There are only three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Marc Márquez winning any MotoGP race organized in the United States of America. That has been true since the Spaniard moved up to MotoGP, and for both years he spent in Moto2 as well.
There is something about America which makes Márquez nigh on invincible. Is it the anticlockwise tracks? Is it the low grip and tricky surfaces found at the circuits? Or is high fructose corn syrup Márquez’ equivalent of Popeye’s spinach?
MotoGP went to Austin hoping this might be the year when things changed. With good reason: the racing in the series has been getting closer and closer almost on a race-by-race basis. Valentino Rossi finished just 0.6 seconds behind race winner Andrea Dovizioso at Qatar, but he crossed the line in fifth place.
In Argentina, the seven riders fighting for second place were separated by 3 seconds on the penultimate lap. The Ducati Desmosedici GP19 is faster and better than ever, the Yamaha M1 has made a huge step forward since 2018, and the Suzuki has consistently been in the hunt for podiums since the middle of last year.
That is all very well and good, but the margin of Marc Márquez’ victory in Termas de Rio Hondo suggested that ending Márquez’ reign in the US would require something extraordinary to happen. The Repsol Honda rider had a 12 second lead going into the last lap in Argentina.
The Honda RC213V had the highest top speed in both Qatar and Argentina, the bike having both more horsepower and better acceleration. Then, during qualifying, Márquez took pole – his seventh in a row at the Circuit of the Americas – with an advantage of more than a quarter of a second over Valentino Rossi. Normal service had been resumed.
Normal service included Marc Márquez taking off from the line when the lights went out for the start. Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi got the jump off the line, but starting from pole position with the outside run to Turn 1, Márquez easily outbraked them to take the lead. With clear track ahead of him, the Repsol Honda rider pushed on to try get a gap.
Valentino Rossi, who had won the race to the first corner from Cal Crutchlow, knew what he had to do if he wanted to spoil Márquez’ plan. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider slotted in behind Márquez on the run through Turn 2, and nestled on the Spaniard’s tail.
Using the grip of new tires and the Yamaha’s superior corner speed, Rossi compensated for the lack of top speed compared to the Honda to stick with Márquez for as long as possible. He knew that if he let Márquez go, it was game over.
As they howled down the back straight for the second time, Márquez managed to open the merest hint of a gap. By the time they crossed the line to start lap 3, his advantage had grown to six tenths of a second. Márquez took that as a signal to double down, cutting another couple of tenths off his pace.
Though Rossi closed up through the flowing section between Turn 2 and Turn 9, he couldn’t get back into the draft of the Repsol Honda. Márquez exploited the speed of his Honda along the back straight to drive home his advantage.
By the time they crossed the line again to end lap 3, Márquez had opened the gap to over a second. Márquez had seized the steer by the horns, and was firmly in control of the US round of MotoGP once again.
Cal Coming Through
The Honda ahead of him was no longer Rossi’s prime concern. After sitting behind the Italian for the first couple of laps, Cal Crutchlow started to probe the Yamaha for a possible way past.
The LCR Honda rider clearly believed he had the speed, and it was becoming obvious that Rossi was starting to hold up the chasing pack. Crutchlow was joined by Jack Miller and Alex Rins, the Pramac Ducati and Suzuki Ecstar riders coming through from the rear.
The presence of friend and pupil Miller lent Cal Crutchlow a sense of urgency. The LCR Honda rider started looking in earnest for ways to get past Valentino Rossi. Rossi knew this, of course, and was holding the door firmly shut, no matter how hard Crutchlow tried to get past on the way into Turn 11, or slammed on the brakes on the entry to Turn 12.
Crutchlow sized Rossi up in the hope of spotting a weakness, sitting close on the Italian’s tail. The plan, he said, was to sit there for a couple more laps before trying to pass Rossi and make a break.
“My plan was to sit behind Valentino for two more laps and then I was going to try and go,” Crutchlow said after the race. “I felt that would have been the point when I needed the fresh air to try to make a break or at least been in front of him. I think I could have kept him behind because of where and how I was braking but I knew I needed fresh air with the bike in general.”
Down and Out
It was a plan Crutchlow would never execute. On lap 6, on the approach to Turn 11, the hairpin before the back straight, Crutchlow’s Honda RC213V got a little out of shape while braking, the rear wheel unsettled. As he turned in to the corner, the front end folded on him and Crutchlow hit the deck. After a disastrous race in Argentina, where he was hit with a ride through penalty for a jump start, a DNF was not what Crutchlow needed. But that is what he ended up with.
“I made a mistake and we have to move on,” a disappointed LCR Honda rider said after the race. “In the end it seems like the same old story: when we are behind people it looks like we are a madman with the braking or the Hondas are mad, but that is our ammunition and that is what it has always been, and we are not actually at massive risk when we do that. It’s just our strong point while that of the Yamaha is turning and having grip in the middle of the corners.”
“I felt I was losing out in the few of the corners so I was having to make it up in braking,” Crutchlow explained. “I don’t think I went in there too fast because I braked in the normal place and with my normal line and corner entry but the bike snapped on braking and when the rear comes round suddenly you lock the front because the pressure is on.”
“Without the wind deceleration the stopping effect on our bike is not enough at the moment and we need to improve that, whether by setting or in other areas. It is disappointing to end this way but our bike is working well.”
The problem was the way the rear was bucking around on the entrance to the corner, the LCR Honda rider said. “Look at the bike in the braking zone: it’s snapping around all over the place and evidently when it happens and it grips you cannot keep control of the brake lever.”
“You have two choices. You either try to go into the corner or you don’t. If you don’t then you lose the position and you lose a second. I tried my best, it didn’t work out today and that’s it. It was a big missed opportunity and we need to limit them because 13th in the last race through what I felt was a bad decision did not help my championship and today I lost another big chunk of points.”
Speed vs. Agility
Crutchlow’s crash was a harbinger of things to come. The Englishman’s place behind Rossi was quickly taken by Jack Miller, the Pramac Ducati rider using the speed of his GP19 to close the gap to the Yamaha of the Italian.
But while Miller would close on Rossi along the straights and braking into corners, the Italian would slip away again through the first half of the track, through the long and winding section from Turn 2 to Turn 9.
As Rossi inched away through the Esses, Alex Rins closed in on Miller from behind, using the superior agility of the Suzuki GSX-RR to carry more speed through the sector as they flipped their bikes from left to right and back again.
At first, Miller could hold off the charging Suzuki, but as they headed toward Turn 11 halfway through lap 9, Miller entered a little hot and could not rein in his weaving Ducati. The Australian ran wide, allowing Rins to slip underneath him and take over third place.
A Streak Ends
Any excitement over Rins taking third place was quickly lost in the action at Turn 12. Marc Márquez had entered the back straight with a lead of over 3.6 seconds, and was steadily building that out by three or four tenths a lap.
But as he braked for the tight left hander at the end of the back straight, then started to tip the bike in to the corner, the front just folded, dumping him on the ground before he could do anything to save it.
Even Márquez’ legendary reflexes could do nothing to help. The Spaniard tried jamming his left knee into the ground, but the bike was already off its wheels and on its side before he could try to lever it up again.
He was off, and spinning around on the hard runoff on the outside of the corner. Knowing how crucial any points can be in so tight a championship, Márquez picked the bike up and tried to bump start it. Three, four times he tried, but each time it failed to fire. The Repsol Honda rider was out of the race.
Though he blamed himself, Márquez had no real explanation for what happened when he spoke to the media later that evening. “It has been six amazing years here, but today, I did a big mistake,” he said. “But on the other side, it’s not the same making a mistake leading the race than fighting for the fifth position, for example, so the level is there.”
“The positive thing is that we are only 9 points behind the leader, but it’s true that today we did a mistake. That can happen. We are human, and the most important thing is to learn about it and understand, and try to be stronger in Jerez.”
It Wasn’t Me, Guv
What had Márquez puzzled was the fact that he was not pushing beyond his limit, he said. “I was riding at a very good pace in the race, I was just pushing in the beginning to arrive at the front, but then I saw already the gap, and then I slow down to 2’04.5, because for me, that was a good rhythm, I was comfortable there.”
He had no clear answer as to whether the mistake had been his, or down to the Honda RC213V. “It was a mistake,” Márquez said. “I mean, I don’t know. Of course it was a mistake, because you cannot crash leading by 3.5 seconds, this was a mistake. But it’s true that when we compared the data, it was very similar to the previous lap, but when you are riding in a very constant pace, and you feel strong, it can happen.”
“On the data, we compared, and it was very similar to my fastest lap and to the other laps,” he went on. “But of course it’s a very long brake point, and it’s difficult to understand sometimes. But the mistake is like, basically, I crashed. But I didn’t do anything stupid. But this can happen.”
“But it’s a mistake because I was leading by 3.5 seconds already. Sometimes I say, I was riding over my limit, but I was inside my limit. I was riding in a very good pace, I was riding very smooth, trying to save the front tire. But we are humans, mistakes are there, the important thing is to learn about it, and be stronger in Jerez.”
Reading between the lines of what he told the press, it is hard to suppress the feeling that he Márquez believes the fault lay with the bike, not with him. “I didn’t have any warnings during all the race, but it’s true that the weekend was strange, and I couldn’t work normally, nobody could work in the best way,” he said. “If you crash following somebody or fighting on the last lap, you are over your limit, then yes. But if you crash when you have 3.5 seconds of advantage, it means that I was inside my limit.”
Honda’s bad day was about to get even worse. Two laps after Márquez crashed out, his Repsol Honda teammate suffered an electrical failure which meant he had to park his bike on the outside of Turn 12. As Jorge Lorenzo sat up to brake at the end of the straight, the bike spluttered and died. The Spaniard rolled across painted tarmac, braked at the edge, and handed his bike to the waiting marshals. It was another chapter in what has been a disastrous start with Repsol Honda for Lorenzo so far.
With the chain having jumped the sprocket on a Repsol Honda at two consecutive events, suspicion immediately fell on that as the cause of Lorenzo’s withdrawal. But close examination of the video images back up Lorenzo’s and Honda’s insistence that the chain was not to blame.
In the small screenshot below cropped from a larger photo of Lorenzo’s bike being wheeled through the gravel after he stopped, the chain is just about visible on the sprocket. In the larger screenshot of the bike being wheeled back into the pits, the chain is clearly visible on the sprocket.
Lorenzo had little to say as to the cause of his problems. “The bike had a problem, and I couldn’t finish the race,” was his curt reply when asked by the media. His reply to a question whether the chain was the cause was monosyllabic. “No.”
Bad Luck Boy
After clutch problems at Qatar, a handlebar grip which came loose in Argentina, this was the third issue the Spaniard has had in three races, which left him frustrated. “Very disappointing, because in these three races, three different things happened that prevented us from getting better results.”
“Especially this one, that prevented us from finishing the race. So completely bad luck. I think that the last championship where everything goes perfect, like I had in 2010 for example. But this one has been more or less the opposite.”
But Lorenzo was also honest enough to admit that he was still far from being able to fight at the front, in part due to some weakness with his broken scaphoid, in part due to still not being completely comfortable with the Honda RC213V. “At the beginning it was not easy,” he said.
“I didn’t make a bad start, the start was good. Maybe we missed a little bit of power after letting out the clutch, some riders overtook me and I lost one or two positions. This track is complicated because of the hairpins and the chicanes, so you need to pay a lot of extra attention to not make any mistakes and crash together with another rider. So I was a little bit cautious.”
“At the beginning of the race with full fuel, it was difficult to stop, so I made some strange mistakes for me, because normally I don’t make mistakes, but today I went out of the track twice because I couldn’t stop the bike. So I lost there one or two positions more.”
“But when I could stay focused, the pace was not extraordinary compared to Marc for example, but I could be a little bit faster than the warm up, and I think that today, with all the crashes, our real position was eighth or night. So it was a little bit better than Qatar or Argentina. So it would be a better race, but we couldn’t finish it.”
For Lorenzo, the season starts in Jerez, a track he loves, and where he hopes to be much more fully fit. “Now we go to Jerez, and the important thing is to be fast there, to be more competitive, not fighting for the third or fourth row, but for the first or second row in the qualifying,” he said.
“Then try to make a much better result in the race. I think we can do it, we got some more experience this weekend, and in a better track, like Jerez, we can be competitive.” The race at Jerez will be important, but if Lorenzo is close to fully fit in Spain, the test on the Monday will be crucial. Honda’s patience with the Spaniard will not be endless.
Old vs. New
Honda’s poor weekend left rich pickings for Yamaha and Suzuki. With Márquez crashing out from the lead, his winning streak at the Circuit of the Americas over, opportunity knocked for Valentino Rossi and Alex Rins. Rossi led after he inherited the lead, his advantage a little over a second. But Rins was closing in, nibbling away at Rossi’s lead until he was firmly ensconced on the Yamaha’s tail.
This would become a battle of wills, victory going to the rider who wanted it most. Valentino Rossi had not won a race since Assen 2017, and is still smarting from a terrible year in 2018. Alex Rins has been gaining ground, and getting closer to his very first victory in MotoGP.
The Yamaha is vastly improved on last year: the crankshaft is heavier again, making for a more docile character, and Yamaha have invested heavily in the electronics. The Suzuki is better too: the GSX-RR has gained horsepower and improved in braking. The two bikes are pretty evenly matched, so it was down to the riders.
Valentino Rossi led, but that left him at a disadvantage. Alex Rins could sit, study Rossi’s lines, and bide his time. Rossi did all he could to hold Rins at bay, but that became ever more difficult against the marauding Rins. Each lap, as they swept down towards Turn 2 and headed through the Esses, Rins crept closer, piling the pressure on Rossi. “Alex rides very well,” Rossi said after the race. “He did two or three places a very good line for avoid the bumps, and he was very strong in braking.”
Time to Strike
On lap 17, Rins finally struck. This time, he was even closer as the leading pair swept down the hill and into Turn 2. The Suzuki man nudged his front wheel closer and closer to Rossi’s rear, waiting for a chance to strike. At Turn 6, Rins carried just enough extra corner speed to get on the outside of Rossi on the exit, which positioned him perfectly for the entry of Turn 7.
As the pair pitched their bikes left to enter the corner, scrubbing speed off as they went, Rins drew level with Rossi, and took away his line. It was a picture perfect pass, and irresistible. Rins had the lead.
Rossi was not willing to just roll over and let Rins walk away with the win, however. He couldn’t quite get close enough to attack at the hairpin of Turn 11, so instead he concentrated on taking a better line for the exit of the corner.
The Yamaha got better drive out of the corner than the wide sweeping line of the GSX-RR, but Rins held on to his lead down the straight. Rossi took a punt on a hard lunge up the inside at Turn 12, but was braking at the very limit of endurance, and could barely get the bike stopped for the corner. He was slow, and pushing wide onto completely the wrong line.
It was a move which Rins had been anticipating. He held his line, let Rossi run up the inside and on toward the outside of the corner, and simply cut inside the Italian. It was a brave attempt by the 40-year-old veteran, but it was also a desperate one, which cost him too much time. Ultimately, it would cost him victory.
Rossi put on a late charge on the final two laps, gaining ground on Rins, but to no avail. “I think that if I can do everything perfect I can attack him one time on the last lap,” Rossi said, “but unfortunately I did two mistakes in braking and I take a little bit of disadvantage.”
That disadvantage was enough to gift Alex Rins his first ever victory in MotoGP. The normally mellow Spaniard was exalted, delighted to finally take the top step in the premier class. In the process, he became the first rider to win in all three classes at the track, having previously triumphed in Moto3 and Moto2. Even in the press conference, nearly an hour of celebrations and endless interviews, Rins was still excitable, agitated, and delighted.
“It was unbelievable,” Rins said. “The feeling was incredible. During the weekend sincerely my feeling was not the best. We suffered a little bit to stop the bike on the angle, at small lean angles. But anyway, when we started the race I try to forget everything. I tried to ride. I recovered a lot of positions the first lap, so this is important.”
Rins had used Rossi as motivation, he explained. “When I was behind Valentino I was at 1.5 seconds, more or less. I was saying, ‘Come on, Alex. You need to arrive. You need to do a bit of a spectacle.'” He managed to do just this. “I arrived to Valentino. I was studying him. In the end when he did a small mistake I overtook him. I did the last three laps, four laps in the first position and took to the end.”
But the victory was not certain until the very end. “I did a small mistake on brakes on T11. I went a little bit wide. I was thinking, now Valentino will overtake you on the straight and ciao. But he came with me. He also went a little bit wide. I tried to stake out the last lap. I knew that Valentino has a lot of experience in these situations. I’m super happy. Suzuki deserves this victory. Together we deserve it, so we need to continue the same line.”
Steady Progress Pays Off
Rins made sure to express his gratitude to Suzuki, for keeping the faith with him and for working to make the bike competitive enough to win races. “This victory is incredible for Suzuki,” he said. “They worked very hard. This is my third year with them. The last year we’ve been very strong in the last part of the season. This preseason we worked really hard to have a competitive bike, to improve our competitive bike from the last year, and we did it.”
Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio gave an insight into just how Suzuki had gone about getting the GSX-RR to this point. “Of course we’ve been working quite a lot to improve the bike – I mean, we ARE working to improve the bike. And to be honest between us we started the season and we wanted to win a race. But in the secret of our team meetings, you know!” he joked.
“Of course I’m happy that it comes and it’s a good award for all our engineers in Japan because we improved the bike in the winter,” Brivio went on. “We didn’t make any revolution but many small things, many small adjustments here and there.”
“So as Alex says we end up with a bike that maybe is not perfect, we suffer on the straight in Qatar, but overall has a good balance, good change of direction. So we can compensate. And even here, if you think in Austin there is a quite a long straight as well, but we were competitive. Okay at the end we remain with Yamaha but we can fight maybe better.”
This result had been coming for a while, Brivio emphasized. “It’s a good reward for everybody, for the team, the engineers and especially I think Alex deserved that, because we had a very good end of season last year and I would say it’s not just one race we’ve been there by coincidence, it’s maybe since Misano or Aragon last year that we’ve been always close to the podium.”
“Sometimes we got on the podium, sometimes just under, but it’s always there every race unless something happened. So it looks like a natural evolution of what we are doing.”
Better Next Time
The feelings for Valentino Rossi were mixed. On the one hand, he was happy to have been in a position to win a race again after such a long time. But on the other, he was disappointed he had not been able to pull off the victory. “It’s a mixed feeling,” Rossi said.
“From one side, I’m very sorry because is a long time that I don’t win, and today was a great opportunity. But on the other side, I’m happy because is a good race. I was strong also during the weekend and also last weekend in Argentina. These 20 points are very important for the championship that is open, so is more positive than negative.”
Rossi acknowledged that his original plan was to try to stay with Marc Márquez. “I tried to stay close to Marc, because I think that he tried to escape,” Rossi said. “I tried to ride well, to stay close to him, but he was a bit faster than me. But anyway, I lose a little bit, but I feel comfortable and I was good.”
“After, when Marquez crashed, I made a little bit surprised and I think is a good opportunity to try, but I tried to ride at the maximum, to ride smooth. Was a good race because we are fast. My problem is that Rins at the end was faster.”
The most positive thing for Rossi was that this result was yet more confirmation that the 2019 Yamaha M1 is a much better bike. That was the fruit of the work Yamaha had done over the winter. “We tried to work on the electronics side to improve the acceleration because we have always problems to exit from the corner,” Rossi explained. “We find also a better balance compared to last year. The bike works better.”
The bike was better all round, Rossi believed, but more importantly, Yamaha are working in the right direction. “We tried to work on the engine brake, on the acceleration, on the smoothness of the engine.”
“Looks like that we need time because we have some areas where we have to improve, but looks like we start in the good way, we follow the right way. This is important. We have a good group in the box. The challenge is difficult for sure, but we improve.”
Jack Miller had been dropped by the leading pair about the time that Marc Márquez had crashed out. It was rapidly becoming clear to the Australian that his choice of the soft front tire had been overly optimistic. Fortunately, he was still over 5 seconds ahead of Franco Morbidelli and Andrea Dovizioso, and was just a couple of tenths a lap slower than them at half distance. All he had to do was coax his tires home, and he would take his first podium in MotoGP since 2016, and his miraculous win in the wet at Assen.
By the three quarter mark, that was proving to be more difficult than he had assumed. His pace had dropped half a second, while Andrea Dovizioso, who had gotten past Morbidelli, was starting to pick up his speed. The difference in lap time grew from a couple of tenths to a second or more a lap. Miller’s lead was melting like snow before the Texas sun.
In the final two laps, Miller put in one last push. He took more risk with the front, gambling that crashing out of third with a shot of the podium was better than sliding back into the clutches of Dovizioso, and that bet paid off. The Pramac Ducati rider held on to take third, leaving Andrea Dovizioso still a second behind him.
The Cost of Lost Practice
In the end, it was the loss of FP3 and FP4 to the weather which nearly ended up costing Miller his second podium in MotoGP. “I had a lonely old race for about ten laps to go,” the Australian told the press conference. “Our option the soft front wasn’t ideal. Missing the FP3 and FP4 due to the weather was real crucial in me making that decision, because I rode with the medium front on Friday and just didn’t feel too comfortable.”
“After speaking with these guys, they had similar problems. Today it seemed to come back into its own. It seemed to be a bit better. I started really struggling a lot with the right-hand side on the soft front. The rear was perfect the whole way through so I tried to manage it the best I could.”
Miller was not surprised to have been beaten by Rins and Rossi, however. The two men ahead of him factored into their calculations at every race, the Australian explained. “Every time I sit down with the team and make a debrief or a plan for the race, we always say Rins and Valentino, they’re going to be there in the race. Doesn’t matter where they qualify. You know they’re going to be there.”
A podium for Miller also helped strengthen his case for the second factory Ducati seat in 2020, alongside Andrea Dovizioso. With Danilo Petrucci on a one-year deal for this season, there is a clear battle for that second seat. “For sure my main goal is to try to secure a factory seat,” Miller said.
“I’d love it to be a Ducati. I feel we’re doing a good job this year so far at qualifying every time. Both races I’ve finished, I’ve finished in front of him. It’s been a good year so far, but we’ll wait and see. Normally the last couple years I’ve always started the season out strong and let’s say around Mugello the wheels have kind of fallen off again. Hopefully this year we’ll be able to keep them on and keep the ball rolling.”
Petrucci isn’t the only obstacle Miller faces. Though Pecco Bagnaia is taking time to adapt to MotoGP, the Italian was signed early to the Pramac Ducati squad by the Italian factory, and is very highly rated by them. Adding an extra level of complication is Alvaro Bautista, who is positively ripping up the WorldSBK series.
If Bautista looks like wrapping up the WorldSBK title early in the season, and shows more consistency than the three Ducati riders in MotoGP, he could make a return to the premier class, perhaps even in the factory team. Bautista is more likely to end up at Pramac than in the factory squad, but he adds an extra complication to the overall picture for next year.
Making the Best of a Bad Deal
Though Andrea Dovizioso couldn’t quite catch Jack Miller at the end of the race, it was still an outstanding result for the Italian. Dovizioso had failed to get through to Q2, and had been forced to start from thirteenth, with the prospect of losing a whole heap of points to a rampant Márquez in the championship. But Márquez fell off, Dovizioso made up a lot of places – helped, perhaps, by Márquez and Cal Crutchlow falling off ahead of him – and leaves Austin leading the championship by 3 points from Valentino Rossi, and 9 points ahead of Marc Márquez.
There had been even more in it for Dovizioso if he hadn’t had a couple of rough laps early, when he nearly crashed out over a hidden patch of moisture on the track. “I lost a lot of seconds after three or four laps because I lost the feeling and almost crashed in turn 10 and I wasn’t fast enough in the fast corners,” the Italian explained. “So that was the reason why I couldn’t stay at the front because my start was amazing and I was behind Rins, so I put myself in a perfect position.”
After losing time, Dovizioso turned his focus to getting past Franco Morbidelli. “I was missing some speed in that moment, but after a really bad moment – because I lost a lot of seconds – I was calm and was trying with Morbidelli to understand where I have to be smooth, better, and I understand after that in turn 10 there was a wet patch on the line. I think it’s the only corner where they put the new asphalt and that wet patch came from under the asphalt because it wasn’t there this morning.”
Once he had figured out how to avoid that damp patch, Dovizioso picked up the pace. “When I realized there was a wet patch I just changed the line a little bit and my feeling came back. Still I was too slow in the fast corners but in some other places I was very fast, I saw that with Morbidelli. So I overtook him and I started to make a good rhythm. At that moment I was very similar to the fastest riders and this is the positive part of the race.”
Leading the championship was good, Dovizioso explained, but with the top riders so close, it wouldn’t make it any easier to win this early in the season. “I think we showed a good speed so we confirmed our improvement from last year in a bad track. At the end we took a lot of points and we start from the back. I was ready to fight in the race.”
Dovizioso was looking forward to returning to Europe, he explained. “So the positive thing is that we are going to Europe, where I think we can be more competitive from Jerez and we can really fight. The negative is that I think the championship is different, like I already explained in Qatar.”
“I think Suzuki and Rins will fight for the championship. Valentino for sure. And Marc for sure. So these three riders plus me, I think we have really a big chance to fight for the championship. So it’s not like the last two years where I fight just with Marc at the end of the championship. I think it will be different all season.”
Holeshot or Line Choice?
Dovizioso’s fourth place had been in part thanks to the excellent start he had made, swooping from thirteenth on the grid to enter the first corner in eighth. Was this start down to the holeshot device fitted to the Ducatis? “Easier than normal!” Dovizioso joked. But in reality, the factory Ducati rider got off the line no quicker than anyone else on the same row as him.
The real gains had been made thanks to his choice of line, Dovizioso explained. “My start was so good. In my mind it was clear, the line. I did everything as I wanted. Also the other riders did what I wanted!”
Having the outside grid position was an advantage, especially at COTA, where the first corner is so tight. And Dovizioso had taken full advantage of that situation. “I put myself in a perfect position, I overtake a lot of riders in the first lap, so I couldn’t make a better start.”
There were riders who made worse starts. Or perhaps we should say they made better starts, given that they were punished with a ride through for anticipating the start. After Cal Crutchlow’s jump start in Argentina, Joan Mir and Maverick Viñales both followed suit in Austin.
Joan Mir’s start was the less egregious of the two. Only mildly worse than Cal Crutchlow’s creeping forward in Argentina, the Suzuki rookie had moved marginally, and then almost caught himself before the red light went out.
That still left Mir in a state of quiet fury. “Sincerely, I didn’t realize,” he said, still fuming after the race. “It was something that I don’t see even on the TV clearly that I moved. I think that it’s too much penalty for what it is.”
He was especially angry because, like Crutchlow, he had not gained any advantage from it. “I didn’t gain any time,” Mir said. “This is clear. I don’t know what I have to say. But, it ruined my race. All the weekend for this. It ruined my whole weekend. When I see my lap times every lap and the pace that I had, it makes me even more angry because sincerely we had today a great pace to fight for the podium or top five, sure.”
Was a podium on the cards for Joan Mir in Austin? Comparing his lap times to the leaders, that is a little optimistic. Even the top five is a little bit of a stretch, though Mir clearly had the pace to be in the fight for sixth. Mir has quietly been improving over the past couple of races, and if he can improve his qualifying performance – the bugbear of both Suzuki riders – who could be capable of a surprise.
Maverick Viñales owned up quite freely to his false start. But it had not been entirely his own fault, he explained. “I think on the start the bikes get hot and I think the clutch let go before.” His Yamaha M1 had started to creep forward as the clutch got hot, and started to engage ever so slightly. “We were so close to make a good start, and at the start I just put full gas. The first two or three seconds were okay, but in the last moment I started to move. I didn’t release the clutch, nothing,” he said.
What happened after that made the situation much worse, however. Viñales first took the Long Lap penalty, thinking that this had been instituted for jump starts after discussion in the Safety Commission. He was of course wrong, and then had to come in and do a ride through anyway. “I misunderstood a little bit the penalty,” Viñales said. “I lost many, many seconds.”
Viñales also owned up his mistake with the penalty. He had remembered the discussion about the Long Lap penalty, but been confused about it. “We thought, but this is nothing official,” he said. “So it was just that I misunderstood. It was all my fault.”
That, in itself, is an indictment of Viñales’ approach. Details matter more and more in MotoGP, and that extends to every conceivable area. While riders work many hours a day on fitness, on riding, on mental preparation, confusion about the rules caused Viñales to throw away some 3 to 4 seconds on a nonexistent penalty.
That would have been enough to lift Viñales from eleventh up to put him in the battle for eighth. In a tight championship, the points which Viñales left out on track could well prove to be decisive at the end of the year.
Despite his penalty, Viñales had outstanding pace. After he had served his ride through, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider was lapping as fast as Alex Rins and Valentino Rossi. That, in itself, is positive, both for Viñales and for Yamaha as a whole.
Adding to the positives for Yamaha in Austin was the fact that the two Petronas Yamaha riders were also in the top seven. Franco Morbidelli had to let Andrea Dovizioso go and settle for fifth, while Fabio Quartararo crossed the line in seventh. It was the best result in MotoGP for both riders.
Morbidelli was 8 seconds away from a podium place, but he had learned a lot being in the midst of a big battle with a wide range of different bikes. Those lessons would stand him in good stead in future races, he explained.
“You can just see where the other bikes are better or are worse, and to fight with these guys is good, because you can learn their behavior, you can learn about them, you can learn about their bike, you can understand more how they act on the bike and how they act during the race. So this will be good when and if I will be capable of being on top, this will be very useful for the battle.”
MotoGP leaves the US in the hope of returning, but the state of the track was still giving cause for concern. Though the Circuit of the Americas had worked hard to mitigate the bumps around the track, they had been far from successful. There were still bumps through Turn 2, Turn 10, in the final section of the track, and down the back straight.
It is the back straight which is the biggest cause for concern, however. With the bikes hitting well over 340 km/h, they were hard enough to control as it is, without the added danger of an asphalt whoop section. Jack Miller, fastest of the Ducatis, had only gained an appreciation of the danger during Sunday warm up.
“I almost killed myself this morning down the back straight,” he said. “I didn’t really understand how Marc had that head shake yesterday, but boy I got it this morning on the first lap. I literally went out of the pit box and I thought it was game over. Just the wind was a little bit in the wrong spot. It started slapping on me and I literally had no idea what was going on. My feet came off. The brakes were gone to the handlebar, the lever. I had to pull it like six times.”
That had convinced him to treat the back straight with caution during the race. “I think also in the race, to be honest, down the back straight I had quite a good opportunity to pass Cal there on the first lap, but I wasn’t going to pull out and try to pass with the wind and everything because the front wheel is bouncing up and down,” Miller explained. “When these bikes come past each other in close quarters, it blows like that and that’s the last thing you want at 330km/h, 340km/h. So definitely something needs to be done.”
Will something be done? If COTA can remove the bumps from Turn 2 and Turn 10, and find a way to smooth the back straight, then the MotoGP riders would be delighted. Ideally, the back straight would be resurfaced, along with Turn 2. But the question is whether the circuit can afford it. Financial problems continue to dog the circuit, despite it being arguably the best Grand Prix racing facility in the United States.
Yet the continuation of Grand Prix racing in the US is almost guaranteed. The American market is too important for Dorna, who still see it as a highly lucrative market if they can only open it up. There are very few realistic alternatives, and those which exist would require a huge amount of money to bring up to scratch. Laguna Seca is too dangerous for MotoGP, and simply does not have the funds to stage a round of the series.
The road course at Indianapolis still exists, but it is very rarely used and now currently being run the opposite direction, which is impossible for motorcycles to use because of the run off in certain corners. Other circuits used by MotoAmerica might also be suitable, but almost all would require a great deal of investment to make them safe to race at.
And so MotoGP will continue to go to Austin, more than likely, and the circuit will try to patch the track as best they can with limited resources. It is a genuine shame that the track has become so bumpy, as the event is widely regarded as one of the best of the season, and is a firm favorite among the paddock. MotoGP loves Austin and the Circuit of the Americas. It just doesn’t love the bumps.
Title Photo: © 2019 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – All Rights Reserved