The most remarkable statistic about the Grand Prix of The Americas is surely this: Since his ascent to the MotoGP class, Marc Márquez has won every single race he has competed in, at a circuit in the United States of America.
He won both US races during his two years in Moto2 as well. In fact, you have to go back to 2010, and Márquez’s final year in 125s to find the reigning world champion’s last defeat on US soil. America agrees with Marc Márquez, though that does not automatically include all Americans as well.
So after a decidedly mediocre start to his defense of the 2016 MotoGP title, the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas is the right place to get his season back on track. He comes to COTA knowing he can win, and knowing he can win on an uncompetitive machine.
That knowledge alone will be worth a tenth or two in Austin, perhaps enough to give him the edge over the all-conquering hero of the hour Maverick Viñales.
Why does COTA suit Márquez so well? It is really hard to say. Perhaps because it offers so many opportunities to make up time on the brakes. First, there’s the uphill monster of Turn 1, perhaps the weirdest first corner of the season (fittingly keeping Austin weird).
Then there’s Turn 11, the hard, sharp hairpin before the long back straight, at the end of which there is Turn 12, another spot requiring hard braking. And at the end of the lap, the two final corners, Turn 19 and Turn 20, which are shorter, but just as fierce.
Perhaps it’s not so much the braking, but more the strange section of combination corners stretching between Turn 2 and Turn 10. They are the kind of corners that reward the ability to turn on a dime, and the all-front-end, all-the-time Honda deals well with those.
Or perhaps the corners through the Stadium Section, and around the Grand Plaza.
Weird is still the new normal in MotoGP, though after Qatar, we appear to be entering the second half of the acid trip, the part where the hallucinations stop being overwhelming and start to take on a strange kind of internal logic once you learn to embrace the weirdness.
You can sort of understand why motorcycling’s premier class is throwing up the kind of bizarre surprises that it does, and the truths you held to be self-evident still have some roots in reality, though they are much, much shallower than before.
The Termas De Rio Hondo track remains one of the jewels in the crown of motorcycle racing, albeit one which could use a bit of a polish. The track is little used, which often leaves it dirty, while also becoming rather bumpy.
Yet the layout is still glorious, and perfectly suited to the cut-and-thrust of two-wheeled racing, each overtaking point lovingly crafted to allow the chance to counter if passed.
Layouts like that help create great racing, which is what we got in part. But the blemishes threw up anomalies, causing riders to crash out and the racing to falter.
There was still a spectacle to admire, in all three races. The day started well, with Moto3, though a break in the field cut the battle for the lead down to a group of five, with a deserving winner at the end.
The Moto2 race threatened to turn into a snoozer, but the field tightened as the laps ticked off, creating last-lap drama that rendered the race memorable. And the final act was worth the wait, packed with drama and surprise.
MotoGP’s weird and wonderful Argentina trip continues to confuse, with qualifying turning out as topsy turvy as ever. Or perhaps not quite as topsy turvy as yesterday: though the front of the MotoGP grid still contains more than a couple of surprise names (more on that later), there are the first signs that some semblance of normality is starting to creep back.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be 2009 again any time soon, when the grid basically predicted the finishing order, bar accidents, but bookies everywhere are worrying less about the chance of a rank outsider staging an upset. On Friday, all bets were off. On Saturday, they were hedging their bets again.
Oddly enough, part of that was down to the weather. It was a peculiar day in terms of weather, the morning starting cool and dry, but rain starting to fall at the end of MotoGP FP3.
It dried out again after that, allowing Moto3 to start their qualifying session on a dry track, before the rain returned with a few minutes to go. MotoGP FP4 took place on a wet track, but the rain lifted and the track started to dry during qualifying. Q1 was wetter than Q2, and tire choice became crucial. Vacillating between the soft and the hard tires cost more than one rider passage through to Q2.
By the time Moto2 took to the track, a dry line was starting to form. Andrea Iannone had gambled on going out on slicks during Q2 but came straight back into the pits when it turned out to be impossible.
The Moto2 riders went out on wet tires at first, but were quickly able to switch to slicks. With the track improving with every lap the riders put in, pole position was changing hands just about every time a rider crossed the line. In the last 22 minutes of qualifying, the pole time was slashed by eight and a half seconds.
Scanning through reactions on social media and forums during the first day of practice in Argentina, and there is one phrase that seems to be popping up everywhere. “What is going on?” cry fans everywhere.
Or a variation of that phrase, with an Anglo Saxon word or two thrown in for good measure, along with capital letters and a handful of exclamation marks.
Why the fans’ confusion? A quick glance at the results answers that question. That Maverick Viñales should be at the top of the timesheets is hardly a surprise, in fact it feels like it is on the verge of becoming an iron law.
Nor is Marc Márquez in second anything which would normally raise an eyebrow. But Karel Abraham in third? Sure, the Ducatis are quick, and the Czech rider got a tow behind his Pull&Bear teammate Alvaro Bautista, who has proven to be quick throughout testing.
Look further, and you see Danilo Petrucci, Loris Baz, Cal Crutchlow, Jonas Folger. The next factory rider is Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia in ninth, followed by Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone in tenth.
Of the twelve factory riders in MotoGP, only six of them are in the top fifteen. Dani Pedrosa (29 MotoGP victories) is in thirteenth. Valentino Rossi (7 MotoGP titles, 88 MotoGP wins)? Sixteenth. Jorge Lorenzo (3 titles, 44 wins)? Eighteenth. The world has gone mad.
After the first MotoGP race held at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit had finished, Jarno Zafelli, the brilliant track designer behind the transformation from humdrum car track to fast, flowing, challenging circuit layout, was both deeply satisfied and mildly disappointed.
Satisfied, because the riders had to a man raved about the layout of the new track. Disappointed, because the average speed around the track had maxed out at 177.1 km/h, just a few kilometers per hour short of Phillip Island, at that point in time the fastest circuit on the calendar.
But it was only a minor let down: having so many riders enthusiastic about what he had done to the track was a far greater triumph.
Since then, both Termas and Phillip Island have been surpassed in terms of average speed by the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria, round which Andrea Iannone was clocked at 186.9 km/h.
But Spielberg is a collection of long straights joined together by a few tight corners. It may be fast, but it is anything but flowing. It cannot hold a candle to either Argentina or Australia.
It’s not just the corners that slow riders down in Argentina, however. There is also the track surface. Not so much with asphalt – not much wrong with that – but rather the lack of use the circuit gets. For some unfathomable reason, the circuit owners don’t like the track to be used much.
The last event at the circuit was three weeks ago, when a track day was held for bikes. There are a dozen or so other events at the circuit through the year. Assen, by contrast, sees the track being used for 200 days of the year, and activity at circuits in Spain and Italy is even higher.
Race day in Qatar would turn into a microcosm of the entire weekend. The hopes and fears of fans and riders alike were both realized and averted.
The idea that any kind of plan could be made to deal with this weekend went out the window pretty quickly. And yet at the end, three great races (or rather, two fantastic races and one interesting race) happened, and everyone got out more or less in one piece.
Stars were born on Sunday, some prophesied, some appearing out of the blue. It felt like the beginning of the new era we had been hoping for. MotoGP – once it got underway – was as topsy-turvy as expected.
In Moto2, favorites performed as they needed to, while new stars emerged from behind. And in the Moto3 class, last year’s rookies matured, and produced a heady brew of thrilling racing.
The weather conditioned it all. Spots of rain ahead of the Asia Talent Cup – like the Red Bull Rookies Cup at European races, the most frenetic racing of the weekend – soon dissipated, the sun soon breaking through.
Fine weather prevailed for most of the evening, but as the Moto2 bikes rolled back into pit lane at the end of the race, the rain once again made its presence felt. Lightly at first, and quickly disregarded, but a little heavier as 9pm, the scheduled start of the MotoGP race, approached.
Racing is back. No more messing about trying to extrapolate data points from testing to hypothetical performance on race weekends. This is a race weekend. Now, we have actual data from free practice to extrapolate data points from to hypothetical performance during the actual race.
Yes, it sounds identical, yet it is subtly different. There are only three more sessions of free practice, qualifying, and then the warm up before the race. No more engine updates, no time to test new parts.
Only time to nail down a decent set up and give it everything you’ve got, or “my 100%”, as non-native English speakers like to say.
The MotoGP field were lucky to get a session of free practice in. The weather in Qatar has been extremely unstable, and storms keep blowing in and out of the peninsula. The possibility of rain has caused a bevy of emergency measures to be taken.
Previously, racing in the wet had been regarded as impossible, due to the reflection of the floodlights on the wet surface, but last month, FIM and Dorna safety representatives Franco Uncini and Loris Capirossi did some laps of the track at night.
Capirossi and Uncini decided that the track is safe enough to ride, even in the wet. But the race would only happen if the riders had all had time on a wet track under the floodlights, to judge the situation for themselves. “[Capirossi] has been behind a car,” Cal Crutchlow said on Wednesday. “But it’s different when there are 23 people on the grid. A lot more can happen.”
And then there were five. Should that statement have a question mark after it? On the evidence of pre-season testing, definitely not. Maverick Viñales earned the right to add his name to last year’s list, dominating testing and finishing fastest in all four.
Marc Márquez demonstrated why he is reigning world champion, and why his rivals have reason to fear him even more this year. Dani Pedrosa finished fifth at Valencia and Sepang, then third at Phillip Island and Qatar.
Jorge Lorenzo found the process of adapting to the Ducati tougher than expected, but was third quickest on his first day on the bike, and fourth fastest at Qatar.
And the man with the worst pre-season results of the lot, Valentino Rossi is, well, Valentino Rossi. You only ever write off Valentino Rossi after the final race at Valencia is done and dusted. And not a millisecond before.
So we head into the first race in Qatar with five Aliens, all of whom are likely to win at least one race this year. Some, like Viñales, will win a lot more this year than they have in the past. Others, like Lorenzo, will win far fewer, but will surely end up on the top step at one race, at the very least.
Testing is over. Sunday was the last chance for the MotoGP field to work on preparing for the 2017 season, to tweak, refine, and experiment.
The next time bikes take to the track, in two weeks time, there will be much more at stake than pride and a little bit of psychological advantage. There will no longer be anywhere to hide.
The last day of the test meant a busy schedule, though that is a relative thing at the Losail International circuit. For the best part of two hours, nothing stirred on track bar the bored chatter of riders, mechanics, and photographers as they waited for the sun to go down, and the track to cool off enough to go testing.
Once testing started, riders started grinding out the laps. Temperatures stayed high enough to stave off the dew, and it was possible to ride until the track closed at 11pm, without the risk of crashing on an invisible patch of moisture.