After all the talk, the riders finally to walk the walk. Or rather, ride the new surface at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. After the bitter complaints last year about the bumps, the MotoGP riders got to experience for themselves just what a difference a new layer of asphalt made.
At the start of the first session of the day, I headed up the hill and around the first half of the track, stopping to watch the Moto2 bikes through Turn 2, and then wandering around to Turn 10 – a decent hike at a vast track, but frankly, I need the exercise. Last year, the bikes had been bottoming out through the bump on the entry to Turn 2, where this year the rear was clearly moving, but not excessively.
At Turn 10, what looked like a motocross step-down had been largely tamed. There was still a sizable bump there, enough to kick the riders out of their seats, but it was no longer the terrifying ordeal it had been. "Turn 10, if you are not on the line, it is tricky, but on the line is OK," was Fabio Quartararo assessment.
From dangerous to difficult
Overall, the riders were happy, though they viewed it from the perspective of 2021, rather than comparing it to other tracks. "Last year was dangerous, and to be honest I was not having fun last year," Quartararo told us. "Because you go into Turn 2 and you need to pick up the bike, and Turn 3... Now when you go to Turn 2, Turn 3, Turn 10, you can enjoy and you can really push 100%. So the bumps are clearly much better. But when you think about last year, for me, 80% of the bumps, or even more, are better."
Bumpy tracks seemed to be a typically American phenomenon, according to Joan Mir. "I didn't race in Indianapolis, but I think that was more or less similar," the Suzuki Ecstar rider told us. "When we come here to America, there are always really bumpy tracks, and we have to live with that. It's a lot better than last year, a lot better, and probably I don't complain because I know how bad it was last year! So I'm saying, OK, it's more or less fine. But it's bumpy."
Aleix Espargaro was a little harsher, pointing out that riders expect more when a track has been resurfaced. "Regarding the bumps, the track is much better than last year," the Aprilia rider said. "But,to be new tarmac, it's terrible! Because when you have new tarmac it has to be not better, it has to be perfect. Full flat. And it's not. So yes I'm happy because it's another story from last year but still a lot of bumps, still a very difficult track."
Work to do
It was not a long-term solution, however. "I know it's not easy because this track is crazy, up and down, left-right, left-right, many, many corners," Espargaro said. "So it's very difficult also for the tarmac to try to make it like new tarmac in Misano, in Barcelona or wherever. So they did a good job. At least for 2022 it's fixed. But the future is not super good for this circuit."
Franco Morbidelli was also critical. "It's better than last year, but I'd say it's still the bumpiest track on the calendar," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. When asked if he thought the track was safe, a wry smile came over his face. "It's not safe to ride a motorcycle," Morbidelli pointed out. "It's even less safe on this track for sure. But safety, we need to discuss it better in the Safety Commission. I don't want to say it's not safe. For sure it's less safe than normal."
The new sections of asphalt also shed a harsher light on the old sections. The back straight is still incredibly bumpy, and quite difficult and dangerous to ride, the bars wanting to go from stop to stop. Turn 18 still has a massive bump, anyone not taking a wider line a meter from the apex likely to end up in the gravel. The grip at Turn 1 and Turn 11 is poor. It is far from ideal, but it is still much better than it was. And as the only track in the US capable of hosting a MotoGP race (and willing to pay for it), we are likely to be back, and the situation will keep muddling along.
Austin is also where Marc Marquez made his return. The Repsol Honda's objectives were clear after the massive highside at Mandalika which left him with another bout of mild diplopia and out of Argentina. The goal was to rebuild confidence, work on pace, focus on Sunday's race, and move forward to the rest of the season.
He had a unique approach to building confidence. On his very first run in FP1, he built up speed and then pushed hard for a fast lap, to prove to himself that he hadn't lost any speed, and to face his fears head on. "Today was difficult to start but I tried to start in an aggressive way," Marquez told journalists in Austin. "It was the best way to forget the past and to forget the crash and the last two weeks. I tried to relax, to ride well and we didn’t try to touch the bike. We just rode with the setting as always. Tomorrow we will start to work for the GP but today was ‘my day’ and with the team we just concentrated on me and to believe again on the bike."
With a fast lap under his belt, he focused on conserving energy for race day. "Today I was riding slow and just pushing for single laps," Marquez told us. "Tomorrow in the afternoon I have to try and work for the race pace, because it is different to ride very slow and then push for a single lap. It’s the only way I have to finish the weekend in a good way. I will try to be fresh. For that reason Friday was about trying to understand and to have the feedback. Tomorrow I need to push and it will be difficult to be in QP2 directly because all the Ducatis are very strong and fast in a single lap."
Marquez was not the only rider whose pace it was difficult to make sense of. Thumb through the analysis sheets recording every lap of FP2, and it is hard to extract much useful data from them. Austin is such a tough track that it is hard to string together a long run of fast laps at the best of times. That was beyond most riders, the majority preferring to alternate a few quick laps with easing off a bit to catch their breath.
"If you check the pace of the people, this track is extremely tiring," Joan Mir told us "Normally you see that people push for one lap, then stop for another one, then one lap, stop, one lap, stop. And you are not able to see the pace of people, for that reason. I tried to make laps and to be consistent, but the pace that people will have and that show on the paper, and the pace that will be on the race will be different."
There is some truth to that. Go through the timesheets and you see a lot of longish runs, of 6, 7, or 8 laps – between a quarter and a third of race distance, it is worth pointing out – but in almost all of them, there will be a 2'08 or a 2'12 lap in the middle, as riders take a moment to catch their breath again. They will have to focus more on consistency on Saturday, especially during FP4, but on Friday, consistency simply costs too much energy.
Another reason the riders will have to work on consistency on Saturday is because that is the only time to make a decision on tires. What is clear from the work done on Friday is that the medium rear is consistent and offers a pretty solid level of performance. The soft is markedly quicker, but the big question is just how large the performance drop is, and when it kicks in. Losing half a second a lap after 10 laps is a very different proposition to seeing your pace drop off by three tenths after 14 laps.
"I think [Alex] Rins was the only one that made laps on the soft," Fabio Quartararo said. "I think it's going to be important to make a lot of laps on the soft, because the performance is much better, and let's see if we can keep the pace. Because with 12 laps on the medium, it was consistent."
Rins looked to have outstanding pace on the soft tires, but the soft rear won't suit every bike. The Aprilia, for example, seems more suited to the medium tire, at least in Aleix Espargaro's hands. "With the soft sincerely I didn't have a good feeling. But with the medium tire I was very strong," Espargaro told us. "Many laps in 0'3s high which is good. I think I've been one of the fastest with the medium tire."
Espargaro's teammate was also impressive, the setup change tried at Mandalika working in Austin, as well as in Argentina. "The good point of the day, the main point is we confirmed once again that the move we did in warm up in Indonesia is good," Maverick Viñales said. "Different tracks, layouts, tires on the rear… and it’s working. We can say that we’ve found a base set up and from here we can only improve."
Friday is also a day to be testing new parts, or in the case of Ducati, rolling out old parts until they start working. Ducati's front ride-height device, dropped from most of the GP22 bikes after a disastrous start in Qatar, is slowly making a comeback. Johann Zarco is the only rider actually using the full system, immediately identifiable by the lower fork covers, which extend further down the front of the fork leg to hid the hydraulic cylinder and piston for pulling the fork in.
But the hydraulic cylinder is powered by an accumulator, a store of hydraulic fluid (and therefore energy), and that has made an appearance, not just on Zarco's bike, but on what looks like all of the GP22s. Motor Sport Magazine's Mat Oxley spotted that the accumulator was back on all these bikes, which suggests there is something more going on.
What could it be? The accumulator is a sizable chunk of metal and hydraulic fluid, as you can see in one of the photos Mat Oxley posted on Twitter. That is probably somewhere in the region of half a kilo of aluminum and fluid. That is not a huge amount of weight, were it not that this is perched in the nose of the Ducati GP22. That changes the balance and the feel of the bike significantly, at least in MotoGP rider terms. But fitting just the accumulator, but not the rest of the ride-height device, the Ducati riders can focus on getting the balance of the bike right and finding the best setup with the weight in place. That leaves less work to do once the rest of the device is fitted.
There is good reason to believe that the full system will make a return sooner rather than later. When asked about it, Jack Miller tacitly admitted as much. "We haven’t said goodbye to it. It will be back," he replied when journalists inquired about the front ride-height device.
With Jerez coming up in two races time, followed by the Monday test at the track, the Ducati riders could have it at their disposal for a large part of the 2022 season, before it is banned from 2023 onward. But in such a tightly contested championship as MotoGP in 2022, the acceleration advantage it should give may be enough to make the difference at the end of the year.
Yamaha were also working on new parts, though the riders were keeping their cards close to their chests. Franco Morbidelli admitted that he had new parts for his Monster Energy Yamaha M1, though he declined to say much more about them.
"We are trying stuff on the bike. Parts," the Italians said cryptically. "To improve the performance but it didn't improve, that's what came out finally." The aim was to improve rear grip, Morbidelli admitted, but it hadn't helped. The new parts had been ditched after the first run in FP2, but the effort had been useful anyway.
"Bad information is still information," Morbidelli said. "And there are good things also. When we try stuff, it's not always everything bad. There are things that we pick up, or that will become useful for your future."
Whether the lessons learned will be useful for Fabio Quartararo's future is still uncertain. On the MotoGP.com live feed, Eric Mahé, the Frenchman's manager, admitted to duty pit reporter Jack Appleyard that talks were ongoing with other factories, without specifying exactly which factories those were.
"We are checking all the parameters, let’s say," Mahé said. "We just need to know where Fabio can achieve the best results possible is where we are at, at this stage. And then we are a bit lucky because a few years ago a decision like this would have been taken 18 months in advance so at this stage there is no rush so it’s a good situation."
Quartararo himself waved away most questions about his future. "To be honest, right now I feel like I'm focused on the present," he said. On a race weekend, he was focusing on trying to defend his MotoGP crown. "It's not that we are looking at options that I want to leave, because it's completely not like that. But right now I feel that my priority is to fight for the championship this year, and I have not so much time to think about other things. When I'm on the race weekend, I have all my attention on doing my best all the weekend, but it's true that at the end, we also have to look at my future, and we will have a look during this month or next month."
On Thursday, Pol Espargaro had pointed to the risks of changing manufacturers. Espargaro has experience there, having found the jump from what looked like two similar bikes – the KTM RC16 and the Honda RC213V – to be much bigger than he expected. Then again, it is Espargaro's seat in the Repsol Honda team which HRC are looking to offer to Quartararo.
No reward without risk
The risks of changing manufacturer would not factor into his decision, Quartararo said. "I do whatever I think is right. Because if everybody thinks like that, nobody will change teams and everybody will stay in the same. But at the end, you need to not think about these things, about if you get used to this bike or not. If you think that the bike has potential, it will take time for sure, because when you make so much time with one brand. But at the end, you need to not think about getting used to one bike. So this is one thing that is totally out of my mind."
The most important thing was finding a project he could believe in, and having a package that he could win with, Quartararo told us. "For me it's about the project. That's the most important thing. Then on riding style, you need to adapt yourself, whatever. And even with our bike sometimes, we made a massive change in Mandalika, of course it's different, but you get used to it. You feel different, you adapt, and at the end it's great to see that with the data now, I think it's more easy now to adapt yourself because you can compare with many riders, I remember my first two years, we compared a lot with Valentino, with Maverick, with Frankie and at the end you can see where you need to improve compared to the others."
This year, that was much more difficult. Mainly because the data of the other Yamaha riders was of less use to the Frenchman. Franco Morbidelli is still adjusting to life in the factory squad, Andrea Dovizioso was adapting to the Yamaha after what seems like a lifetime on the Ducati, and Darryn Binder is a rookie making the jump from Moto3.
So Quartararo had no rider to compare himself with. "The reference in the past was faster, let's say, because I was a little bit slower," the Frenchman said. "Right now it's difficult to see, we are more looking into my data from last year. So it's difficult."
All that is for the future. First, there is qualifying to be done in Austin, and a race. There is still a long way to go in the championship, and a long time to evaluate what the best options are.
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