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.
So MotoGP turns up at the Termas De Rio Honda circuit to find a track which is dusty, and covered in dirt. The first day of practice will be spent cleaning the muck from the track, with grip starting to come in as a clean line appears. Grip improves further as the weekend comes along, reaching its peak on Sunday for the race. It is a tragedy that so much time in practice is lost just to a dirty track. If there were events held regularly in the run up to MotoGP weekend, the track would be better for all concerned.
There is some hope that the grip will be better this year. The track day run a few weeks ago appears to have left the track in much better shape than previously. The track is much cleaner, and there is a lot more rubber down than there was in the past. Just how much of a difference this will make will only become clear on Friday, when the bikes take to the track at last.
Even extended track use may not help this weekend, however. The aftermath of El Niño continues to wash over the western half of the Americas, heavy rain having fallen all through the year (and the lake beside the circuit full to the brim, and the dam flowing at maximum capacity), and more expected this weekend. There could be wet periods every day, disrupting any sort of a plan the teams may have for preparing.
Playing into Honda's hands
Low grip and no set up time helps some, and hinders others. For bikes which are already struggling with grip, having less of it makes little difference. For riders who like their machines to be on rails, no grip throws a very big spanner into the works. Add mixed conditions in different sessions and teams have no time to seek solutions, try to find fixes for the problems they suddenly have.
Who benefits? First and foremost, the Hondas. Though HRC have made good progress with the new RC213V, finding something approaching a base setting with the electronics, the new big-bang engine still struggles in acceleration. But on a track with low grip, that doesn't matter so much: if you already don't have too much rear grip, then you don't have so much to lose.
That will be a concern for the rest of the field. Marc Márquez has won two of the three races held at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit since it was added to the calendar, and was leading the race in 2015 until he was passed by Valentino Rossi, and then fell. Dani Pedrosa has been on the podium at the track twice, and Cal Crutchlow has a third place there. In all, Hondas have taken five of the nine podium places in the three times the race has been run.
Keeping his cool
The fact that the track is so fast and flowing also helps the Hondas, as there are few spots where hard acceleration is needed. On the other hand, there is only really one spot, Turn 5, where the Honda riders can exploit the strength of the bike, its stability under braking. But that gives Marc Márquez enough leverage to gain an advantage over the rest of the field.
It is badly needed. With Maverick Viñales off to a flying start, and 12 points ahead, Márquez needs to cut down the young upstart's advantage. Yet at Thursday's press conference, the Repsol Honda rider rejected the idea that he had to win in Argentina. Yes, he acknowledged, there was a gap to Viñales, and he knew that his chances are better in Argentina than in Qatar. But that doesn't mean that he has to win.
This is the lesson Márquez learned from 2015. He may still have a burning desire to win whenever he can, but he understands that it is better to settle for points and live to fight another day, rather than throw it up the road in an attempt to take an elusive win. Just how well Márquez' nerve will hold if he sees Viñales ahead of him and pulling away remains to be seen, of course, but first he has to get there.
One comment Márquez made in the press conference was worthy of note. He may have finished fourth, and been unable to stay with Viñales, Valentino Rossi, and Andrea Dovizioso, but he had picked up a few ideas from riding with them. "Behind the others, when Valentino passed me, when Maverick passed me, I saw a few things which can be interesting here." A warning? Perhaps. With the two Yamaha men to the left of him, he may have seen an opportunity to make clear to them that he had spotted a weakness he could exploit. Of course, whether that weakness actually exists or not is another question altogether.
Having a base
What of Dani Pedrosa? The other Repsol Honda rider had finished fifth at Qatar, just behind his teammate. Yet Pedrosa has every reason to be optimistic at Termas De Rio Hondo. He has a perfect podium record in the two races he has competed in at the circuit, having missed the race in 2015 due to arm pump surgery. He slashed his deficit to the winner at Qatar in half from 2016, and this year's RC213V is a better bike.
He, too, commented on the progress made with the Honda's electronics. There is still a lot of work left to be done, he acknowledged, but things were moving in the right direction. "I think race by race, this work will get shorter because of experience. And if the tires stay the same, you don't have to change many things." The rear Michelin has moved back in Pedrosa's direction over the winter, the tire a little softer and quicker to warm up.
There has also been a change to Michelin's front tire, and this should also help the Hondas. Before the first race at Qatar, only Valentino Rossi had been complaining about the new, slightly less stiff carcass the French tire maker brought for 2017, saying it was too soft and not supportive enough. After the first race, Dani Pedrosa, Cal Crutchlow, and Marc Márquez all backed Rossi's complaints, suffering issues with braking in Qatar.
Something old, something new
In response, Michelin brought a new front using the old carcass from last year, giving the riders a choice of four front tires in total. This new front gives more support, and should help riders who rely on the heavy braking. Michelin put the rise in complaints about the new front tire down to the fact that racing is different to testing. In a race, riders are pushing that little bit harder, demanding more from the front tire than they had done during testing.
This is reminiscent of 2012, when Bridgestone brought a new, less stiff front tire which warmed up more quickly and gave better grip. Casey Stoner hated the new front from the outset, saying it was too soft and collapsed under braking. As the season progressed, and especially the following year, more riders joined the chorus of complaint, all identifying the same problem. It was precisely as Stoner predicted when he first tried the tire: once riders start to push, the weakness of the tire reveals itself.
Michelin's decision to bring a new tire vindicates Valentino Rossi's comments, and gives him back some of the support in braking he had been missing. Though his crew had found something of a solution at Qatar, having the old tire back should help fix a lot of the issues. Rossi is the only other rider besides Márquez to have won in Argentina, and having an extra arrow in his quiver should put him in a strong position to fight for the win.
Conditions could also play a part. Rossi has traditionally been strong when conditions have been worse. He has been quick to adapt to changing grip levels, and exploit a treacherous track where others have tiptoed around. A weekend of on-again-off-again rain, with little time for setup and an unreliable circuit surface on Sunday could play directly into Rossi's hands.
It would be a fitting tribute should Rossi get a podium, or even a win in Argentina. On Sunday, the nine-time world champion makes his 350th Grand Prix race start, the first rider to reach such a milestone. The next most prolific rider on the grid is Dani Pedrosa, who has 260 starts under his belt, and is therefore roughly five seasons behind the Italian. On Sunday, Rossi will have started in 39.4% of all 888 Grand Prix events held, a remarkable achievement indeed. If he stays healthy, then he will crack the 40% mark at Austria.
Even more remarkable is that his longevity is matched by his competitiveness. The very fact that he is even considered a candidate for a podium in his 350th race is truly astounding. The last rider to pass the 300 race mark was Loris Capirossi, but by the time he retired, after 328 races, he was fighting to be in the top ten, with no hope of the top step. The years have tested Rossi, but they have not found him wanting.
Mark of a man
Argentina will also be a real test of Maverick Viñales' mettle. The Movistar Yamaha rider heads into the weekend as championship leader and the confidence of having led at every test and race so far. But he arrives in the Americas at two tracks where Marc Márquez has traditionally dominated. He will face pressure from the reigning champion here, but especially in Austin. At Termas De Rio Hondo, he must first hold his nerve.
It helps that this is a track where he has been strong in the past. Viñales crashed out of a podium position last year, chasing hard to stay with the leaders on the Suzuki. But he also crashed out in 2014, battling to stay with the leading group in his first year on a Moto2 machine. He and crew chief Ramon Forcada have found a solid setup to start from, and if the weather is as unstable as many fear, they will need it.
Dark horse Ducati
The wildcard factor may well be Andrea Dovizioso. The Ducati rider was second at Qatar, and has been second at Argentina in the past. He would have had two second place finishes at Termas De Rio Hondo if he hadn't been wiped out by a thoughtless move from his former teammate Andrea Iannone last year. The wry smile on his face when it was brought up at the Thursday press conference told you all you needed to know about his thoughts on the matter.
Dovizioso arrives in Argentina fresh off the back of a test in Jerez last week. It had been a success, he said, especially as conditions had been so good and had so closely resembled the hot, sunny weather which you tend to get on the race weekend in Andalusia. Ducati had mainly be testing in preparation for the race there, a track where they have traditionally struggled, rather than looking for new developments to bring to the two American rounds.
Can Dovizioso cause an upset? It would be foolish to write him off. The Italian is in the form of his life, and the Ducati Desmosedici GP17 gets better every race. In an interview with Italian TV, he revealed he came close to moving back to Honda for this season, in the midst of the rumors of Dani Pedrosa heading to Yamaha. His form over the past couple of years justifies both the interest Honda showed in him, and the faith Ducati had in deciding to keep him over Andrea Iannone.
Dovizioso's new teammate faces an uphill task. Argentina threatens to combine all the things which Jorge Lorenzo hates: a dirty track, poor grip, and variable conditions. On paper, this should be a track which is good for Lorenzo, all fast sweeping corners which reward precision. But Lorenzo is still adapting to the Ducati, and a weekend with no time under consistent track conditions is the last thing the Spaniard needs. It is too early to be drawing conclusions on Lorenzo's move to Ducati, but Argentina does not look like it will do much to bolster his confidence.
Aprilia and Suzuki could be teams to watch in Argentina. Fast and flowing suits the nature of the Suzuki GSX-RR, and the lack of hard acceleration should minimize the weakest point of the Aprilia RS-GP. Iannone has been quick at the Termas De Rio Hondo track, and has to make amends for both his error in Qatar, and his mistake here last year. Aleix Espargaro comes off the back of a remarkable first race on the Aprilia, crossing the line in sixth just behind Dani Pedrosa. The confidence he took from that will help him in Argentina.
Alex Rins will also be in Argentina, the Suzuki rider having been declared fit to ride after fracturing his ankle. Though he is still hobbling around on crutches, he is confident he can ride. "I feel a big improvement," he told reporters in Argentina, though he also admitted he was still in pain when he moved the ankle or put weight on it. It is his right ankle which he injured in a motocross crash – a slow fall when his front tire hit a rock in a slow corner – and with more right handers than left handers, this will strain his ankle more than usual.
It is not just the factory riders who need to be watched in Argentina. Cal Crutchlow already has a podium at the circuit, and with the old front tire at his disposal, he should be more of a factor than in Qatar. He put his crash at the circuit down to being forced to use a tire which was too soft for the LCR Honda, so more support in braking will be a big help.
Then there's the Monster Tech 3 Yamahas. Johann Zarco shocked the world when he led the first six laps of his very first MotoGP race in Qatar. The Yamaha goes well in Argentina, and he has already set a very high bar for himself. It will be interesting to see how he lives up to the expectations he has created, and how he handles a track where he has yet to ride a MotoGP bike.
His teammate may form a more realistic yardstick against which to measure himself. Zarco's first six laps rather overshadowed Jonas Folger's first race, but a top ten finish in a tight battle for eighth is an excellent debut. If he can replicate that result at a track he hasn't ridden on a MotoGP bike before, he will do well.
Both Zarco and Folger have a good record at the Termas De Rio Hondo track. Folger was on the podium last year, while Zarco won the last two editions on a Moto2 machine. Zarco's results in Moto2 will only lead to yet more eyes being on the Frenchman.
Scott Redding was another rider who had a good race in Qatar, finishing in seventh some nine seconds behind the winner. A change of forks at the end of the Qatar test had given him confidence going into the race weekend, and he had capitalized on that to finish as top satellite bike, five seconds ahead of Jack Miller the next satellite rider.
Redding brings that confidence to Argentina. At the same time, he understands that these early races are his best chance of a good result. The Pramac Ducati rider is on the GP16, a known quantity. While the factory riders and his teammate Danilo Petrucci work on getting the GP17 up to speed, Redding can just focus on getting the best out of the bike. His record in Qatar suggests he is well placed to do so.
The race weekend is now in the lap of the gods. The weather gods, to be precise, and we await to see what the weather will bring. Whatever happens, there is much to look forward to in Argentina.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.