With everyone slowly recovering from the shock of the announcement that Bridgestone is pulling out of MotoGP at the end of the 2015 season, it is easy to forget that we are here for a motorcycle race.
The roar of Grand Prix machinery hurtling around the beautiful Circuito de Jerez on a glorious Andalusian morning soon dispelled thoughts of 2016, and concentrated minds on what is to come on Sunday.
The heat of the afternoon, though, made thinking tough, and riding even tougher. Track temperatures rose to over 50°, robbing the circuit of even more grip, and making it greasier than ever.
Rider consensus was that the track was in pretty good shape, but when it’s this hot, the already low-grip surface of Jerez becomes very difficult to ride. That meant that the number of riders who managed to improve their times in FP2 in all three classes were limited.
There is much to be said in praise of the first running of the Argentinian round of MotoGP at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit. First and foremost, praise should be heaped upon the circuit itself. Designer Jarno Zafelli took a formerly pedestrian layout and added just enough kinks and twists to make for an exhilarating and difficult racetrack.
There are plenty of places to pass, and sections different enough that teams and riders can concentrate on their strengths, though that makes them vulnerable at other parts of the track. Add in a final section which lends itself to last-gasp attacks – at the risk of penalty points, as Romano Fenati found out – and you have an utterly superb track for motorcycle racing.
If Jarno Zafelli of Dromo was hired more often, instead of Hermann Tilke, there would be a lot more fantastic circuits to race at.
The only negative was the fact that the track was still so dirty, a result of it not yet having seen enough action. Once the riders got off line, they found themselves struggling for grip, losing a lot of ground.
Fortunately for the races, almost everyone got off line at some point or other, putting them all on an even footing. Once the surface cleans up properly, the track should offer even more places to attack, and alternate lines through sections. The Termas de Rio Hondo circuit is a fine addition to the calendar.
Two races and three qualifying sessions in, and all three classes in MotoGP are providing an object lesson in the importance of consistency. Marc Marquez has taken pole for all three MotoGP races, Tito Rabat has done the same in Moto2, and Jack Miller has been on pole for two out of three Moto3 races.
There’s a similar pattern in the races as well, with Jack Miller having cleaned up in Moto3, and Marc Marquez winning both MotoGP races so far. The only interlopers are Alex Rins, who nabbed a Moto3 pole at Qatar, and Maverick Viñales, who gatecrashed the Moto2 party at Austin. Then again, if you were hoping to have your party gatecrashed, you’d definitely want it done by a man called Maverick.
What did we learn from the first day of practice at the brand new Termas de Rio Hondo track in Argentina? We learned that Marc Marquez and Jack Miller learn tracks very quickly indeed. We learned that Moto2 is tight as ever. We learned that South America has been crying out for a round of MotoGP almost since the moment the series left Argentina for the last time in 1999.
And we learned that a brand new track always faces teething problems the first time it appears on the calendar. In Argentina, the biggest problem is a dirty track, covered in sand, wreaking havoc on the tires. That, though, is a relatively easy problem to solve: a few more sessions and a grand total of 90 different bikes circulating will clean the track up very quickly.
If anyone was in any doubt as to whether building a circuit in a small town in the middle of the Argentine pampas was a good idea, the crowds lining up to get into the circuit on Friday morning should have dispelled their fears. Reports were that the fans were queuing to get into the track at 7am on Friday.
That is quite unheard of in Europe, where the first day of practice is always a good day to spend at the track if you want to explore it and see the action from various points around the circuit. The Argentina round is reportedly already a sell out, with 70,000 tickets sold and only VIP passes left on the open market.
This bodes well for the future of the event, and justifies the investment made by government in the facility. If the aim is to attract tourists to Termas de Rio Hondo, and put the town on the map, they have clearly already succeeded.
Why on earth would you organize a MotoGP race in what is effectively the middle of nowhere? The answer is as simple as it is obvious: money. Dorna are being well paid by the circuit to bring the three Grand Prix classes to the little town of Termas de Rio Hondo in the heart of the Argentinian pampas.
And in case you should start to rail against Dorna’s greed, it is fair to point out that a significant part of that money will also go to the teams, to pay transport costs and to cover at least part of their annual budget. Some of that money, but not all.
A more relevant question might be why would a circuit in the middle of nowhere pay Dorna a massive amount of money to come race there? If it’s in the middle of nowhere, then surely they are unlikely to make back at the gate what they paid to Dorna to organize the race? They won’t, but that is not necessarily the point.
The circuit, after all, is not paying most of the fee. The vast majority of the cash (indeed, probably all of it) is being paid by the regional authorities, with help from the central government. The regional tourism promotion council is counting on the increased profile of the Santiago del Estero province attracting more visitors to the region, and to Argentina in general.
In essence, the Argentinian government and the Santiago del Estero province are making the same gamble as the province of Aragon did for the circuit at Alcañiz. They hope that by raising the visibility of the area to the outside world, more people will choose to visit, and that will being more revenue to the region and boost the local economy.
Normally it takes bad weather to shake things up in a MotoGP race. For most of the day, it looked like the rain was ready to start at any time, but in the end it stayed pretty much completely dry, bar a quick and meaningless shower just before the Moto2 race started.
Regardless of what the weather decided to do, we still ended up with a bizarre MotoGP race anyway. The weirdness started even before the race had started, and continued pretty much all the way to the very last corner.
Jorge Lorenzo came to Texas knowing he faced an uphill challenge. Last year at the Circuit of the Americas, Marc Marquez had run away with the race, with only Dani Pedrosa able to follow. Lorenzo had put up a valiant struggle, but had been unable to prevent a Repsol Honda whitewash.
In 2014, Lorenzo had come facing an even tougher task, if that were possible. After crashing out at the first race, Lorenzo knew he had to score as many points as he could without taking too many risks.
He would have to find a very fine balance between pushing hard to try to catch – and who knows, maybe even beat – the Repsol Hondas, and ensuring he didn’t risk ending up with a second zero to go with the crash at Qatar.
The extra tension that created may have played a factor in what happened next. Lorenzo came to the grid with more bugs collected on his visor than usual. As he sat waiting for the official holding the red flag to leave the grid, he did something he never normally did while waiting for the start.
To ensure he got the best start possible, Lorenzo decided to remove the first tear-off from his visor, to clear up his vision. While he was pulling the clear plastic strip from his visor, the official hurried off the grid ahead of the start, as the rules dictate. When Lorenzo looked back up, he saw the official gone, and in a moment of confusion, got ready to start.
The start procedure specified in the rulebook states that once the official leaves the grid, the red starting lights will come on for between 2 and 5 seconds.
Once the red lights go out, the race officially starts, and riders are free to chase into Turn 1 as fast as they can. That light change is crucial, the lights imprinted onto the retinas and brains of world championship motorcycle racers around the globe. Once the lights change, you go.
Those who fear a Marquez whitewash at the Circuit of the Americas could draw some comfort from the raw numbers on the timesheets as Saturday progressed.
Marquez’s gap from Friday was cut dramatically, first to under a second in FP3, then to a third of a second in FP4, before being slashed to less than three tenths in qualifying. Is the end of Marquez’s dominance at Austin in sight?
But raw numbers are deceptive. Sure, the gap in single lap times is small, but there is still no one who can get close to the reigning world champion. Marquez’s four flying laps were faster than the best laps by any other rider on the grid.
Second place man Dani Pedrosa’s fastest lap was still slower than Marquez’s slowest. In FP4, Marquez punched out four laps in the 2’03s, while the best anyone else could do is lap in the 2’04s.
During the morning FP3 session, Marquez racked up five 2’03s, while only Pedrosa could manage two 2’03s, Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Bradley Smith managing only a single solitary lap under 2’04.
Where the others took eight or nine tenths off their best time during qualifying, Marquez only improved on his previous best by a quarter of a second.
“It looks like Marc always rides at qualifying pace,” Jorge Lorenzo’s team manager Wilco Zeelenberg quipped. Given the string of 2’03s Marquez hammered out on hard tires in race trim during FP4, that bodes ill for the rest of the riders.
A measure of just how confident and comfortable Marquez is at Austin – a local journalist finally got the Spaniard to admit that the circuit favors the Honda, a small triumph in itself – came during FP4, and then again during qualifying.
In Q2, Marquez lost the front in the tight left-hander, saved it, nearly lost it again, then got on the gas again as if nothing had happened. In FP4, while testing a change to the weight distribution, Marquez found himself running straight on at the end of the back straight three laps in a row.
On one lap, the rear came up as he hit one of the few bumps on the circuit, and instead of struggling to regain control, Marquez tried to control it and carry it on as far as possible. He grinned as he recounted the experience to the press conference. This young man is in his element, which bodes ill for the competition.
Bridgestone’s decision to bring the 2013-spec medium compound rear tire to the Austin round of MotoGP has been met with near universal displeasure amongst the MotoGP riders.
The Japanese tire company was forced to revert to the 2013-spec tire, without the added heat-resistant layer, after a production issue with the 2014 tires meant that they were unable to bring enough of the new spec tires to the Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin.