One record down, one to go. By qualifying on pole in just his second MotoGP race, at the age of 20 years and 61 days, Marc Marquez becomes the youngest premier-class pole-sitter in history, deposing the legendary Freddie Spencer of the crown he has held for 31 years.
On Sunday, Marc Marquez will go after the next target: the record as the youngest winner of a premier class Grand Prix, also held by Spencer. If he fails to win on Sunday – a very distinct possibility – he still has until Indianapolis to take Spencer’s record, making it very far from safe.
Marquez’s pole was the crowning glory of an utterly impressive weekend so far. The Repsol Honda youngster has dominated most of practice, leading his teammate by a quarter of a second or more in every session but one. He was immediately fast, but his race rhythm is just as impressive.
In FP3, as grip on the track improved, Marquez cranked out 2’04s and 2’05s like they were going out of style. He was consistent, too. Not quite Jorge Lorenzo consistent, but he was running a pace that would have let him build up a lead, with only Dani Pedrosa able to stay close.
Marquez continues on the meteoric path blazed by the fastest riders in the world who went before. Casey Stoner always said about that truly exceptional riders are up to speed almost immediately, and this is exactly what Marquez has done. On the podium in his first race, on pole for his second, and a strong favorite for the win, this is the mark of a true “Alien”, to use a much-denigrated, but still useful phrase. His first MotoGP victory can’t be far away.
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.
Asphalt & Rubber is coming to you from the Grand Prix of the Americas this week, and things are already off to an interesting start. With a fire breaking out in the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 garage during the night, the gear for the satellite Yamaha squad was flooded by the Circuit of the America’s fire suppression system, which also affected the garages for Yamaha Racing, LCR Honda, and Cardion AB.
Yamaha Racing Boss Lin Jarvis explained that while the small fire was quickly put out by COTA’s sprinklers, the team lost one of two servers and several computers to the blaze before it was extinguished. It is not anticipated that the fire will have any affect on Sunday’s race, though it could pose a problem for the teams, since they have a quick turnaround for the Jerez round.
Currently, the cause of the fire is presumed to be the lithium battery to Monster Yamaha Tech 3′s electric starter for the GP motorcycles, making this incident another eyebrow raising episode in the handling of high-tech battery packs, which have different tolerances and operating procedures than conventional battery pack types.
While certainly a setback to the start of the race weekend, the teams involved dodged a serious bullet by having the fire occur while MotoGP is at COTA, since the Texan track has a sophisticated fire prevention system in place.
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?
With the MotoGP paddock once again assembled for the start of the season at Qatar, the four organizations who make up the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP’s rulemaking body, took the opportunity to meet, discuss, and adopt a number of rule changes. The rules cover a number of areas, including testing for all three classes, the 2014 technical rules for MotoGP, and further steps to control the real cost of engines in Moto3.
The most significant part of the press release is perhaps also the least obvious. The GPC confirmed the 2014 technical regulations previously agreed upon, after Dorna received assurances – and detailed proposals – that the manufacturers were prepared to supply private teams with affordable machinery. The news that Yamaha has agreed to lease engines to teams was the final piece in the puzzle which ensured that the rule package for 2014 would be adopted.
When I photograph a race, I get only portions of the story: the beginning, snippets of the middle, and the end. It’s something like reading a novel by skimming every third or fourth chapter until arriving at the last page and having someone summarize it. (I get the end if, that is, I can see the results on the tower as in Qatar. At some tracks I don’t know for sure who won until I get back to the media center.)
Each January we say “This season is going to be great!” and for 2013 there seems to be more reason to believe that than ever, which is how the weekend’s story began. When we arrived at Losail, there was more anticipation in the paddock for a great season of racing ahead than I can remember.
Even with Casey Stoner gone, pre-season testing had raised expectations for Marc Marquez even higher than they had been at the end of 2012. We knew Pedrosa would be fast and win races. And we knew Lorenzo would be the man to beat.
What we didn’t know was how competitve Valentino Rossi would be after his two years at Ducati. There seemed to be a visceral need in the paddock for him to return to form, to be Valentino again. After ups and downs in the practice and qualifying sessions, he would start from seventh place on the grid, with Lorenzo on pole and likely to run away into the night.
Would we see a return of the Rossi flair that has inspired millions of fans around the world? Or would the fairy tale turn out to be a tragedy?
One thing was for sure as we stood on the grid after a very long winter break, waiting to find out the answer to this question: The crowd, even though largely Spanish and there to support top riders in all three classes, was even more ready to see Rossi go fast again than those in the paddock.
The track announcer introduced the various riders, and when he came to Rossi, the sudden rise in enthusiasm hit like a wall of sound. Official attendance for Sunday was a paltry 9,704 fans, but it sounded like all of them were on their feet cheering as Rossi turned and waved.