After a display of utter domination by Marc Márquez in Argentina, MotoGP heads 7000km north to Austin where if history is to be the judge, we are in for a repeat performance. Marc Márquez has never been beaten at Austin, and indeed, has not been beaten on US soil since he moved up to Moto2 in 2011. It seems foolish to bet against him at the Circuit of the Americas.
Yet the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit and the Circuit of the Americas are two very different beasts indeed. Termas flows, with only a couple of points where the brakes are challenged, and is a track where corner speed and the ability to ride the bike on the rear is paramount. COTA is more a collection of corners than a flowing race track. Three tight corners where the brakes are taken to the limit – Turn 12 being the toughest, braking from nearly 340 km/h to just under 65 km/h – a dizzying extended esses section from Turn 2 to Turn 9, a tight infield section and a big sweeping right hander.
If there is a section where the track sort of flows, it is from the top of the hill. The first corner is one of the most difficult on the calendar. The riders charge uphill hard on the gas, then slam on the brakes compressing the suspension harder than at any point on the calendar. At the top of the hill they release the brakes and try to turn in, managing rebounding suspension with a corner which rises, crests, and then falls away down towards Turn 2.
Precision and forcefulness combined
Turn 2 is probably the best corner on the circuit, a fast right hander favoring the brave, demanding pinpoint precision to enter the esses which follows just right. The trouble is, Turn 2 is at the bottom of a steep hill, so judging speed, throttle, and braking points is extremely difficult. Get it right, and you gain an advantage which you can carry all the way through to the braking point for Turn 11. Get it wrong, and you are running wide everywhere, struggling to compensate as your mistake is amplified all the way to the back straight.
Those esses from Turn 3 to Turn 10 make the track incredibly demanding physically. For the best part of 45 seconds, the riders are wrestling the bike from side to side at high speed, trying to hit exactly the right spot on the track, knowing any error they make will be magnified exponentially through the next few corners. Any weakness, any lack of fitness shows up immediately. If any part of your body is hurting before the weekend, it will be in agony after a few laps of COTA.
Adding to the difficulty of the circuit is the fact that the track has suffered some level of subsidence. The terrain the track is built on is not completely stable, meaning the track is sagging in various spots, creating a very bumpy surface at certain points. That has caused a raft of complaints in recent years, with riders demanding action be taken at the Safety Commission meetings at the track.
Last year, the circuit tried to address the problem by shaving off the peaks of the bumps, an approach which they have taken again this year. That was not deemed to be a success by the riders. Jack Miller spoke for most of them last year. "The diamond grinding, I don’t know if it can work or not, but for this track and this situation it didn’t work," he said after FP2. "I mean for me I think it's made it worse in a lot of places, especially the back straight. You go off line and the roost and the dust is bad but the bumps – the traction control and wheelie control just starts having a fit because basically you're jumping the whole way down the back straight. The rear tire and front tire are coming off the ground all the time so the bike's like cutting in and out."
It didn't help much either, according to Valentino Rossi. "Turn 2 is very bad. Turn 10, big bumps. And the back straight, when you go up after the dip, you go over the crest in fifth and sixth, the bike moves a lot because there are big bumps, a lot of bumps in the braking also. And big, big bumps, maybe the biggest one is Turn 18, before the last two lefts, you touch the fairing on the ground, so it's like motocross. It's a shame, because personally I like this track very much, it's very good, but the bumps start to be a problem."
Dust, debris, and other challenges
The worst problem on the first day last year was the dust and debris caused by the process, with riders throwing up clouds of dust behind them. "It's like being at the ranch!" Valentino Rossi joked. But the question was how it would affect the tires, and Michelin's rubber seemed to hold up quite well, despite the treatment.
The MotoGP tire supplier is facing the same issues this year, after the circuit used the same process again on the track surface. In their pre-event press release, Michelin's two-wheeled sport manager Piero Taramasso stated "Austin is a very demanding circuit for all involved and this year it feels like we are going there again not quite sure what to expect. The track has had some more repair work to try to smooth out the bumps, so it will be a case for all to see how it performs and how the asphalt works compared to other seasons." They managed before, so it shouldn't be a problem. But having to come to a track with what is effectively a new surface every year is a challenge, to say the least.
Can anyone challenge Marc Márquez at the Circuit of the Americas? The Repsol Honda rider is unbeaten at the Austin track, having won every MotoGP race here since the series first visited in 2013. And it's not just Austin: Márquez has won every race he has competed in on US soil since he moved up to Moto2 in 2011. The last time Marc Márquez failed to win a race in the USA was in 2010, when he crashed out while battling for the lead of the 125cc race, remounted, and still fought his way forward to finish tenth.
Why is Márquez so good at COTA? There are a bunch of possible explanations. Firstly, the Austin track is counterclockwise, meaning it is mostly left handers, and Márquez is the best in the world at going fast and turning left. Next, the track has a number of corners where hard braking and fast entry gain time, and Márquez is pretty good at doing that too. And then the track also has that esses section from Turn 2 through Turn 10, and Márquez is utterly sublime at pushing the nimble Honda through those fast changes of direction.
That flowing section could prove to be the ultimate test for Marc Márquez in 2019. The Spaniard has barely shown any signs of hesitation coming back off shoulder surgery so far this season. But that section from Turn 2 to Turn 10 is the most physically demanding couple of kilometers on the calendar. If Márquez has been hiding any problems with his recovering shoulder, COTA will definitely unmask them. It could be that the Spaniard builds up a big lead in the first half of the race. But the second half of the race will reveal where Márquez truly stands.
Held back by injury
That punishing section could also show up Jorge Lorenzo's physical condition. The Spaniard has been nursing broken ribs, which helped to slow him in Argentina (along with more than his fair share of horrible luck). His debut with the Repsol Honda team has been far from stellar, so a track where the Honda shines should give him a better chance of a result. But Lorenzo's form in Austin has not been good in recent years, including two tough races on the Ducati. The Honda should suit the circuit better than the Desmosedici did. But if Lorenzo is not at 100%, if his ribs are still hurting, or if the scaphoid he broke before the start of the season is still causing him grief, he could be in for a very long weekend.
If Jorge Lorenzo cannot uphold the honor of Honda in the USA, then perhaps Cal Crutchlow can pick up the slack. The LCR Honda rider has everything he needs to be as motivated as possible. After being punished with a ride through penalty in Argentina for a minute motion on the grid from which he gained no advantage, Crutchlow arrives in Austin with a sense of righteous indignation. That sense of injustice, of not being appreciated for what he believes is his true worth, lights a fire which burns brightly inside Cal Crutchlow. At the Circuit of the Americas, he is out for vengeance. If his luck holds, he may even get it.
The US round of MotoGP will be a crucial test of Andrea Dovizioso's campaign. Victory in the first race at Qatar got his season off on the right foot, and a podium in Argentina – traditionally a track he has struggled at – puts him in the strongest position he has been in for a while. The past couple of years, Dovizioso has not managed to finish better than fifth, but the factory Ducati rider really needs to be on the podium in Texas if he wants to carry some momentum with him back to Europe.
Is the podium a realistic goal? The Ducati Desmosedici GP19 is a better, more agile bike than the bike of the past two years, but the difference is small. Manhandling the GP19 through the esses is a lot to ask of its riders, but it should be a little easier this year than it has been in the past. Will it be enough? We will only find out on Sunday.
Dovizioso's teammate will face a tougher challenge. COTA has never been kind to Danilo Petrucci, his best result in Texas an eighth place in 2017. After a strong season of winter testing, Petrucci needs to convert that pace into concrete results. Austin may not be the place where that happens, but Petrucci still has time.
What about Jack Miller? The Pramac Ducati rider – backed by Lamborghini in Texas, a temporary replacement for the departed Alma, whose boss was arrested on tax fraud charges – has had mixed fortunes at the Circuit of the Americas. The Australian turned up and dominated his first race here in Austin, leading every single lap. He struggled a little more in MotoGP, though his pace last year was excellent, starting from eighteenth on the grid to fight his way forward to ninth. Miller comes off a good race in Argentina, and if he can qualify well, he should be able to insert himself in the battle for second.
The flowing nature of parts of the Austin track should also suit the Yamahas. Maverick Viñales has another chance to redeem himself, after a couple of painful mistakes in the last two races. Viñales has always gone well at Austin, winning his first and only Moto2 race at the circuit, and finishing second in Moto3 and again last year in MotoGP.
Viñales has some things to set straight. At Qatar, he focused too much on his own pace during practice, and found himself unable to defend or attack in the race. In Argentina, he suffered with a lack of grip during the race, going backwards in the early part of the race, before moving forward in the latter stages, until taken out by Franco Morbidelli. If he can rectify those mistakes, he should be able to post a strong result in Texas.
His teammate is perhaps better placed to exploit a good result at COTA. Valentino Rossi finished fifth at Qatar from a poor qualifying position, then took a brilliant second place in Argentina, outwitting Andrea Dovizioso to pass him on the final lap. Austin has not always been kind to the Italian, but he has also finished on the podium a couple of times, most notably taking second in 2015. It is a track he loves to ride because of its challenging nature, so doubtless he will be looking to build on his 2015 and 2017 podiums. A second podium in 2019 would put his season on a strong footing as the circus heads back to Europe.
Rins up and go
The flowing nature of the esses should also suit the character of the Suzuki GSX-RR. Last year, Andrea Iannone put the bike on the podium here. But Iannone has gone, pushed out and off to Aprilia, leaving Alex Rins spearheading the charge. Rins hasn't had much luck in Austin, breaking his wrist in 2017, then crashing out in 2018. The Suzuki is a much better bike in 2019, and Alex Rins is a lot more mature. The Circuit of the Americas is where Rins could finally put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
All eyes will be on Aprilia in Austin, with Aleix Espargaro showing good form in Argentina, and the Aprilia RS-GP having picked up a lot of top speed. Where the bike is weak is still in acceleration, which could cause a problem or two at COTA, especially out of Turn 11 and the final corner on to the front straight. But despite mediocre results in Austin, Espargaro has shown real promise on the Aprilia. Having finished just ahead of his brother Pol in Argentina, Espargaro should make another step forward in Texas.
Whether Pol Espargaro can do the same on the KTM remains to be seen, the RC16 is clearly a much better bike than its predecessor last year. But the track still plays against the biggest weakness of the bike, its tendency to run wide in corners. At COTA, that can be fatal. This year will be a test of just how much progress can be made.
There will also be much focus on Miguel Oliveira. The Portuguese Tech3 rider has had two excellent first races on the KTM. In Argentina, he had one of the rides of the day, finishing just behind Pol Espargaro on the factory bike, and well ahead of Johann Zarco, who continues to struggle with the RC16. It is early days yet, but Oliveira may yet turn out to be the most promising of this year's crop of rookies.
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