The challenge was brief, Miller allowing Bagnaia past with eight laps remaining and fending off Rins, whose teammate was enjoying a safe gap on Binder but making no impact on the one second gap to Rins.
Despite the terrifying jolts every time he was on screen, Marquez extended a four-second gap on Quartararo going into the final handful of laps, while Martin’s podium looked reasonably secure despite the late speed shown by Bagnaia. The Italian kept pushing but the 1.8 seconds gap was slow to budge, with the cameras turning their focus to the battle behind him, where Rins got the better of Miller with five laps left and quickly dropped the Ducati.
A flawless Marquez continued on route to reclaim the COTA throne from a distant but happy Quartararo, but a few mistakes started creeping in behind them towards the end. The first major one dropped Martin right back into Bagnaia’s clutches for the final four laps and the rookie withheld the pressure but didn’t do as good of a job with track limits and was promptly handed out a long lap penalty for taking a shortcut between turns four and five. To add insult to injury, Bagnaia quite effortlessly breezed past with two laps remaining and serving the penalty lost Martin another position to Rins on the final lap. Enea Bastianini was hindered by a 16th grid position but the rookie had joined the top 10 halfway through the race and chased Mir and Miller for the final few laps. Contact between the two on the final lap allowed Bastianini to swoop in and claim sixth place, while Mir took seventh from Miller, although the incident was quickly under investigation and the roles were reversed. Binder and Pol Espargaro rounded out the top 10 positions, with a notable mention to Andrea Dovizioso, who finished 13th and wasn’t too far off the top 10 on his second race for Petronas.
Despite missing out on the win, Quartararo seemed as happy as he’s ever been, fully aware that the outcome gets him one step closer to the title, with a nice 52-point cushion over Bagnaia, as the sole challenger left.
|41||Aleix Espargaro||Aprilia||12 Laps|
|5||Johann Zarco||Ducati||15 Laps|