Round Three – COTA
MotoGP makes its annual pilgrimage from South America to North America for the Red Bull Grand Prix of The Americas this weekend.
A technical challenge and one of the longest laps of the year, Austin is a different beast to Argentina, but in six visits to the venue since its debut, there’s only ever been a lone star: Marquez. Will this year be any different?
Riders will do battle on a 5,513m long track that is renowned for its abrasive and bumpy surface. This season the track has undergone similar work to that which met the teams in 2018, when heavy machinery was brought in to plane down the top layers of the surface and remove some of the bumps, this means that Michelin and the teams will be heading to the circuit unsure of what condition the asphalt will be in.
Situated on the outskirts of Austin in Texas, the Circuit of The Americas is one of the newest tracks on the MotoGP calendar and this season will see the seventh staging of the event at the modern facility and Michelin’s fourth appearance since its return to the premier class of motorcycle racing.
There are two self-explanatory ways that Marquez could lose his grip the top step: someone else could beat him, or he could make a mistake.
The first has seen many try and fail, but the likes of Valentino Rossi, teammate Maverick Viñales and Jorge Lorenzo have all been on the podium at COTA.
Viñales also took his first Moto2 win there and has shown good pace, most notably in 2017 when it looked to be headed for a Viñales-Marquez showdown before the former crashed, and last year when he took second.
Then there’s Cal Crutchlow and although the Brit hasn’t been on the podium in Austin yet, and he’ll be on the war path to bounce back after his ride through penalty and jump start in Argentina. He’s still top Independent Team rider in the standings too, ahead of teammate Takaaki Nakagami and fourth-placed Termas finisher Jack Miller.
Suzuki factory man Alex Rins, meanwhile, is the only man on the grid with a win at COTA in both of the smaller classes, so he only needs a MotoGP victory at the venue to complete the hat trick – and there was a Hamamatsu factory machine on the podium last year…
There is another name who stands out as having visited the rostrum a couple of times in the premier class though: key title challenger Andrea Dovizioso and the controversial Ducati.
Bad luck and trouble have struck ‘DesmoDovi’ in Texas more than once, but the number 04 has also shown some good speed there.
Argentina also served to highlight once again the progress made by Ducati, with the Italian taking his first podium at Termas de Rio Hondo and significantly further up the mix than in the last couple of seasons. A good omen for this race? Time will tell, but with only four points between him and Marquez in the Championship – now in favour of the Argentina GP winner – he’ll want to do some more damage limitation at the very least before we head to tracks traditionally more suited to the Italian machine.
So what of the second option? Marquez has oft seemed nigh on infallible and his records at COTA and the Sachsenring – the two venues where he has never been beaten in the premier class – show that side of the coin.
But crashes and mistakes at tracks where he has had the pace – Argentina, Aragon, Phillip Island – show the other; it’s never an easy task to convert that speed into a victory. The question is, then, can that perfect record last forever in Texas? Over 20 laps of 20 corners an awful lot can happen.
That’s true throughout the field, and in the battle for Rookie of the Year, it’s Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha SRT) who leads the way, albeit equal on points with Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar).
The Frenchman took the honour of top rookie in Argentina and the Spaniard in Qatar, and Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Tech 3) scored his first points at Termas de Rio Hondo with an incredibly impressive 11th – just a couple of tenths off top KTM Pol Espargaro, who got the marque’s first top ten at the venue and their first of the year.
But his fellow rookies’ speed leaves the second fastest man at the Sepang Test, Francesco Bagnaia (Pramac Racing), currently trailing the trio and he’ll be looking to hit back in Texas. MotoGP is a story far more intricate that just who stands on the top step.
When the lights go out to signal the start of the 20-lap race at 0500 AEST early on Monday the 15th April, it will herald the final episode in a trio of fly-away races to start the season, before the championship heads to Europe and Jerez.