Sunday was a busy day for motorcycle racing fans. WorldSBK from Portimão, MXGP in Teutschenthal, Germany, BSB from Donington Park, and probably some more that went unnoticed in the hectic schedule. There was a lot of racing to take in, even for the most ardent and completist fan.
The action in Europe was thrilling, WorldSBK turning into the most exciting and tensest racing on the planet right at this moment, and then the racing world turned its attention to the United States of America, where the Grand Prix paddock had set up shop at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.
The racing in Austin was a good deal less scintillating. With the exception of the terror and drama of Moto3 – more on that later – both the Moto2 and MotoGP races were, frankly, dull, decided in the first few corners. Not that there wasn't anything of interest that happened: in Moto3 and Moto2, the championship gaps closed, in Moto2 significantly after Remy Gardner crashed out, his first mistake of the season, while in MotoGP, Marc Marquez returned to winning ways while Fabio Quartararo put one hand on the title.
But the process by which we reached this point was not exciting, in any shape or form. The field was quickly strung out – even in Moto3, at least by its own standards – and the battles for position were few and far between. After the shocking crash in Moto3, the dullness of the Moto2 and MotoGP races was rather welcome.
It has been four years since anyone lapped the Circuit of The Americas quite so rapidly. In 2018 and 2019, nobody, not even Marc Marquez, managed to get under the 2'03s. So it is a testament to how much faster the MotoGP riders are going that two riders managed it on Saturday in Austin. And this, despite the fact that the track has become so much more bumpy in the past couple of years.
So bumpy, in fact, that it appears as if the circuit has been issued an ultimatum: resurfaces the section from the exit of Turn 1 all the way through Turn 10, or MotoGP is not coming back. Though riders try not to talk to the media about what was discussed in the Safety Commission, the body in which the MotoGP riders can talk to Dorna and the FIM about safety issues, so that they can speak freely, it was obvious there was only one topic of discussion in the meeting: the bumps which have rendered the track so dangerous that there were calls by some riders not to race at all on Sunday.
There has been a lot of talk of tires in 2021. Tires are always a key part of the performance package in motorcycle racing, but they seem to have played an even more important role in 2021. At Silverstone, Pecco Bagnaia complained of a bad rear tire, while Joan Mir said his front tire was off. Two weeks later, it was the turn of Fabio Quartararo to complain of his rear tire, and there have been a litany of complaints from riders throughout this season.
Are these complaints justified? From outside, it is hard to tell. With grids commonly separated by a second, and grid rows separated by a tenth or less, the differences between being perfect and being just slightly off in terms of setup, tire pressure, bike balance have grown massively in importance.
This is not made any easier by the fact that the Michelins have a relatively narrow operating window in terms of temperature. Go just outside that temperature range, and performance drops off dramatically. The devil is increasingly in the detail, and tires are the biggest detail of all.
The benefits of racing
But Michelin are here to stay in MotoGP. The French tire manufacturer recently extended their contract for another three years, through the 2026 season, a clear sign that they see value in being the official tire supplier, despite the fact that this exposes them to so much criticism.
The weather cooperated for the second and final day of the Misano MotoGP test. It stayed dry and warm all day, which meant everyone got the track time they were looking for. In the case of Maverick Viñales, that was a lot of track time: the Aprilia rider racked up 109 laps, a grand total of 460.6 kilometers. Equivalent to Misano to Turin, London to Paris, Dallas, Texas to San Antonio, Texas.
The problem with all that track time, of course, is that a lot of rubber gets laid down. That adds oodles of grip, making conditions ideal for MotoGP machines. That is all very well, but MotoGP races never take place in such ideal conditions, and so testing can be deceptive. "It's true that everybody says the same in the tests, because there is a lot of grip everybody is fast, everybody is happy!" Marc Marquez noted.
Conditions are totally different between a race and a test, Marquez pointed out. "It changes a lot, a race weekend or test day. It changes a lot the risk of the way to ride also, with a lot of rubber on the track, a lot of grip and you can open a lot of gas," the Repsol Honda rider said.
The trouble with testing is that you have no control of the weather. As a result result of rain, and a track that was slow to dry, the MotoGP field lost half of the first day of the two-day test at Misano to wet conditions, with little use made of the track. The test riders were sent out as sacrificial lambs to put in laps and collect data in the wet. But Fabio Quartararo also put in some laps in the wet, to try to get a better feel for the Yamaha M1 in the wet, conditions they struggle in.
The wet-weather brake disc covers on the Yamaha M1
Those wet laps were useful for the championship leader. "In the morning I tried to make some laps but the track conditions were changing a lot, but from the first lap I could clearly see where the problem is with our bike and I think that we need to find a solution to that… But it's true that it's quite difficult to know what is happening," Quartararo told us at the end of the day.
It is crunch time in the championships of all three Grand Prix classes. In Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP, the leader went into Misano with a comfortable lead: 46 points for Pedro Acosta over Sergio Garcia, 39 points for Remy Gardner over Raul Fernandez, and 53 points for Fabio Quartararo over Pecco Bagnaia. Enough of a lead not to have to win at all costs, but not so much that they could afford to throw away points.
If anything, that's more stressful than having a much smaller lead. With a gap of just a few points or so, your only option is to put your head down and try to win as many races as possible. You have to take risks if you have any hope of winning the championship; the choice is out of your hands. With a comfortable gap, you have to start thinking about how much to risk, and when and how many points you can afford to give away. You can't relax and ride freely, because you are still a long way from actually wrapping up the title. But you can't just ease off and ride for points, because if you lose a couple of places you can suddenly find your rivals have slashed large chunks out of your championship lead, making your job even harder.
It was supposed to rain, so of course it didn't, proving that the weather on Italy's Adriatic coast is just as fickle as any other place in the world at the moment. Instead, it was hot and humid, with the threat of rain looming in the distance, providing a brief shower during qualifying for the Moto2 class, but leaving the rest of the sessions untouched.
The recent rains did leave their mark, however. The standing water left by the heavy showers of recent weeks had allowed midges, mosquitoes, and other insect life to breed copiously, and clouds of midges swarmed sections of the track. To the misfortune of Jack Miller, who had to come into the pits after getting one of the little mites in his eye.
"I did end up with one in my eye," he told the press conference after qualifying on the front row of the grid. "It was annoying for a couple of laps. It was strange. There were small tubes of them just randomly in random spots on the track. Even on my best lap in FP3, I had one flying around the inside of the helmet and it didn’t want to go away. I was trying to look past him a little bit."
Friday at Misano was fun, if a complete waste of time. Ideal conditions for about 35 minutes of FP1, then the deluge came, flooding the track and putting an end to any idea of improvement. A rainy afternoon – though not quite as rain-sodden as the end of FP1 – meant it was impossible to better the times from this morning.
Which left Maverick Viñales at the top of the timesheets. A remarkable achievement, given this is just his second race on the Aprilia after his dramatic separation from the Yamaha team. Does this mean that Viñales is now the favorite for the win at Misano? Even Maverick Viñales doesn't think so.
"Overall the feeling has been good, but like in Alcañiz, we are not thinking at all about the position and the performance," Viñales said on Friday afternoon. "We know we have to be focused on the feelings, especially on this learning process that we are doing. It's good to be in the front, this is clear, makes you feel much more calm, much more comfortable, because you feel you have the speed. But whatever it takes right now, we need to keep with a lot of calmness, trying to build up a solid step and this is what we are trying to do."