So the three days of testing at Austin are over, and what did we learn? That Marc Marquez is something special? We knew that, though we didn’t perhaps realize just how special. That Yamaha really needs to find more acceleration? This, too, was known, but becoming clearer every time the M1 goes up against the Honda RC213V on track. That Valentino Rossi’s return does not equate to an automatic 8th MotoGP title? We suspected as much.

The first thing that became obvious is that the Austin circuit itself is pretty decent. Valentino Rossi described it as “a typical Tilke track, with corners that remind you of Shanghai and Turkey.” Unsurprising, given that Herman Tilke, who also designed Shanghai, Istanbul, and many other race tracks around the world, was responsible for designing the track.

The input from Kevin Schwantz was helpful, though, making the track more like Istanbul than Shanghai. The circuit has a couple of highly technical sections, where you go in blind and need to have memorized which way the track goes. It is wide, giving opportunities for overtaking and braking, and has a couple of the fast, fast sweepers which motorcycle racers love.

It also has a couple of tight corners, leaving the bike in a low gear with a lot of acceleration to do. This, it became apparent, favors the Hondas, the RC213V strongest off the bottom, and capable of pulling a gap. Acceleration issues will be a problem for Yamaha this year, unless Masahiko Nakajima and his fellow engineers can find some extra grunt out of the corners.

The situation was similar in 2012, but Yamaha was helped by the problems the Hondas had with chatter. So far, the Repsol Honda men have remained silent on the issue, meaning the worst of it is over. Yamaha have their work cut out, and Jorge Lorenzo’s second title defense could be a little too reminiscent of his previous one in 2011.

A visit to a new track reveals more than just what the track layout is like on a racing motorcycle. It also levels the playing field for younger riders: the veterans of the class can no longer rely on the secrets they have learned at tracks they have tens of thousands of testing miles at. The track is the same for everyone, and experience is no longer relevant: it is much, much more about talent.

Talent is something which Marc Marquez quite clearly has in abundance. The Spaniard was dogged throughout his Moto2 career by accusations of his success being down to having the best bike, his team bending the rules, and a host of other excuses. At Austin however, those excuses do not hold.

He leaves the test having dominated all three days of testing, something a rookie – this was day 9 through 11 for Marquez on a MotoGP bike, as opposed to the hundreds and thousands the other riders there have had – simply should not be able to do.

Marquez’s first task is to learn to ride the bike, to understand its secrets and find ways of extracting the final hundredths of a second from the bike. It seems he has already done this – though he is still learning, and his team are nowhere near arriving at a final race set up for the Spaniard while he is still finding the limits. Casey Stoner left huge boots to fill at Repsol Honda; so far, Marquez is filling them very comfortably.

Two photos tell the tale of Marquez’ talent. At the first test at Sepang, photos appeared of Marquez’ Alpinestars leathers with holes worn in the elbows, despite the elbow protectors. Alpinestars’s “mistake” was to assume that Marquez was as fast as other riders, and would occasionally drag his elbow in a corner.

They underestimated both his ability and his style, Marquez doing things on the bike which are not really supposed to be possible. At Austin, more photos appeared of his leathers, Alpinestars having applied their ingenuity to the problem by adding titanium sliders over the patch where the Repsol Honda man was wearing through his leathers.

That helped a lot, but even then, Marquez is wearing through the titanium sliders at a worrying rate. Racing leathers manufacturers back riders because they wish to associate themselves with talent. They chose wisely.

While Marquez is already challenging his teammate, Valentino Rossi is as yet no match for Jorge Lorenzo. The Italian had spent time at Sepang confirming to himself that he can still ride a motorcycle as fast as he used to, and then worked on adjusting the bike to try and understand how it reacts to changes. All that went to plan, but Rossi has a problem.

While he was at Ducati, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa were getting faster and faster, pushed on to no small extent by Casey Stoner. While Rossi was desperately trying just to keep his head above water at Ducati, Lorenzo and Pedrosa were striking off in search of shores unknown, and now that Rossi is back on a bike he understands, he is in danger of losing sight of the Spanish duo – better make that a trio, given Marquez’ incredible debut so far.

There is a golden rule in motorcycle racing of the last 15 or so years: Never, ever, ever count out Valentino Rossi. That rule showed a few cracks while he was at Ducati, and now that he is back on a Yamaha, he should be able to at least paper over the cracks.

But given how the game has moved on in the past two seasons, the ground rules have changed, and though it may be foolish to write Rossi off for victory at any given race, he is looking exceptionally vulnerable in terms of the championship. Rossi has not once been faster than his teammate throughout testing, nor has he been faster than Pedrosa. Indeed, only once has the Italian been quicker than Marc Marquez throughout testing. Though doubtless Rossi will improve once racing gets underway, that is likely still to leave him behind the three Spaniards.

Of course, it is still only testing. In less than a month’s time, the MotoGP season kicks off at Qatar. There will be nowhere to hide, no sandbagging, no “I was just testing some stuff”. Once the flag drops, the production of bovine manure stops, as the expression has it. Before then, three days of testing are to take place at Jerez, a track everyone knows like the back of their hands, and where the focus will shift to finalizing a race set up. So far, the 2013 season has the makings of being something a little bit special.

Photo: HRC (Instagram)

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.

  • L2C

    Marc Márquez is displaying the typical behavior of a child/young prodigy. He’s got his moves, he’s got his licks and he isn’t afraid to perform trick after magical trick. No one should expect anything less of the young man. Fans and journalists expected Valentino Rossi to do nothing except excel and entertain in his younger years, and as such they should accord Márquez the same respect.

    However, there is a difference between the two that seems to be continually overlooked. Rossi is a verified and established master of the sport. Márquez, as prodigiously talented as he is, is only an upstart with something to prove – he has yet to set the record according to his own wishes.

    Historically, in just about any field of endeavor, established masters have tended to suffer through a period or periods of diminished performance. Creative issues, health issues, financial, emotional and mental challenges conspire to upset even the most brilliant minds and capable performers. Some never recover. Some do.

    This is a period of adjustment for Valentino. He is not going to come out blazing and cocky just for the sake of show. He has played those cards all to often in the past. He is old enough and wise enough and battered enough to know that preening and banging on his chest are not solutions that will bring about the results that he wants. He has to be methodical, he has to be shrewd, he has to carefully survey the field before giving any indication of what he might be capable of. Indeed he has openly wondered just what he will be able to accomplish given the competition. But if there is one thing that the not-quite-so-old dog has learned, it is to never show your hand until you have to.

    Chasing pre-season stats is not the way to build endurance and consistency. Taking to the field and hammering out reasonably fast laps, test after test, affords significantly more important benefits. Perhaps the most important being an improved mental state.

    Recognize that it is not just about the team or the bike, or the field or the rider. The most important aspect that has to be in premium condition is the state of mind. Given his years and experience, Valentino Rossi knows and understands this.

    At this moment, it is clear that Yamaha has to make considerable gains in order to improve its odds against Honda. Why should Rossi do anything other than keep his head down and his nose to the grindstone? He has a tremendous amount of work to do. He knows that nothing is going to be given to him on a silver platter. Crucially, he knows that he is no longer the king. He must allow himself both the space and the time to learn from his complete and utter failure with Ducati. There is no time left for nonsense.

    The Doctor is in. That’s all anyone needs to know.

  • CTK

    L2C I think you are being too optimistic. Dont’ get me wrong, I want the Doc to reclaim the throne. He is a master entertainer, which goes a long way in the boring ass 3-4 man race atmosphere that is MotoGP today. But the 3 championship contenders are on another level. Lets really look at all the things Rossi has to deal with:

    – the hype of being back with the company/bike he won races + championships with
    – the challenge of relearning everything after being on an uncompetitive steed for 2 years
    – age (isnt Rossi older + heavier than all his competitors?)
    – Honda’s super transmissions and simply better bikes

    Rossi is swimming upstream. Meanwhile Marquez has no task at hand but to learn the bike, and he is not only competitive, but consistently leading on new tracks with not even 2 weeks on the bikes. It’s not looking good.

    I think this season will be OK to watch, but my hope is that 2014 will really be the year MotoGP returns to glory. That will be the time when hopefully Rossi gets back in his groove, Ducati comes back with a competitive bike, and the rumors of Suzuki & Kawasaki returning with prototypes gets confirmed. 2013 though, I think Rossi will be lucky to podium, and if he does bad enough he may have to retire in disgrace.

  • L2C

    @ CTK

    My basic point was that it’s too early to know how well Rossi will perform throughout the coming race season. As you and I both said, he has much more to get up to speed on than Márquez. To me, this implies that it’s going to take a while before we know what Valentino is really capable of.

    I also wanted to bring up the point that it is not unusual for prodigies to burn out early on in their careers, and that Rossi who was also a prodigy, has already made good on his promise.

    The optimism I display is entirely restrained by the obvious fact that Rossi is at a crossroads in his career. Are things as clear to him as they once were? Does he still have a knack for making great decisions? In my view, the answer is an unequivocal yes. He reclaimed his ride with Yamaha. This simple fact counts for more than it may seem at first. It is more than symbolic, showing that Rossi is back on track – it underscores that Rossi is just as astute and dynamic as ever – no one expected Rossi to return to Yamaha after Ducati! But I temper this with the observation that Rossi has yet to show which direction he is going to take.

    The less Rossi says in his interviews, the more seriously I take him. If he were being boastful and putting on a show like he has done in the past, I would KNOW that he no longer has what it takes to win another championship. But Rossi is doing just the opposite of that. His answers are brief and sometimes thoughtful – it’s not about the spotlight for him right now, and that’s just how it should be for someone who has so much on his plate.

    What I know about Valentino Rossi, David Emmett has already expressed. “There is a golden rule in motorcycle racing of the last 15 or so years: Never, ever, ever count out Valentino Rossi.” Rossi doesn’t just win championships, he builds the championships that he wins – the rule exists because of this.

    My personal timeline is nine races. At the season’s halfway point, we will then understand better what Rossi’s future will look like.

    If Rossi is to win another championship, it may take him two seasons to do so, but whether he wins another one or not, I do expect him to return to greatness. I recognize that he is working his way towards that, and that’s all I’ve tried to say.

  • david

    i love rossi as well, and he has nothing left to prove in this sport, but time waits for no man, and i feel the young bucks are going to hand him his butt. in fact i will go as far as to say he won’t win a race unless the three spaniards all crash out! of course, it would be wonderful to have rossi prove me wrong!

  • pooch

    David Emmett is a well known Rossi-idoliser, so of course he is going to say don’t count him out…

    Anyone who views the sport objectively can see it would take a miracle for a 34 year old veteran who doesn’t quite have the speed of the front runners anymore to win a championship. I just think he’s hanging on too long to the sport that created the Legend. He can’t let go of his fame.. Just like his fans can’t let go of the thought of Rossi returning to the old winning ways… but sorry, it aint going to happen. And MotoGP will go on just fine without him.

    No one expected Rossi to return to Yamaha ? Really ? Rossi did. Rossi himself approached Yamaha while still at Ducati. But he is now #2 rider and had to accept a lot less money, which of course isn’t a problem for him, but for Rossi, his only choice was to play second fiddle to Jorge.. Honda have too much faster talent already, they wouldn’t have him, the only other choice was a sattelite ride…

    I still will enjoy watching him circulate, but I don’t expect him to get a win either. But good luck anyway.

  • L2C

    @ pooch

    Better to have a fiddle that plays in tune than one that doesn’t.

    And as for: “No one expected Rossi to return to Yamaha ? Really ? Rossi did. Rossi himself approached Yamaha while still at Ducati. Rossi himself approached Yamaha while still at Ducati.” See: “He reclaimed his ride with Yamaha. This simple fact counts for more than it may seem at first. It is more than symbolic, showing that Rossi is back on track – it underscores that Rossi is just as astute and dynamic as ever…”. Capisce?

  • Westward

    “The Spaniard was dogged throughout his Moto2 career by accusations of his success being down to having the best bike, his team bending the rules, and a host of other excuses.” – DE

    I am a fan of Marquez, have been since I discovered him while pulling for Bradley Smith in the 125 class. I was noticing how Smith seemed to go backwards during the season as his teammate Torel seemed to progress with the all spanish Aspar team. All the issues seemed to be mechanical as if conspiratorially.

    That season it looked as though Torel would win it and I was cheering for Marquez to knock then down a notch, and he did so brilliantly…

    He also would have won the Moto2 title a season earlier had he not injured himself and was kept out of the last three races. He had Bradl number and was dialing it every time they were on the track together… Bradl won like Hayden did in 2006. Not because they were the best, but rather the best just ran into a spot of bad luck.

    As for Marquez, back the the original comment by David Emmett. I think he did have the best bike in Moto2, and he has the best bike in Moto1 or MotoGP now too.

    If Rossi doesn’t surprise us all and win the whole thing, I sure hope it is Marquez. Of the three Spaniards, he’s the one we like the most…

    Adiamo Rossi, Avanti Marquez….

  • Norm G.

    re: “Rossi is swimming upstream. Meanwhile Marquez has no task at hand but to learn the bike”

    rossi is living the dream. actually a critical task still lies ahead for marquez. for all his speed, he nevertheless has a burden of putting asses in seats OUTSIDE of spain. stoner knows a lil’ about this burden.

    re: “It’s not looking good.”

    i’ll say. despite one having 2 titles and the other having long been a favorite son, the 2 spanish progenitors weren’t able to do this.

    re: “And MotoGP will go on just fine without him.”

    yes, now that control of WSBK has been wrestled, one man can set about the task of securing his PERSONAL future with the luxury of having a 2nd pot to dip his hand into. next headline… “Ecclestone launches hostile takeover of NASCAR”.