For the first time in two years, MotoGP is headed for a flyaway race which isn't in Qatar. After a long period of uncertainty, and facing a certain amount of opposition from inside the Grand Prix paddock, the series is heading to the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. After having 12 of the first 14 races all inside the same timezone (give or take an hour), a flyaway race feels like something of a novelty.
The novelty will not be quite as great as hoped for all those traveling to Austin. Given the extremely high case numbers of Covid-19 in Texas, and the dearth of ICU beds, Dorna has requested everyone attending the race remain in their bubbles – staying inside their hotels, not going into town, not visiting bars and restaurants – as much as possible. Normally, the Austin round of MotoGP is a reason to party. That will not be the case this year.
Staying inside will be made easier by the weather: very heavy rain is expected throughout the weekend, especially on Friday and Saturday. Leaving the hotel to wander the streets of downtown Austin is a much less attractive opposition in the pouring rain.
The rain is going to add an extra level of difficulty to what is already one of the most challenging tracks on the calendar. COTA is probably the most physically demanding track of the year, thanks to its layout.
Roller coaster ride
The most spectacular part of the lap comes right at the beginning. From the start line the riders power up the steepest hill on the calendar until they hit Turn 1, a sharp left hander where you have to stop the bike and turn it, all while dealing with camber and slope, before heading back down the hill to the glorious sweeping right of Turn 2.
It is hard to overstate just how important it is to get this corner right: drive out of Turn 2 leads into the tortuous section of connecting corners from Turn 3 through Turn 10, a long series of lefts and rights which all run into each other with nary a straight section between them. Mistakes are punished mercilessly. Get off line in one corner, and you are running the wrong lines and losing ground through pretty much all of that section.
That long series of turns leaves riders no time to rest, constantly climbing from one side to the other, forcing the bike from left to right, muscles in arms, shoulders, legs locked in constant combat with the machine, all the way to the hairpin at Turn 11.
Riding the wave
There is no rest after that either. Calling the section between Turns 11 and 12 the back straight is something of a misnomer. Straight it is not, neither vertically nor horizontally. The straight drifts right along its length, and is full of undulations and bumps. It is challenging at the best of times, but with the substrate below the circuit liable to subside, the surface gets worse and worse each year. It gives the bike a tendency to weave along the fastest part of the track, a terrifying experience as the MotoGP machines hit 340 km/h.
At the end of the back straight, the track enters the final stadium section. A hard left at Turn 12, followed by two tight sweeping rights to double back on itself, another left-hand hairpin, and then two long sweeping rights in front of the Nicky Hayden grandstand. Then two sharp lefts, the final place to try to make a pass before reaching the front straight again.
The biggest challenge the riders face is the bumps. The ground moving underneath the track means the bumps change in size and location from year to year. The riders commented on just how bad the track had gotten at the 2019 race. "I was watching Moto3 this morning and as they went out and as I watched the boys peel into Turn 2, I was like 'oh, that definitely wasn't there last year'. Those couple of big bumps in the middle," Jack Miller said.
Less than happy
"The track was like a road, with bumps, holes, and everything," Danilo Petrucci, then riding a factory Ducati said. "And I think this doesn't reach the standard for a MotoGP track. I mean, it's unbelievable why we are riding here. The track and the circuit in general is unbelievable in a positive sense, but the asphalt is unbelievable in a negative sense. It's a shame, because it could be very, very much faster, but you have to ride trying to deal with the bumps."
Never one to mince words, Aleix Espargaro was damning about the track in 2019. "Super dangerous," was how he described it. "I’ve never ridden a track like this. It’s not at the level of MotoGP. Not at all. I don’t think we can race here one more year with these conditions. Absolutely no way. It’s super bumpy in many corners. Most of them, you can handle it. Corner two is a disaster but if you go lost the front there, you are at 120, 130 km/h. But in the straight in sixth gear it’s super difficult to maintain the throttle open. It’s very dangerous and we are one-by-one. I don’t want to think about what’s going to happen in the race. It’s super dangerous. For me this track is not at the level of MotoGP."
Cal Crutchlow, also not known for watering down his opinions, was a little more nuanced, though he pointed very clearly to the difficulties at the track. "The problem is that I rode here in 2013 when it was like a millpond and it was amazing. Now it is just getting stupid. I completely agree with Jack in that it adds fantastic character, in some of the places where you have to manage a lot and the bike is shaking. It makes riding a MotoGP bike…thrilling. But it is dangerous as well, there are no two ways about it."
What has changed?
That was 2019. What will the track be like two years later? The track has not been resurfaced, and the only thing that has been done to address the issues is to once again shave the bumps along the back straight. The bumps are likely to be worse, and that means everyone will have to relearn the circuit once again. Key to going fast around the track is pick your way around the bumps, and if the bumps have moved, it means figuring out new lines to avoid the worst of the bumps and maximize the otherwise excellent grip of the circuit.
Complicating matters further is the expected weather. Heavy rain and thunderstorms are expected throughout the weekend, which is likely to impact the action. In 2019, we lost much of Saturday morning to a downpour and thunderstorms, lightning deemed to be too dangerous to allow bikes out on track. The concern is that similar weather is forecast for both Friday and Saturday afternoon, threatening practice and qualifying. At least race day looks like being a little better.
Rain might be the best thing that Marc Marquez could hope for. The Repsol Honda rider has dominated at the Circuit of The Americas – dominated in the USA, in fact, having won every MotoGP race held on American soil since his entry in the class in 2013. Every race but one, that is: in 2019, a problem with his engine braking setup saw him run crash at Turn 12, falling when he had already built up a considerable lead over the chasing trio, consisting of Valentino Rossi, Alex Rins, and Jack Miller.
Ending his reign?
Marquez' superiority in the US is compounded by the fact that COTA is a left-hand track. But the very physical nature of it, added to the bumps which litter the track, are likely to ask a lot of the Spaniard's physical condition. He is still suffering with pain and weakness in his right shoulder, the aftermath of his Jerez 2020 crash and its ensuing disastrous recovery process. If the section from Turn 2 through Turn 10 is not enough to weaken him, the bumps along the back straight will. Despite a strong showing at Misano, another very physical track, Austin will be hard to handle for the Repsol Honda rider.
Rain would make everything much easier to handle. The bikes already have to be set up to be quite compliant over the bumps, but add in some rain, and speeds and forces slow the pace enough to allow the riders to manage their energy levels better through the course of the weekend, and the race.
If a Marc Marquez victory is no longer a foregone conclusion, who might take the crown in Texas? The other podium places have been a decent mix of machinery in recent years. 2019 saw a Suzuki, a Yamaha, and a Ducati on the podium, 2018 saw a Yamaha and Suzuki join Marc Marquez on the podium, 2017 saw three Hondas and two Yamahas complete the top five. The track has a bit of everything, and places for each of the six MotoGP manufacturers to exploit strengths, and other places where they must try to camouflage their weakness.
Eyes on the title
Where does this leave the championship battle? With four races to go, and 48 points separating them, the title fight comes down to Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia. 48 points is a lot, but not enough for Quartararo to rest on his laurels. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider can focus on trying to minimize his losses, but he also can't afford to make a mistake or let Bagnaia claw back too many points. He needs to continue his form, get on the podium if possible. Above all, his focus must be on Bagnaia, rather than anyone else.
Bagnaia's task is easier: he needs to win as many races as possible. He has little to lose for as long as he has a shot at the title. The only thing he can do is to try to take as many points as possible off Quartararo each weekend, and the best way to do that is to score 25 points whenever he can.
Bagnaia has experience of winning in Austin. The Ducati Lenovo Team rider took victory in the Moto2 class back in 2018, on his way to the Moto2 crown. The next year, his rookie season in MotoGP, he finished ninth, his first top ten finish. Quartararo, by contrast, finished seventh, some 4 seconds ahead of Bagnaia.
That was then
Whether that is a valid data point is hard to say, however. For both riders, it was just their third MotoGP race, and both were on very different trajectories that season. Quartararo would go on to emerge as the main challenger to Marc Marquez, while Pecco Bagnaia struggled to adapt and had a mediocre season.
2021 is very different indeed. This year, both are mature, confident riders, on much better bikes and with a lot more experience under their belts. Will the Yamaha or the Ducati prevail? On past record, the Yamaha fares slightly better in Austin, but it will come down to who deals with the bumps best. The rider who can chart a course past the worst of the bumps at COTA will have the most to gain.
Where else should we be looking in terms of victory? 2019 would be a good place to start. The Suzuki GSX-RR is a very neutral bike, and that gives it a head start at tracks which are hard to find a good balance at. That includes tracks with a lot of bumps, such as the Circuit of The Americas. A repeat of Alex Rins' victory – or perhaps, a win for Joan Mir – is a real possibility.
If we look to the last time MotoGP was at a bumpy track, that was at Brno in 2020, a track where the KTMs were strong. There, though, it was not just the bumps, but the combination of bumps and a lack of grip which made life difficult for everyone. Austin may be bumpy, but grip is not so much of a concern.
But all this is just speculation. In the end, the weather will be a much greater factor than anything else. Heavy rain will cut into preparation time for the race. And a wet or mixed race is more likely to throw up a surprise than follow any kind of prediction based on dry-weather form.
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