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 were two or three riders who said not to race on Sunday," Jorge Martin said, but that idea was rejected out of hand. "At the end of the day, I think it's not possible, for me it's not a possibility. We are here as MotoGP, and we cannot stop the weekend. So we will race."
New surface please
What was decided was that the first half of the track needed to be resurfaced. "At least Turn 2 to Turn 10 they need to repair everything, and this is what riders requested," Takaaki Nakagami told us. Then, it was down to the circuit to decide whether they wanted to comply with that request or not. "From our side, from MotoGP, if the circuit say they don't want to resurface, I don't think we will come back."
Polesitter Pecco Bagnaia confirmed that in the press conference. "We decided to ask to COTA to resurface from Turn 2 to Turn 11. If they will not do it, it’s better to don’t come again because it’s too risky," the factory Ducati rider said.
It isn't just about new asphalt, Jorge Martin elaborated. The substrate on which the asphalt had been laid would have to be replaced as, to prevent the bumps from reappearing the following year, as has happened elsewhere. "They said they will ask not just to resurface, but to change the underground from Turn 2 to 10, and if they don't change it, we won't come back," the Pramac Ducati rider said.
Given the unstable soil on which the circuit is built, will that fix the problem? Circuit designer Jarno Zaffelli pointed to the work his Dromo Studios business had done at Silverstone, which suffered similar issues. By using a company specializing in circuit design, in conjunction with a local construction company with experience of groundwork in the area, the issues could be more permanently fixed, Zaffelli told Autosport.com.
Is this the last visit of MotoGP to the Circuit of The Americas? Getting the necessary work done before April next year, when the 2022 round of the Grand Prix of The Americas is due to take place, seems improbable, given that it is just six months away, with winter in between. But more pressure is likely to come when F1 visits the track in three weeks' time. COTA might be able to risk losing MotoGP, but if F1 decides to abandon the track, it would mean major financial losses.
Leaving COTA is hard for MotoGP, as the series is desperate to keep a race in the US, and is doing its utmost to break into the American media market. MotoGP has very few alternatives in terms of race tracks which are up to the safety standards demanded by the FIM. That is much, much easier for F1: the four-wheeled Grand Prix series can simply switch to street circuits, if they can find cities to host them. Generally, cities are all too keen to do just that, given the additional income generated by the fans who flock to the races.
All that is in the future, however. On Saturday, all eyes were on Pecco Bagnaia, who put in a superb lap to take pole with a time of 2'02.781. It is the fastest lap of the circuit since Marc Marquez pole time from 2017. That in itself is remarkable, given how much bumpier the track has become in the intervening period.
It also marked a string of remarkable records. Bagnaia has now taken pole for the third time in succession. The last time an Italian rider did that was Valentino Rossi in 2009. And the last time an Italian rider did it on an Italian bike was Loris Capirossi on the Ducati back in 2005.
Bagnaia also broke Marc Marquez' string of pole positions at the Circuit of The Americas. Marquez has started from pole in each of the previous seven editions, winning all but the 2019 race. But given where Marquez is on his road to recovery from injury, the fact that he has returned to the front row for the first time in 441 days, according to the Repsol Honda press release, since that ill-fated race at Jerez last year, is a surprise in itself.
Though there have been times where Marquez has been competitive – he won at the Sachsenring, finished second at Aragon - finding that extra speed for qualifying has been difficult. "We know that one of our weak points is the single lap, the hot lap in qualifying practice, but today we were able to manage in a good way," the Spaniard told the qualifying press conference.
The difference is the track, Marquez explained. At other circuits, he had been forced to find a tow to chase a quick lap. "I try to always do my job and try to always find the best. Sometimes to find the best I need a slip stream or sometimes I need one riding style or another one," he told the press conference.
Austin is different, though. "Here in this racetrack, I feel good. When I push, the lap arrives. When I slow down, I know why." There are far more left handers than rights here, Marquez explained. "It’s basically because I only suffer in three corners. The rest of the track I can ride with my riding style and this is positive. In Misano for example it’s opposite. I suffer all the circuit. I only ride well in three corners. In the other corners I suffer. This is because it’s left corners. It was my strong point, but now it’s even a bigger difference for my injury."
The fact that Marquez is so comfortable should give the rest of the field pause for thought. Being able to ride as he wants for so much of the lap puts him in a position to reassert his dominance at the track. Not that it will be easy. "Tomorrow will be a long race. You need to manage tires, bike, bumps, but also the physical condition." At least weather should play ball, Marquez preferring the heat. "When it’s warmer I feel better. In the morning with a cold temperature I don’t like. Everything is too harsh and then everything is shaking more. When gets everything softer, it’s when I start to enjoy."
Looking at his pace in FP4, Marquez looks competitive. The Repsol Honda rider managed a lap of 2'04.812 on a used soft rear with 19 laps on, a sign that Santi Hernandez and the rest of his team have a bike that will work at the race. In fact, the Hondas appear to be working well, with Takaaki Nakagami starting from fifth, and Pol Espargaro having made it through to Q2, though he had not fared so well in qualifying.
Who will Marquez have to beat? Well, first of all the two riders ahead of him on the front row: Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo will be starting from the front row of the grid for the seventh successive race, which is also why the title fight has come down to these two riders.
Takaaki Nakagami also looks to have very strong pace, the LCR Honda rider having found a setup at the Misano test which worked very well straight out of the box in Austin as well. "Misano test we tried a completely different setup on the bike, and then in Misano I had a good feeling with that setup. From FP1 we kept that setup from the Misano test," Nakagami explained. They had made a few changes to damping and spring rates to handle the bumps at COTA, but apart from that, they had left the bike alone.
Bagnaia isn't the only Ducati to show strong pace. Surgery for arm pump appears to have liberated Johann Zarco, the Frenchman showing a genuine turn of speed. "Pretty happy with this second day on the bike after the surgery. The arm was answering much better than yesterday," Zarco said.
He had been happiest not to have any issues in the first part of the track, where the riders faced bumps combined with constant changes of direction. "Sector 1 and 2, because there are many changes of direction," the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "I didn't get any pain in the arm, so I think in the race, the arm can be also really constant, and feel good."
Teammate Jorge Martin also believes he can be competitive, despite the team losing its way in FP4. "We were trying different setups to try to avoid the bump feeling, trying to have more stability on the bumps, but actually we didn't find anything, and the bike was working less," the Spaniard explained. "So at the end, in qualifying we came back to our standard bike, and I was fast as always."
The Suzukis, too, look competitive, especially Joan Mir. Despite a spectacular engine blow up at the start of FP4, when Mir's GSX-RR suddenly lost power and started spewing flames from the exhaust. That left him frustrated, as he had to wait for the bike to be taken back to the pits so that some unspecified parts could be swapped over to his second bike – Mir tried not to admit it was the new version of Suzuki's rear ride-height device which needed to be removed from the bike which had broken down, but it was pretty obvious that this was the case.
Once everything was swapped over, Mir's pace was formidable. Four laps, all in the mid-2'04s, with a 2'04.1 on the second lap. A fix for the stability of the bike over the bumps brought the speed he had been missing in the morning, the Spaniard explained. "Luckily, we were able to manage this situation and manage the solution. Then I was able to be faster everywhere." Being faster everywhere was important: with a lap of over 2 minutes, small gains everywhere added up to a lot over a full lap, and over race distance.
Worth noting also that Alex Rins starts from seventh, the same position from which the Spaniard won the race back in 2019, albeit after Marc Marquez crashed out. Rins was less pleased with his pace in FP4. "The feeling was not so good. we’ve been a bit irregular in lap time but I made one fast lap. I think we have a very similar pace to the guys in front of us," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said.
Jack Miller is the enigma here. Fastest in FP4, and fastest in FP3 – the only other rider this weekend to lap in the 2'02s, alongside his teammate – Miller's pace in FP4 was not great on the medium rear, and he did his fastest lap on a new hard rear. How that translates to race distances is as yet uncertain.
Qualifying was a disaster for the Australian, however. Miller limped home to tenth, a second slower than his teammate Pecco Bagnaia. He made it plain where he believed the issue lay, without explicitly laying the blame at Michelin's door. "I have a hard tire in FP4 and I could do three tenths off the lap I could do in qualifying," Miller said. I can do a 2'02.9 in FP3. I don’t know. It wasn’t through a lack of trying, I can tell you that."
Michelin responded by pointing out – and not naming names – that Miller's out lap on his second run was 20 seconds slower than a normal lap. Without having fully analyzed the data fully, they suggested that "any perceived lack of performance could be attributed to the subsequent reduction in tire temperature and pressure (which we need to confirm later after detailed data analysis) for the single time-attack lap." They also pointed out that Miller appeared to lose 0.8 in just a single sector, Sector 2.
Is this a valid explanation? Miller's out lap was indeed a fraction over 22 seconds slower than his fastest lap. But he is far from alone in this boat: the same was true for Pol Espargaro (12th), Brad Binder (11th), Takaaki Nakagami (5th), Jorge Martin (4th), and Marc Marquez (3rd). Both Nakagami and Martin set their fastest laps immediately after lapping 24.11 and 23.218 seconds slower on the previous lap.
Michelin pointing at Miller's second sector is relevant. The factory Ducati rider was indeed eight tenths slower in that section. At the time, he was riding with Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro, who were similarly slow in that sector. Marquez had been following Miller, but having already set a fast lap, Marquez felt no need to get in front of Miller and tow the Australian to a faster lap. "The one that was behind [in the times] was Jack. He tried to push but he did a mistake," Marquez said.
It is of course possible that Miller made a mistake in the second sector because his tires weren't performing. But take away the time in that sector, and Miller was on pace to set a time roughly comparable to his first flying lap.
First you must finish
What kind of a race an we expect on Sunday? It will be a genuine war of attrition. The race will be won in the final stages, not the opening laps, though tire choice will determine the opening stages. There are those who are banking on the soft tire allowing them to make enough of a difference in the first couple of laps to get gap. And there is another group who are going with the medium or hard rear in the hope of avoiding the drop in performance they experienced after a number of laps.
Above all, it will be about holding the line and not making any mistakes. Mistakes at COTA are costly: get a bit off line, and you can hit an unexpected bump. The size of the bumps at COTA mean that at best you run off the track, at worst it's the end of your race.
"This track, the key will be to stay more constant possible because it’s very difficult to don’t make mistakes with these bumps, so let’s see," Pecco Bagnaia said. Marc Marquez agreed. "Of course, the bumps are there and like Pecco said, it will be difficult to be constant all race, but I feel okay. I can manage a good pace. It’s true that if I keep a good rhythm then it looks like I can manage well."
Not making mistakes is something that Fabio Quartararo has excelled in all year. And which Pecco Bagnaia has raised to even higher level in the past couple of races. The only real threat to their current hegemony could come from the ruler of the COTA rodeo, Marc Marquez. "I’m sure that Marc will try to push from the start and open a gap," Bagnaia said. Hard to argue with that. And if he does, he will be hard to catch.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.