Trackside Tuesday: An Embarrassment of Riches

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Marc Marquez stole several things this past weekend at the Circuit of the Americas. Freddie Spencer lost two records (youngest rider to set pole and youngest rider to win a premie-class GP race), and Cal Crutchlow lost a great deal of attention he deserved for a fantastic performance, in some ways his best since coming to MotoGP.

So many members of the media were focussed on Marquez’s record setting that few of us gave due attention to how remarkable a job Crutchlow was doing on his first visit to this new facility. Marquez, Pedrosa, and Lorenzo were fastest in qualifying, helped by the experience at COTA that was gained during the pre-season test in March — also along for that test were Valentino Rossi and Stefan Bradl.

But, Crutchlow did not make that trip, and thus put in his first laps at Circuit of the Americas on Friday. Those first laps were after a garage fire had dealt Tech 3 the wild cards of drenched equipment that, though thoroughly dried by the hard-working crew, remained of questionable reliability given the soaking they had received Wednesday night.

While Marquez rightly had the majority of our attention, consider the performance of a satellite rider on his first weekend at a new track.

Compared to the fastest rider in each session (always either Marquez or Pedrosa), Crutchlow was 2.476 seconds behind in FP1, 1.868 back in FP2, 1.222 in FP3, 1.046 in FP4, steadily closing the gap to the more experienced (at COTA) riders with each session.

He qualified his satellite Yamaha in fourth place, ahead of Rossi’s factory M1 and Bradl’s factory-spec Honda, at what has been acknowledged by most as a track that suits the Honda best. In the Warm-Up session he was second fastest, only .017 behind Pedrosa.

Once the race started, Crutchlow grew ever more frustrated as he tried to find a way around Bradl, eventually running wide at the end of the back straight and having to restart his attempt to catch the first three riders. Several laps later he was right behind Bradl again, clearly faster in any section of the track that wasn’t a straight line. He claimed fourth place with 13 laps to go and set after Lorenzo.

Once past Bradl and with clear track ahead, Crutchlow set a series of fastest laps. On Lap 9 he was the only rider in the 2.04s, Lap 10 he was the fastest 2.04, then he was fastest again on Laps 14, 17 and 21. Though unable to catch them, overall he maintained the pace of Marquez, Pedrosa, and Lorenzo, as Bradl and Rossi fell back.

All of this he did on his second-hand Yamaha M1, and without the benefit of the testing time from which the others in the top six benefitted. If Crutchlow could manage this at a new track, and on a satellite bike, one can’t help wondering what he’d do on a factory machine and with equal experience.

The satellite status curse struck again post-race: After this fantastic effort, no one turned up at his media debrief to hear his thoughts about what he’d accomplished. The Marquez-Pedrosa-Lorenzo press conference ran long, then Rossi’s debrief time was changed at the last minute, and it seemed that Rossi’s failure to compete for the podium was bigger news than Crutchlow’s factory-level performance.

Those who looked at the lap times later would see that, from Lap 9, when Crutchlow passed Bradl and had clear track to match Lorenzo’s, the reigning world champion was faster than Crutchlow for six laps (12, 13, 15, 16, 19, 20), while Crutchlow was faster than Lorenzo seven times (9, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 21). Surely those stats were worth a question or two.

Cal’s performance in Austin suggests he may have made yet another step in his improvement as a rider. A different plot to the race’s first lap might have put Crutchlow in a battle with Lorenzo for the podium, each rider’s lap times matching the other’s.

But regardless of several “what if’s,” Yamaha seems to have a bit too much of a good thing. The role of a satellite rider is not to beat the factory team’s riders and take points away from the Teams Championship, which is just what Cal did this weekend, earning more points for Tech 3 than Rossi earned for the factory Yamaha team.

If the goal of a satellite rider is to be the best of the rest, Crutchlow is showing he’s much more, i.e., a factory-level rider stuck on a satellite machine.

He has improved steadily since coming to MotoGP, last season earning two podiums and three 4th place finishes for a total of 11 top six results in 2012. He seems set to be 2013’s Best of the Rest in his sleep. But if you’re setting multiple fastest laps in the company of Marquez, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Rossi, how satisfying can Best of the Rest truly be?

Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blogTwitter, & Facebook.

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Photos: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved