Keep Austin Weird is the slogan of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, meant to promote small businesses in the Texan city. The Circuit of the Americas certainly did its bit this weekend. We had a delay due to marshals and medical support staff not being at their posts. We had a red flag due to a stray dog on the track. We had delays due to fog, we had one day of rain, followed by two days of peering at the skies wondering when the massive rainstorms which had been forecast would arrive. They never did. We had Keanu Reeves, star of both The Matrix and Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, in the paddock, as well Carol Vorderman, British TV's brainiest beauty, at least for gentlemen of a certain age. You wouldn't imagine it could get much weirder.
It did get weirder, though. The MotoGP race ended up delayed by half an hour, because rainwater was dripping off a bridge over the track around Turn 3, leaving a puddle of standing water on the circuit. There had been some water there during the Moto2 race, Sam Lowes saying he had been very cautious through that section, as the bike was moving about. Franco Morbidelli had reveled in it, enjoying the feeling of the rear moving around as he powered through the puddle. Racers will be racers.
The sun which emerged at the start of the MotoGP race made the situation worse, paradoxically. Elsewhere, the track was fully dry and warm, but standing water remained in the shadow of the bridge. While making its final inspection lap of the track five minutes before the start, the safety car reported the water to Race Direction, and Race Director Mike Webb pushed the big red button to delay the start. That is not an easy decision. Webb knows that as soon as he presses the button to delay the start of a MotoGP race, it costs Dorna millions of dollars in TV penalty clauses around the world. It does not stop him pressing it, however, safety being paramount. If anyone ever wondered if Dorna sacrificed safety for TV money, their question was answered on Sunday.
Ironically, the races the Circuit of the Americas produced were anything but weird. The winners in all three classes rode level-headed, strategic races, executing a well-defined plan just about to perfection. In the Moto3 class, Danny Kent let riders ahead of him to explore the damp patches on the circuit, and once he had a handle on track grip, he put the hammer down and disappeared. In Moto2, Sam Lowes followed Johann Zarco for two-thirds of the race, before striking out on his own to claim victory, exactly as he had on his way to the World Supersport title. And in MotoGP, Marc Márquez rode around behind Andrea Dovizioso for four laps, assessing the way the track grip had changed since the much cooler warm up and qualifying sessions, before easily passing the Ducati, pulling a gap, and then managing it all the way home.
To cast this as a simple Márquez victory does not do the MotoGP race justice. The hectic first corner saw the field radically reshuffled, and quite a few surprises from the start. Andrea Dovizioso came out of the tricky steep uphill left hander followed by a fast sweeping right hander in the lead, with Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi in his wake. Bradley Smith made a superb start to sweep round the outside of Turn 1, jumping from tenth on the grid to fourth entering the second corner. It was a smart piece of riding by the Tech 3 man. "I had seen that in previous races, other riders had got pinched on the inside, so I took the risk and went round the outside and it worked." His tactic put him directly behind the leaders, and nicely out of trouble.
There was plenty of that behind him. After his best weekend of the year so far, picking up pace throughout free practice, Scott Redding was determined to capitalize in the race. But he was a little too keen, perhaps. He dived up the inside of Jorge Lorenzo into Turn 1, forcing the Movistar Yamaha to stand his bike up. He then ran wide at Turn 4, outbraked himself into Turn 8, before diving up the inside of Pol Espargaro, losing the front of his Marc VDS Honda, and torpedoing the Tech 3 rider out of the race.
Espargaro was understandably furious. "In the first lap, why do you want to win the race? You have twenty laps remaining! If you are so good, if you are so talented, you can come back. Look at Valentino in Qatar!" The Spaniard said, his voice tinged with sarcasm. Redding had not come and apologized, Espargaro complained, going on to vent on Twitter, Redding responding to produce a typical social media spat.
It was a shame for both men. Redding and his team have solved a lot of the problems he has had so far this year, by going much stiffer in the rear of the bike. They had at first followed the direction of the other Honda riders, but as Redding is both taller and heavier, he needed more support from the suspension. That means stiffer springs – over 10% stiffer than the other Honda riders – in pursuit of more rear traction, which in turn drives more front grip.
Pol Espargaro had been close to his teammate for much of the weekend, and was chasing a solid result after a mediocre start to the season. The Tech 3 rider was trying to build confidence, and being taken out on the first lap does not help in this regard.
While Márquez rode a measured and competent race – and scored a win he badly needed to get his championship back on track – the battle behind him was the more interesting contest. Andrea Dovizioso once again locked horns with Valentino Rossi, this time coming out on top. Front tire wear would be the decisive factor, the Yamaha's corner speed taking its toll on the right hand of the tire. It was not just Yamaha who were affected, everyone was nursing their front tires, hence the slow start to the race. But the Ducatis made their tires last just that little bit longer than the Yamahas: Though Rossi took over second place from Dovizioso on lap 8, his pace began to falter on lap 16, and the Ducati man made his way into second again. Dovizioso managed the gap perfectly, pushing hard on the final lap to ensure he would not need to fend off any unwelcome advances from Valentino Rossi.
Andrea Iannone had been harassing Dovizioso and Rossi for much of the race, but he suffered front tire problems as well. The Italian dropped back behind Jorge Lorenzo, who was too weak from bronchitis to put in a firm challenge for the front. In the end, the right side of Iannone's front tire dropped off enough for Lorenzo to get past him, and take fourth.
The fact that Ducati bookended the Movistar Yamahas, with Dovizioso taking his second second place in succession, is confirmation that the GP15 is a genuine threat, at all tracks and in all conditions. Jorge Lorenzo got a good look at the bike. "Now they have a complete bike, they brake late, they enter very fast in the corner, the turning is good, and also acceleration." Valentino Rossi could not resist a little dig at the past. "I'm quite sure this bike is better than mine," he joked, referring to the GP11 and GP12 which suffered horrible understeer.
Ducati's success at Qatar meant that they were forced to surrender two liters of fuel, running at Austin for the first time with 22 liters. Though everyone in Ducati has been insisting that having 22 liters was not a problem, and that they had not been using more than that for some time, both Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso ran out of fuel on the cool down lap, Iannone parking the bike just after Turn 1. The initial Ducati response was that it was a fuel pump issue, which brought the cynical response that the pump wasn't working because it had no fuel left to pump.
Of course, running out of fuel as you cross the line can be seen as the ultimate in race planning, after all, any fuel that you don't use is merely unnecessary ballast. But Turn 1 is cutting it a little too fine perhaps, and the result of Ducati having focused on other areas. They were not forced to focus on fuel management like Honda and Yamaha, who have been racing with 20 liters of fuel since 2014. But the sudden rise in air temperatures before the race, and the fuel-hungry nature of the Austin track, meant that Ducati were possibly caught a little short. There was some furious swapping of fuel tanks on the GP15s going on after the start of the MotoGP race was delayed, the only way to legally ensure a full tank at the start and after the sighting lap.
After Austin, you can expect Ducati to be putting in a bit more work on fuel consumption. The next few tracks are lighter on fuel, not having slow, first-gear corners leading onto long high-speed straights. But you can be sure that at a track like Misano or Motegi, Ducati will need better fuel management. Misano is not a problem: the circuit is one of the test tracks Ducati uses, and they will simply send Michele Pirro out to do endless laps of the track to find a solution. Motegi is even tougher on fuel, though, and prohibitively expensive for Ducati to test at. Gigi Dall'Igna has until October to address the issue.
While much of the attention was on the battle between the factory Yamahas and Ducatis, Bradley Smith was having his best race in MotoGP. Smith had got an outstanding start to latch on to the front of the group, and ran with the leaders for over half the race. He had been focusing so intently on sticking with Rossi, Dovizioso and Iannone that he had forgotten to switch maps for traction control. That left him on the aggressive first setting, used to get the best out of a new tire at the start of the race. That meant he was overheating the tire a little as the race progressed, instead of switching to a map which was gentler as the tire starts to wear. It would not have made much difference to his final position, however. "Maybe it would have helped a couple of seconds up the road, but it wouldn't have changed my position overall," Smith said.
The biggest difference for Smith has been in his change of attitude. He has matured immensely over the past year, Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal said. "He's a different man and a different rider, so much more mature and working and trusting the team so much more," Poncharal said. "He understands the team better and believes more in the technical package because our rider and bike is close to the Factory package. Last year it was always about what we couldn't do and when you think that you can't be with the blue bikes you will never be able to fight with them. Today he showed that he was with them." Smith put it a little more succinctly. "Nobody wants to listen to an angry ginger kid who is screaming at them," he joked. It is hard to argue with that.
There were outstanding performances in Moto2 and Moto3 as well. Danny Kent's victory in Moto3 was both clinical and devastating. The original plan, he told the media, was to push hard from the start, build a gap and manage it to the end. As the track was still patchy after overnight rain, he had a change of heart before the start, dropping back behind Miguel Oliveira and Niccolo Antonelli and letting them find the dry lines and the damp patches. Once he had assessed the situation, he pushed past the men ahead and pushed on to take the win.
Kent had a little assistance from the battle behind. "I was helped by the group behind fighting and costing each other time," he said, Oliveira, Antonelli, Fabio Quartararo, Alexis Masbou, and Enea Bastianini all slugging it out. In the end, Quartararo took second slot, ahead of Efren Vazquez. For Quartararo to get on the podium in just his second race, under dry conditions, is very impressive. We have been expecting big things from him, and he is living up to those expectations.
Sam Lowes made it two British wins from two races in Moto2, the first time two British riders have won on the same day since Sweden in 1977. Lowes was emotional, stopping on the way round to shed a few tears in his helmet, before composing himself for his return. Lowes thanked his team effusively, for believing him, but also for giving him the aluminum swing arm he had been asking for. Lowes had been beaten up physically, suffering a massive highside earlier in the weekend. "When you are leading, you feel no pain," he said.
Johann Zarco ended the race in second, with rookie Alex Rins performing exceptionally to take third, and his first Moto2 podium. These three men look like the cream of the Moto2 crop, while reigning champion Tito Rabat is struggling. Rins, in particular, has been impressive. Watching from trackside, he looks like a man who has been riding in Moto2 for several years, riding smooth and focused on the bike. Rins is the current championship leader after two races, showing he also has consistency to match his speed.
The championship tables in all three title races have some pretty surprising names at the top. Valentino Rossi leads in MotoGP, by one point from Andrea Dovizioso. Alex Rins tops the Moto2 table, but also leads Johann Zarco by just a single point, while Jonas Folger and Sam Lowes are just four points adrift. Only in Moto3 is there a clear leader, Danny Kent topping the standings by eight points. That isn't the only peculiarity. Of the nine men on the podium in three races, only three were Spanish, and there was only one Spanish winner. The era of outright Spanish domination of Grand Prix racing appears to be over. We are set for an interesting year. Keep MotoGP Weird.