The first day of practice at the Circuit of The Americas was summed up with eloquent brevity by the headline of the press release issued by the RW Racing GP Moto3 team of Jasper Iwema and Jakub Kornfeil: “No grip in Texas.” Despite the awesome facility, a fascinating and difficult track, and clear blue Texan skies, the times set by all three Grand Prix classes in Austin were a very long way off what had been expected, as the riders struggled to find any grip anywhere.
Why was the grip so low? The heavy rains from the previous day didn’t help, washing any rubber that was on the track away. Not that there was much, on a track that has seen very little bike use in its short existence so far.
Then there was the cool temperatures, with thermostats showing just 13°C/55°F in the morning, and a strong wind blowing away any heat the sun managed to get into the tarmac. “Like riding on ice,” was the common consensus in the morning, with times some five and a half seconds off that set by Marc Marquez at the previous test back in mid March, at which conditions were far from ideal.
Three free practice sessions in the morning, a little less wind and a full day of sun worked wonders in the afternoon, with all three classes taking big chunks of time off their lap times from the morning. By the time the day had ended, all three classes were some three seconds or more faster than they started off. Tomorrow, most riders said, should be even better now there’s more rubber on the track. Warmer temperatures should help too, as will the wind dropping off.
“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 sequence 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.
The second half of the 2012 MotoGP season generated a tale of sound and fury: Casey Stoner’s retirement, Valentino Rossi’s pending return to Yamaha, Dani Pedrosa’s late season charge to threaten for the premier-class title, and the coming of Marc Marquez to Repsol Honda, all seemed to add up to a 2013 that would make for one of the most interesting MotoGP seasons of the modern era.
But as the storm raged around him, Jorge Lorenzo got quietly down the the business of being a fast, and perhaps more importantly, consistent, points claiming machine, that fended off a revitalized Pedrosa and claimed the 2012 crown.
Much has been made in the days since the thrilling MotoGP season opener at Qatar of the charge of Valentino Rossi through the field and the pace he ran to catch the group behind Dani Pedrosa.
Speculation has been rife that had Rossi got a better start – and more importantly, got a much better qualifying position – he could have matched the pace of Lorenzo, and taken the fight to him. But just how realistic is the idea that Rossi could have run with Lorenzo at Qatar, and that Rossi could have matched the pace of his teammate? Reality, or just wishful thinking?
What was the big story of the MotoGP season opener in Qatar? It’s obvious: The Doctor is back. After a failed pass on Andrea Dovizioso, in which he ran wide and hit his brake lever protector on the back of Dani Pedrosa’s rear tire. ”The protection saved me, because for sure I crash [without it]” he said afterwards.
He upped the pace and chased down the group containing Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez, and Cal Crutchlow, passed them all, and after a thrilling battle with Marquez, went on to take second place in his first race back with Yamaha. If anyone thought that Rossi might have lost it, this was the race in which he proved that he was still capable of being at the front, the only condition being that he has a decent machine underneath him.
That reading of the race, though both attractive and seductive, is not the complete picture. Viewed with a more jaundiced eye, Rossi was comprehensively thrashed by his teammate – “In this weekend, I think it is impossible to beat Lorenzo,” he admitted.
Closing down on a group being held up by a struggling Pedrosa, who had been troubled by a lack of rear grip all weekend, Rossi then had enormous difficulty dealing with a MotoGP rookie, racing for the first time in the class. Is that beautiful palace on the horizon real, or was it just a mirage, a trick of the light in the desert?
If you have aspirations of winning the championship, the first qualifying session of the year is your first chance to stake your claim. Qualifying is the moment you state your intentions, show everyone what you have, and what they are up against.
The rest of the year, pole position is nice, but the most important thing is to be on the front row, and get a good start. But at the first qualifying session of the year for the first race of the year, you need to send your opponents a message: This is what you are up against. This is what you face if you wish to beat me.
Champions know this. At Qatar, the champions made their presence felt, and announced their intent to the world. In MotoGP, the defending champion – and the man who starts the year as favorite – set a pace that none could follow, robbing upstart Cal Crutchlow of what would have been his first pole.
In Moto2, Pol Espargaro made a mistake, crashed, and corrected his error as soon as his bike was rebuilt, pushing hard to take pole in the dying seconds of the session. And In Moto3, Luis Salom took his first ever Grand Prix pole by putting it on the line when it mattered, seeing off all-comers in the final moments, while Maverick Viñales gritted his teeth to ride through the pain and grab 2nd on the grid.