Tuesday, 23 April 2013
March pre-season testing set the scene for the inaugural Austin MotoGP. That the Repsol Hondas and Stefan Bradl lead the way over the factory Yamahas was not a surprise. What was a surprise was that it was rookie Marc Marquez who topped the timesheets, not his 7th MotoGP season veteran Dani Pedrosa. While Marquez played down his pace, in deference to the then team leader Pedrosa it was an ominous sign of what was to come.
The Circuit of the Americas is a strange track. Fast sweeping corners and serious elevation changes make for a great TV spectacle, however most riders complain that despite its aesthetic beauty it does not flow properly, making it difficult to find the right lines and tiring to ride. Unlike truly flowing tracks like Phillip Island, corner exits do not naturally lead to the next corner entry, making the right line difficult to find. But it's the number of first gear corners (something like 40% of the lap is spent in first) that gives the natural advantage to the Hondas. It was always up against Yamaha to overcome the hp and seamless shift transmission deficit.
Fast forward to qualifying and Marquez once again stole the limelight. Pole for the 20 year old ahead of Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Crutchlow made him the youngest pole sitter in 500GP/MotoGP history. Marquez did his best to tone down the hype but the prospect of eclipsing Freddie Spencer's record (youngest premier class winner) was the sole topic of conversation amongst the press and paddock. With the natural advantages held by the Honda's, Sunday was looming as a two way shootout between the Spanish Repsol twins.
While Qatar had a metronomic leader disappearing ahead of an intense battle for second, Austin had an epic battle for the lead followed by relatively lonely rides for those behind. A split tyre strategy where Marquez backed himself on the harder tyre posed more questions than answers early in the race. Pedrosa did what was necessary, leading into turn 1 and was relentlessly stalked by Marquez, as in Qatar biding his time, waiting for his time to strike. Try as he might, Lorenzo's inch perfect laps could not close the gap, although the differential was less than many expected. Behind, Crutchlow put in his most impressive ride in MotoGP, challenging Lorenzo until a mistake put him off the track and into the pack with Bradl, Rossi and Bautista. Impressively, however, as quickly as he was in the dogfight, he had cleared off again into a lonely ride for fourth.
Speaking of Rossi, after his Qatar heroics I was expecting him to charge the through pack and be competitive with Lorenzo (or at least Crutchlow). But the Doctor had no remedy for a lack of confidence at a track with which he struggled to get to grips (and brakes) with. Rossi revealed he lost a chunk of his brake disc after the race, but it is unlikey he would have challenged even without the problem
So back to the main show. After losing the lead into the first turn, Marquez held station behind his team mate, waiting for his opportunity to make the move back. At no stage was Pedrosa able to pull a gap, despite being on the medium rear tyre, versus Marquez on the harder option. As in Qatar, it was only a matter of time befor Marquez shoved it up the inside on lap 13, and try as he might, Pedrosa struggled to keep tabs. Riding at 11/10ths, he made a mistake with a couple of laps to go, fulfilling Marquez's destiny to break both of Freddie's record in one weekend.
On the in lap, the congratulations from the entire field showcased the arrival of the next era of MotoGP. Rossi, in particular, made a special effort to congratulate him. Greatness recognises greatness.
Friday, 19 April 2013
The pre season posed more questions than answers. Would this be Pedrosa's year? Will Rossi be able to recapture his previous powers? Will Lorenzo make a mistake? Will Marquez be able to step into the shoes of Stoner? Will Ducati find hope?
A new F1 style qualifying format lead to a 'Q2' field that was much as expected, however the new format caught up a number of the big names. Lorenzo on pole was not a surprise, but Crutchlow in second definitely was. You get the sense that the indignation of not having full factory support is worth at least 3 or 4 tenths for Cal. Dovi in fourth was a ray of sunshine for Ducati, made all the more impressive by beating Marquez in 6th and Rossi in 7th.
So 2 of the big 4 were outside the top 5. When the race started, it was really a tale of 2 fields. One was the sole realm of Lorenzo, who disappeared from pole and was never seen again. His metronomic times are now the stuff of legend, but it was so effective that we barely saw Lorenzo on the coverage.
The second field was a cracker. Watching Lorenzo disappear, Pedrosa focused on keeping his rookie team mate and Crutchlow behind. Rossi started well, tailing Pedrosa but overcooked his corner entry on lap 3, bending his brake lever protector and running off track. The next 10 laps seemed to be a fight for second between the Repsols and Crutchlow. Marquez surprised many with his controlled aggression, keeping his trademark bruising style in check.
The apparent strengths and weaknesses of the Hondas vs. Yamahas persist into 2013. The sweet mid corner handling of the Yamaha that Rossi has craved for the past 2 years interplayed with the much stronger drive from the Honda seamless shift transmission and higher engine power. No where was this more apparent that in the mid race battle between Crutchlow and the Repsol twins. Working his backside off to close up on the back of the Hondas, Crutchlow was powerless to fight their straight line speed.
Having had to battle with Bradl and Dovi after his early off, Rossi started to come into the frame with 10 laps to go. Chipping away a gap of about 5 seconds to Crutchlow, Rossi displayed an ability to rattle off fast laps that we have not seen since the failed Ducati experiment started. The collective motorcycling world held its breath as the Rossi of old (rather than the impostor wearing his leathers that we ahve seen for the past 2 years) reappeared. Consistently reducing the gap to the Repsol/Cruthlow trio by 0.5secs per lap, Rossi caught the battle for the podium with 5 laps to go. As Marquez finally moved on Pedrosa, Rossi used the carrot of watching Marquez disappearing to pass Crutchlow on the straight and then home in on Pedrosa. Rossi achieved what Crutchlow couldn't, finding a gap up the inside of Pedrosa setting a scene for a showdown between the old school and the very new school.
Of all the riders in the current paddock, Rossi has been the most complimentary of Marquez. He sees a lot of himself in the rookie, who has truly stunned the GP paddock with the ease he has adapted his small frame to the complexities and brutality of the 1000cc machines. Watching them dice for the last 3 laps was the most excitement we've seen since Lorenzo first entered the class. All credit to Marquez, despite being passed with 3 laps to go, he refused to be intimidated and regained second place briefly. The old man would have been impressed, but stamped his authority 2 corners later and was not to be caught. Realising that a podium on debut ahead of his team mate was at astake, Marquez kept his head to take 3rd.
What a race!