It has been a rough start to the 2022 MotoGP season. Qatar started relatively smoothly, but things started going downhill from there.
The Indonesian round at Mandalika barely scraped through, the newly resurfaced track already coming up in the final corner as the new asphalt had not had time to bed in.
Then two broken cargo aircraft suffered technical problems and left part of the freight stranded in Mombasa, Africa on its way to Argentina.
A hastily rescheduled two-day event at the Termas de Rio Honda followed, which came off surprisingly well. Then with a short turnaround getting the freight from Argentina to Texas, there was another problem with cargo planes breaking down, and freight arriving late.
Fortunately for the GP of the Americas at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, the delay was merely stressful rather than problematic.
The last flight cases arrived at the beginning of the afternoon on Thursday, with teams rushing to unpack and prepare everything ready for Friday morning. But that is a deadline they would easily make, making delay or rescheduling unnecessary.
So MotoGP can get underway at COTA as expected. And the riders can look forward to what they almost universally described as “the first normal weekend”. That is not entirely true, however.
We once again have a slightly odd schedule, with Moto2 preceding MotoGP, and Moto3 after the premier class, the reverse of the normal order.
That sequence is repeated on Sunday, with the Moto2 race the first grand prix race of the day, with MotoGP at 1 PM local time, and Moto3 the last grand prix class to race, while the MotoAmerica series brings proceedings to a close.
Why the strange schedule? The answer to almost every question about the schedule is almost always “because TV”. A 1 PM race in Texas is at 8PM in Europe, and 7 PM in the UK. That is slightly better than a 9 PM start in the MotoGP heartlands of Spain and Italy.
And swapping round Moto3 and Moto2 makes sense too. Having Moto2 before MotoGP gives the premier class a consistent surface to work with, rather thing surprising them with a lack of grip on Sunday when faced with racing after Moto2 for the first time. And the mayhem of Moto3 is more likely to keep viewers glued to their screens if it is the last race of the day rather than Moto2.
The track itself is a remarkable and peculiar thing. The longest lap on the calendar, in time terms, though Silverstone is longer in distance, it has a unique and demanding layout.
Up an incredibly steep hill to the first corner, a hairpin with the apex hidden by the crest, then plunging down to a fast and sweeping corner, Turn 2. A long series of chicanes and esses follows, which flow together in a very precise and specific way.
Make one mistake anywhere from Turn 3 through to Turn 10, and you lose an enormous amount of ground you will struggle to make up.
A hairpin and a long and fast straight follows, before the riders enter the stadium section. Hard braking for Turn 12, then the track reverses back on itself in a tight Turn 13 and Turn 14 section.
Another tight hairpin, and the bikes go left again, before sweeping through the long right hander comprised of Turns 16, 17 and 18. Two more left handers follow, before the riders exit the final corner and fire themselves at the hill at the end of the straight once more.
It is a physically demanding track, made worse in the past due to the bumps. To their credit, the Circuit of The Americas did their best to address the problems after the riders pronounced the track unrideable after the race in October last year.
The track had already been partially resurfaced previously, and now they have laid a new surface from the entry of Turn 2 all the way through Turn 10.
Over the course of the past couple of years, almost the entire track has been resurfaced. “It looks good, what they’ve done from Turn 2 onward,” Jack Miller said on Thursday.
“They said up to Turn 10, so I wasn’t sure if it was before or after, but it was after so it looks good. Half of the back straight was done last year which didn’t make sense at the time but now, basically the corner onto the back straight [Turn 11] is I think the only old asphalt now.”
“It’s just that tight 90-degree corner. And then the rest, the asphalt was new on the back straight and then it stopped for the next section, the bus stop section, so that’s all new again now. And the last sector was already done last year. So it all looks relatively good.”
Though the reception by those who had seen the track was positive, there was still the sense that it was a short-term rather than a long-term fix.
“They did a good job to resurface the asphalt,” Pecco Bagnaia told us. “They just put new asphalt on the old one so maybe the bumps will still be there. But for sure it will be less bumps.”
I walked up the hill at Turn 1 on Thursday to see for myself, and the track did look in very good condition.
It is hard to see with the naked eye whether there are any bumps still there, but looking at the tire marks left by recent car events at the track, the lines are not continuous, suggesting the suspension is loading and unloading, which would imply that there are still bumps there.
As long as they are not as bad as they were in October last year, that will be acceptable. Turn 10 is the one corner the riders are most concerned about. Unsurprisingly, given that bikes were almost being launched their due to the combination of the downhill slope and the bumps.
Will the track be any less demanding if some of the bumps have bee removed? “It’s true that with less bumps and a new surface, normally it can be less physical, but also the lap times, you will try to go faster, so I don’t think it will change the story a lot, it will be physical in any case, I’m sure,” Joan Mir told us.
Make the track smoother and the riders will go faster, expending the same amount of effort. So no, the track won’t be any easier to ride. For all the energy saved by not having to manhandle the bike through the bump chicane section in the first part of the track will merely be redirected to finding a way to go faster.
Under normal circumstances, Marc Marquez owns the Circuit of The Americas. The Repsol Honda rider has won seven of the eight editions held in Austin, the only time he missed out being in 2019, when an engine braking problem caused him to crash out of the lead during the race.
But vision problems caused after a massive highside in warm up at Mandalika sidelined the Spaniard, the decision to race in Texas only taken on Tuesday, after he had ridden a Honda CBR600RR at the Alcarras circuit in Spain. Marquez went from the circuit to the airport, and boarded a flight for the US.
Marquez had taken not just a knock to the head at Mandalika, but also a massive knock to his confidence. “Indonesia was the worst GP of my career,” the Spaniard told the press conference. “I crashed too many times, there were crashes I didn’t understand and the warm-up crash I was with a new rear tire and I had the highside.”
Those crashes had made him doubt himself, Marquez confessed. Though probably fit to race in Argentina, he had elected to wait for another week.
“For Argentina I was very close to coming, but I didn’t feel motivated,” the Spaniard said. “I didn’t feel motivated to take that risk in Argentina and I didn’t want to. I discussed it with the doctor and we decided to stay home, relax.”
He had concentrated on rebuilding his confidence, training and riding with the road bike, before deciding to make the trip to Austin. “I started to train again in a good way and this week I had another doctor check and the vision was fixed,” Marquez said. “Now is time to build again that confidence and build again the process.”
If Marquez’s main aim is to build confidence, what better place than the track where he has dominated?
A track where he has had a huge advantage in the past means he should be have something in hand to secure a podium, if he can’t quite make the win. That would be enough to build going forward.
“He found something a lot of years ago in this track, and he still has something more, I think,” was Joan Mir’s assessment of Marc Marquez’ chances this weekend. “He’s always really strong in sector 2. He will be the favorite and one of the contenders for this race.”
We shouldn’t read too much into the pace he sets during practice, Alex Rins warned. “Four months ago during the practice he was not showing all of his potential, I think. If you compare the race with the FP, the way he did the race last year was unbelievable.”
“The pace he did, no one had it during all weekend.” Marquez may have missed a race due to vision problems, but it would be foolish to write him off, the Suzuki Ecstar rider warned. “He missed one race. This can also affect a bit. It’s Marc Marquez, he will be at 110%.”
There is an element of self-interest in Alex Rins’ declarations. Rins is the only other rider to win at the Texas track, taking victory in 2019 after Marquez crashed. He has also won in Moto3 and Moto2, so he has form at the track.
Asked if he was the favorite if Marquez couldn’t handle his return this yearly, he agreed. “I’d like to be,” Rins said, but there were others out to get him.
“Jack is good here. Last year he didn’t make the right choice. But I can’t say one favorite if it’s not Marc.” Picking winners was a lot more difficult if you factored Marc Marquez out of the equation.
Better Is Not Always Better
Both Suzuki riders may be widely tipped to win, along with the Ducatis of Jorge Martin, Pecco Bagnaia, and Jack Miller, but the recent change to the Michelin tires has stripped them of one of their weapons.
Under normal circumstances the Suzukis excelled at managing rear tires and finding speed at the end of the lap. But the latest generation of rear Michelins had better endurance, which meant the drop of the rear tire was less at the end of the race. The difference a rider can make by managing the throttle is less.
“I think the tire drops a lot less and it’s easier to understand,” Joan Mir explained. “It’s impossible to make 25 laps full throttle, but it’s not like before that you had to control it more and the drop was bigger.”
Ducati’s Jack Miller agreed. “It seems that these Michelin tires now at this point, saving the tire doesn’t help at the end of the race,” the Australian told us.
“Because you get the drop anyway. Doesn’t matter what you do with it. If you try and be gentle on the first lap to try not to have that big spike in temperature, or go out of control lap, it doesn’t make a difference.”
Miller had seen that at first hand in Argentina. “I had guys come past, Bezzecchi came past with smoke coming off the back tire and we all dropped at the same point. We all had about the same amount of grip towards the end of the race. It’s not like managing the tire at the beginning makes a difference nowadays.”
That meant a change in how to approach the race, Alex Rins explained, placing a higher premium on a solid starting position.
“You can go harder in the beginning but you take more benefit if you start at the front,” the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. “Starting 3rd row like Argentina, I lost a bit of time.”
“Maybe I lost the fight with Aleix and Martin while trying to overtake Marini, Pol. I spent two or three laps doing that. Let’s see how quali goes here. We already made some plan to see if we can improve. Let’s see if this different approach is successful.”
And We’re Off
The Grand Prix of The Americas is the fourth race of the season, and so we should have a clearer idea of how the championship is settling in once the dust has settled on Sunday.
But riders were universally ambiguous to the assertion that there were any patterns to be derived from the current state of the title chase. “The real championship has already started!” Pecco Bagnaia said when asked if the championship starts in Jerez.
But the Ducati Lenovo team rider also pointed out that the season would really start to take shape once MotoGP had the first couple of European races under its belt.
“Normally, after 6 or 7 races you have a better idea for the contender for the title,” Bagnaia said.
“The important thing is that we all know that in Europe, the party starts in Europe,” Joan Mir told us, before warning, “But meanwhile all these points are really really important.”
The party may start in Europe but all of the points accumulated before Portimão and Jerez will still stand. There is still everything to play for in Austin, Texas.
After all, if there weren’t, then Marc Marquez would not have bothered forcing himself to come back to MotoGP.
Photo: © 2018 Ivan Lo / IVANLO.com – All Rights Reserved