From Austin, MotoGP heads south, to the most expensive GP of the season. The Termas de Rio Hondo circuit lies in one of the poorest regions of Argentina, but the economic reality is not reflected in the prices around the Grand Prix weekend. The cost of renting a compact car from one of the nearby airports would get you a luxury vehicle at any other place. Room rate cards for even the most modest hotel look like they have been borrowed from Claridges for the week. Local businesses appear bent on extracting as much revenue as possible from the poor souls who have no choice but to attend, such as journalists, team staff and riders. Those (such as your humble correspondent) without a wealthy employer to cover the costs for them stay away. Many teams stay up to a couple of hours away, where accommodation prices drop from the truly extortionate to the merely pricey. For much of the paddock, the Termas de Rio Hondo GP is a black hole, capable of swallowing money at an exponential rate.
Yet fans from around the region flock to the circuit. They are much smarter indeed, many bringing tents, vans, RVs, or even just sleeping bags in the back of their trucks. The money saved on accommodation is well spent: the party around the circuit is stupendous, massive amounts of meat and drink being shared around all weekend. That adds real local flavor to the event, the passion of the fans being evident at every turn.
Bradley Smith summed the whole experience up rather succinctly. "I don't think anyone enjoys coming down to Argentina. It costs a lot of money for a lot of people. There always seems to be more hassle than positives from the logistical side," Smith said. "But in terms of the track, once we're out on track, it's an awesome track and they've done a great job here. The night atmosphere, the fact that the fans are so passionate, so it's a trade off. If we sit here on Wednesday and Thursday, we don't like the place, but once we get into the weekend, it's OK."
It may cost a fortune to get there, but the track itself is worth it. Fast, sweeping, with a good variety of fast and slow corners. The nature of the track is reflected in the tires: Bridgestone are having to bring an extra hard rear tire to the circuit, to cope with the extreme loads placed on the tire. There are long corners, and corners where a lot of braking has to be done while still heeled over. They all take their toll, as we learned last year.
The tough nature of the circuit could mean that the softer tire allocation is a real disadvantage for the Ducati for the first time. The GP15 has proven itself to be a competitive motorcycle at both sweeping, flowing tracks like Qatar, and fast, hard braking circuits like Austin. The Ducati should be well suited to Argentina, but Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone could struggle with tire life. That may make for an interesting race, if the two Ducati men try to escape early using the extra grip of the hard tire (with the red stripe), and stay out of the clutches of the Hondas and Yamahas for as long as possible, until the longer life of the extra hard tire (yellow stripe) comes into its own.
What Ducati will not have to worry about is fuel consumption. Despite being the second fastest track on the calendar (behind Phillip Island), the lack of slow corners with hard acceleration means that the track is not particularly heavy on fuel. That appeared to have been an issue at Austin, where both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone ran out of fuel on the cool down lap. In the press conference at Argentina, Dovizioso denied that they had run out of fuel. "We had something on the tank, we had a different problem," he said, though he refused to be specific.
Three theories have been proposed to explain the lack of fuel in Austin. First is simply that Ducati are being economical with the truth, to borrow an expression from a high-ranking British civil servant. In this scenario, the problem with the tank which Dovizioso refers to the fact that it had no more fuel left in it. It is reminiscent of the way Honda described engines which had clearly exploded as having 'an electrical problem'. Technically, they were correct: the connecting rod which pierced the crankcase destroyed the ignition pick up on its way out....
The other two theories concern the design of Ducati's fuel tank. The first is that the fuel pump is slightly misaligned, meaning that it cannot quite pump all of the fuel out of the tank. An alternative hypothesis suggests that the exhaust routing on the GP15 creates a little too much heat as it passes by the fuel tank, causing rapid evaporation, and perhaps even a vapor lock in the fuel lines when fuel is very low. These are the kinds of detail which would only appear in an extensive testing program, but the GP15 is so new that Ducati have simply not had enough time to put it through its paces.
On paper, the layout of the Argentinian circuit would appear to favor the Yamahas. (Talk of a Yamaha circuit or a Honda circuit now appears outdated. Given the outstanding performance of the Ducatis, they should probably all now be dubbed Ducati circuits). Fast and flowing is what Yamaha does best, and with the improvement in braking and strong mechanical traction, the M1 should be even stronger now. Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi both looked strong early on, Lorenzo leading for most of the race, while Rossi's race pace was excellent, ruined by a couple of early mistakes. Lorenzo is fitter and leaner than he was last year, and should be stronger at the end of the race. Valentino Rossi is more comfortable and more determined than he was last year, more confident in his ability to beat Márquez. "Beating Márquez will be complicated, making him sweat would be very good. We won't let him run away on his own!" Rossi joked.
The other two Yamaha riders also arrive in good spirits, though Pol Espargaro's mood is still dimmed by being taken out on the first lap at Austin by Scott Redding. Bradley Smith comes to Argentina off the back of his best race in MotoGP, though not his best result. In Austin, Smith managed to run with the lead group for a long time, before being losing out as his tires faded. He had been so fixated on staying with Lorenzo, Rossi, Márquez, Dovizioso, Iannone that he had forgotten to switch traction control maps, and had asked a little too much of his rear tire. Smith has made a good deal of progress learning from his mistakes since the middle of last year, and that is one he will not make again.
Pol Espargaro also hopes for a good result, the Spaniard confident of being able to shine. He prepared by watching last year's race with his brother Aleix, and saw how much his inexperience had cost him. "I saw sometimes that I was too much a rookie in the category and I made some mistakes. I was really far off the top guys," he said. A year on, and a heap of experience further, he should do much better.
Pol's brother Aleix could do very well at Argentina. He and fellow ECSTAR Suzuki rider Maverick Viñales finished eighth and ninth in Texas, at a track where they were punished heavily for their lack of horsepower. At a track which flows more, they should manage to keep up with the front runners more easily. Once again, the question mark will be over whether they can make the tires last if they are to be in it at the end.
But first they have to beat Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider took his second victory of the season here last year, going on to dominate the first half of the year on his way to his second title. He may have been victorious last year, but his margin of victory was relatively small. Especially against an unfit Lorenzo and a mistake-prone Rossi, luck seemed to be flowing his way. His season is not off on the same footing this year, though, and he cannot trust his luck to hold. At any circuit, on any day, Marc Márquez remains the man to beat. But the Yamahas will be much closer this year, as will the Ducatis. It should be a fight to the end. If it is, then it's anyone's guess who takes the win.
Normally, Dani Pedrosa would be up battling with the front runners, but the Spaniard is still recovering from arm pump surgery. His place in the Repsol Honda team will once again be taken by Hiroshi Aoyama, who is unlikely to figure in the race. So Honda's honor is in the hands of Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding, aboard the satellite bikes. Crutchlow has branded his own performance so far – two seventh places – as unacceptable, and will be hoping to improve in Argentina. At his second race on the uprated chassis, he and the team should have more data for set up, to give him a fighting chance of being at the front. Redding could be at the front as well. The Marc VDS Racing rider had an excellent weekend at Austin, finally getting to grips with the Honda RC213V after his crew firmed up the suspension of his bike. He threw all that progress away on the first lap, however, when he lost the front and wiped out Pol Espargaro. He will be determined to atone for that mistake.
After the solo victories in Moto2 and Moto3 in Austin, Argentina could be a very different affair. It is a track made for a large group to battle among themselves in Moto3, making it tough for Danny Kent to repeat his dominant display at Austin. But Kent will feature at the front in Argentina, just as he did at Qatar. The other members of the group who could battle at the front are the usual suspects, but all eyes will once again be on Fabio Quartararo. The young Frenchman score his first Moto3 podium at Austin, in just his second race. Quartararo learns fast, and the tight-fought battles in Moto3 are teaching him racecraft in a real hurry. He is one to watch this weekend for sure.
In Moto2, someone could get away, but it could also be a small group battling very closely. Sam Lowes arrives in Argentina brimming with confidence, after his first win in Moto2. Lowes, Johann Zarco, Tito Rabat, Alex Rins, and Xavier Simeon will all be pushing hard, that group looking like making the championship. Rabat will be pushing especially hard: after a tough start to the season, he will be keen to win at a track where he won easily last year. The trouble is, there are four men or more who will be doing their utmost to prevent him. It should be a good race.