Pol Espargaro summed up the complex emotions of almost the entire grid (possibly bar Jack Miller, but more of that later) at the end of an eventful first day of practice at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. "First of all we need to say that it's super nice to come here to America, to be able to race here," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Already this is something super good after so long in Europe. And to see the American fans is super nice, they are super excited and it's nice. Saying that, I think we are in a professional MotoGP championship that, we need a minimum of quality in the tracks, about safety, run off area."
Then came the 'but'. "We must say that the track is not at the level of a MotoGP championship, sure. First of all, there are parts where the asphalt is super bad. Not about the bumps, it's just cracked everywhere, and the asphalt is super old, and it looks bad, and also it's bad grip. But then there are the bumps, and the bumps are not something that we can say it's better or it's worse. The bumps are super dangerous."
So dangerous, in fact, that a discussion was expected in the Safety Commission, held every Friday night, over whether it will be possible to keep racing at the circuit in the future. "I don't know if it's going to get to the level of saying in the Safety Commission whether we race or not, but what is sure is that we need a minimum level of track quality to go in MotoGP," Espargaro explained. "And for sure by far, here in Texas, Austin is not on the level of a MotoGP championship. This is super clear."
Spring rate and damping
That the track is bumpy was clear to even the most casual viewer on Friday. The slowmo shots were perfect illustrations of how motorcycle suspension works, the front and rear of the bikes going almost from fully extended to fully compressed in some sections. "There are some bumps where your body almost Gs out, and it’s hard to keep your weight up because you hit them so hard," Brad Binder said in wonder, describing the phenomenon of being catapulted between a sensation of weightlessness and multiple times your own bodyweight as the bike attempts to follow the contours of a track replete with dips and hollows.
The first half of the track was the worst. As the bikes swept down the hill from Turn 1, they bottomed out briefly as they hit a deep dip on the entry to the fast Turn 2. There were bumps all the way through Turns 3, 4, 5. Negotiating the crest of Turn 10 was a terrifying prospect, the bike dipping, bucking, weaving at high speed down the hill toward Turn 11. Even the final sector, from Turn 12 through Turn 20, all of which had been repaved, had bumps all around.
To call them bumps is something of a misnomer. They are not what riders normally think of as bumps. They are not the ripples pulled up by the hard braking of the four fat tires of racing cars. Nor are they the occasional crest or dip left where soil has settled over an underground watercourse, or an unexpectedly hard-packed section of substrate. They are more like undulations than bumps. "They are not bumps, it's like changes of the level of the track," Jorge Martin explained. "It's amazing." He did not mean that in a good way.
Where have all these undulations come from? Veteran racing guru, engineering expert, and journalist Kevin Cameron explained in an article for the website of American magazine Cycle World. Cameron combines curiosity and skepticism in such a way that if he wants to understand a phenomenon, he researches it thoroughly enough to understand not only the subject at hand, but the processes which underlie and cause said subject.
Though I would highly recommend that you go read the article yourself (along with pretty much everything else Kevin Cameron writes), the short version is that region east of Austin where the Circuit of The Americas is built consists of high plasticity clays. These expand when wet, such as when the storms which blow in through hurricane season dump many tons of water on the region. And they contract when dry, in the long, hot Texas summers between the storms. That expansion and contraction causes the earth to move, along with everything built on it. In this case, the Circuit of The Americas.
There have been bumps here for years, from the year after the track was completed. And that spoiled an otherwise superb track. "The problem is the track is good," Valentino Rossi insisted. "I like the track, a lot of riders like the track. But the track has a lot of bumps. Usually here in America the tracks have more bumps."
The subject had come up every year at the meeting of the Safety Commission, Rossi said. "The problem is we spoke a hundred times in the Safety Commission about these bumps, especially about Turn 2, 3, 4, and Turn 10, for example. On the back straight. Big bump also in Turn 18. They say to us that they work, they put a new asphalt and they fix the problem." The problem, Rossi explained, is that they fixed the issue in one place while problems seemed to have gotten worse. "In reality, they improve a lot Turn 18 and the back straight. The situation there is better. But in Turn 2, 3, 4 and especially in Turn 10 the condition is maybe worse than 2019. So it’s dangerous, yes."
Given that bumps had been a topic of conversation since the second year at the track, the riders were hardly surprised to find them still there. They were surprised at just how bad the bumps had become in some sections. "For sure we were expecting some bumps," Alex Rins told us. "But these bumps are so dangerous. Going into corner 10 you can feel them. Both wheels are in the air. This is dangerous, because with a new tire you have good support of the tires. But in end of race when the tire life goes down, it’s difficult to manage."
The comparison with a motocross was readily made by a number of riders. "It’s more or less a track that I used to race, to train with the motocross bike," Fabio Quartararo said. "But yeah, it’s much faster with the MotoGP bike so it’s really bad. I can’t imagine; we talked two years ago and said they need to resurface, but now it’s even worse. It’s just acceptable to race. I don’t know what to say... But it is a joke."
The track would be better on a Superbike, perhaps. The more compliant chassis and smoother Pirelli tires would not transmit the bumps quite so forcefully to the rider the way a stiff and rigid Grand Prix bike, shod with stiff Michelin tires does.
Those bumps were punishing for riders bodies. "It's really physical," Jorge Martin told us. "This track is not that physical, but it's physical because of the bumps. Because when there's a big bump, you need to be really strong and keep the bike on line with a lot of strength, so then we use a lot of energy." Added to the effort of wrestling a MotoGP bike was the weather. "In general, I don't feel this track is so physical, but for sure here, it's really hot and there's a lot of humidity, so you can trust me, it's difficult."
The bumps made riding very challenging, Brad Binder explained."The bumps don’t necessarily make it much more physical but the big thing with it is that it is really hard to keep your throttle trace flat. You hit some so hard that you almost take a handful of throttle at the same time. It was a bit of a shock for me the first few laps today. I didn’t expect it. I remember it being bumpy but nothing like this."
Pol Espargaro, normally a rider who manages difficult conditions well, found them punishing. "Honestly speaking I have my neck completely destroyed," the Repsol Honda rider said. "I have quite a lot of pain in my neck, it's like asleep from the many bumps there are. My back is fully destroyed, my wrists are completely tired, and I have quite a lot of pain in my left one, where I have an old injury, but there is still a plate."
A Superbike might have been manageable, Espargaro said. "The impacts are so great and the bumps are so big that on a street bike, maybe you can manage, but on a MotoGP bike, the bikes are super hard, super aggressive, super powerful, and heavy. And honestly, I have all my body destroyed like I've been doing three days of testing. And I just did one session, because this morning was wet and we were not tired. Just in this afternoon, I feel super tired."
All this stress made just finishing the race a challenge. "If we need to make race distance here, oof, it's going to be hard, it's going to be difficult, very very difficult. To finish the race is going to be already something great," Espargaro explained.
The circuit was severely demanding, the Repsol Honda rider continued. "The track is one of the most tricky for that, because it's long, and many changes of direction. You need to add the hot conditions that we have, we have more than 30 degrees, plus the huge humidity, we have more humidity than in Malaysia, above 70% humidity, which is crazy. And then you have all the bumps, the stress of the race, the nerves. To finish the race here is going to be already something. You never heard that from me, because normally I'm physically good and I like these physical races, because I can take something else from it. But honestly speaking, here after four laps, you feel very tired. And we are talking about a race that's going to be 20 laps. So it's going to be tricky."
Some of that was about finding the right line between the bumps. "For sure I try to always find different lines, to understand which one is better," Jorge Martin explained. "But it's a bit unpredictable, because maybe it depends on a bit of the lean angle, it changes a lot. So sometimes it's difficult to understand. When you arrive to a bump you are really tense, and you use a lot of energy. But that's why it's dangerous, because every lap is different, so that's why. Maybe you change your line 10cm, and it's a huge difference."
"Turn 10 is the worst point," Jack Miller said, adding to Martin's point. "I still haven’t found a great way to go through there. I think once wet patch is gone from the apex. It can be a little better. You’ll be asking a little less lean angle. The bump absorption should be a little better."
The challenge of the track was getting the right balance, between absorbing the bumps and still being stiff enough to be able to brake and accelerate hard, Miller explained. That also meant using your body to absorb some of the impact. "For sure more than anything, these big wallowy bumps, the ones you need to absorb, you ride more on your feet than normal. You use your feet to absorb and push the bike into the earth. I feel that definitely is one thing," the Australian told us.
In terms of setup, finding the right balance with suspension was the biggest challenge. "Also with the bike, we’re trying to get a bike that is plush off the top, Miller explained. "But here you need it to be as firm as anything for Turn 1 and Turn 12, off the back straight. There’s a bump right in the braking zone and it feels like the forks (are going to bottom out). It goes bottom, you hit the bump and it goes BADOONK! Honestly, it’s a test on handlebar strength. You’ve got to find balance. That’s what this track is all about. It has a bit of everything."
Traditionally, Marc Marquez has dominated at the Circuit of The Americas. We were expecting it to be different this year, with Marquez still working toward full fitness from the shoulder and arm injury from 2020. But Marquez had other ideas: the Repsol Honda rider was well clear of everyone in the wet morning session, Jack Miller only sneaking up on Marquez at the end. Then in the dry, the six-time MotoGP champion showed the same form, forced to push at the end to stay ahead of Miller.
Marquez' speed had surprised even him. "Honestly, the feeling on the bike was not so good," the Spaniard told us. "Then when I stopped in the box I saw I was in front. If I understand my feeling on the bike, I'd say 'I'm not riding well'. But then I stopped in the box and I saw I was on top. It's strange. I'm happy for the result but not the performance and feeling."
He was losing out in the section where he used to be strongest, Marquez said. "It's true that one of my strong points was Sector 1 in the past and now I'm losing a lot there. Especially Turns 3-4-5 I cannot change direction, I'm too late. But the lap time arrived. So I hope tomorrow it will rain a bit more in some practice because like this I will survive the whole weekend better!"
Taking it easy
The rain in the morning had made life easier for everyone, the softer bike setup and lower speeds and stresses being much more gentle on a rider's body, whether carrying an injury or not. The dry afternoon session was a better measure of where the riders stood. And though he was fast, that also exposed Marc Marquez' weakness.
"It's true that it's a physical track and today I did just single laps," the Repsol Honda rider said. The short runs had been tough enough, but full race distance would be very hard. "Even when you are fit it difficult to finish the race in a good way. But we will see. It's also true that the back straight helps a lot now because you can relax a bit, because they resurfaced there and it's not bumpy."
Two riders stood out for not complaining about fitness or physical discomfort on Friday evening. Jack Miller was as fast as Marc Marquez over a single lap, and pushed the Repsol Honda rider hard in every session. Sure, the track was demanding, Miller admitted. "It’s physically demanding. But everyone knows that it’s physically demanding around here. Too dangerous? I don’t think it’s dangerous. Just need to understand how to approach it. And you need to approach it with some caution for sure."
Fabio Quartararo was just a couple of tenths behind Marquez and Miller, but his single lap pace was less of interest than the fact he had done a run of over half race length during FP2, to test himself and the bike. No one else had done anything near as long a run on Friday.
"I made 12 laps today in a row," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "Okay, I made some mistakes and I go wide, but physically I was feeling good. I think that yes, it’s going to be the toughest race of the season. But let’s see what happens. For myself the arm pump is not… it's a different kind of tough track. You work more on the triceps, more than the forearm. The part with the arm pump is not working so much."
Quartararo was not concerned about the Ducati of Jack Miller finishing ahead of him, the Frenchman explained. After all, it was Miller's teammate who stood between himself and the first ever French premier class title. "At the end, Jack always goes fast here. But my main rider to look at is not him so I’m also happy if he’s there in the mix. So for me it’s good and yeah let’s see. I know I’m the only Yamaha near the top but the bike is going quite well. We are missing some things to improve but I think we are in good shape. So I try to make the difference but it is difficult."
MotoGP dodged a bullet on Friday with the weather. After flash flood warnings had been issued for Friday morning, the rain cleared away and allowed a fully wet session in the morning, then a dry session in the afternoon. Whether MotoGP's luck holds on Saturday remains to be seen. The forecast appears to be improving, but there is still a big chance of rain. And that could end up shaking up qualifying more than expected. But if the race turns out to be a war of attrition, of who can manage 20 laps in the best way physically, then qualifying might not even matter as much as usual.
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