Under bright blue Texan skies, the Grand Prix of the Americas turned out to be exactly what we’ve come to expect from COTA.
Marc Marquez won his 5th consecutive MotoGP race at Austin, his 11th in the United States across all three classes. It wasn’t the usual tearaway performance of previous years, he had to actually fight for this one and perhaps, that makes it all the more important for the World Champion.
After Maverick Vinales won the first two races of the year and with the pair evenly matched during practice and qualifying, the race had the potential to be the beginning of a brilliant battle between them. But Vinales crashed out of the race at turn 18 on lap 2; losing the front without any obvious reason.
“I’m going to try to forget this crash and come to Jerez even faster” – Vinales
Maverick said that he was unsure why he had fallen as he doesn’t think he did anything different compared to the rest of the weekend (backed up by the data from the bike), although he didn’t have the best feeling from the front tyre at the start, so it’s likely that’s where the cause lies.
But despite Vinales’ obvious disappointment with the result, he knows that he showed good strength and speed this weekend at a track that hasn’t always been kind to Yamaha and he’s got his eyes firmly set on Jerez “We can be strong again, so I’m going to try to forget this crash and come to Jerez even faster, stronger and more consistent than I was here.” (That’s a warning shot if you’ve ever heard one…)
For Marquez, Vinales’ crash didn’t really change anything for him because he was already too busy chasing down his team-mate, Dani Pedrosa; who got a fantastic start, sweeping around the outside at turn 1 to take the lead and keeping it until lap 8, when Marquez made his first move on his fellow Spaniard. But Pedrosa had the superior drive out of turn 11 and Marc found himself back in second almost immediately. One lap later and Marquez was back in front, this time making the move stick.
Pedrosa wasn’t willing to give up without a fight though and a couple of laps later, he outbraked Marquez into turn 12 (not an easy thing to do!) to get back in front, before then outbraking himself and giving his team-mate the chance to take the lead again. At that point, Marc started to pull away and two laps later he put in the first 2’04 lap of the race and was leading by over 1 second from Dani, back in his dominant rhythm that is such a familiar sight at COTA.
While ultimately Pedrosa wasn’t able to stick with Marquez in the last few laps due to front tyre wear, the fact that he not only made a brilliant pass at the start, then led for so long and then actually stuck on Marquez’s rear, not to mention that he was able to fight with him briefly, is a very good sign for Dani. He’s been slightly under the radar so far in 2017, but he took more of a fight to Marquez at Austin than anyone else has in the 4 races at COTA before.
Speaking in the post-race press conference Marc said that “every year is difficult, every year we do our 100% but it’s true that this year everything’s a little bit more tight.. in the race I feel really good but of course, it’s the most important victory because I come from Argentina where I made a mistake.” He also pointed out the importance of the win in terms of the championship, with the 25 points moving him from 8th to 3rd, behind Vinales.
But it was Valentino Rossi’s championship hopes that took the biggest boost in Austin. His second place combined with Vinales’ crash mean he moves to the top of the standings for the first time since Sepang 2015, leading his team-mate by 6 points and Marquez by 18. The Italian has had a consistent start to the season with his 3 podiums and Austin certainly saw a better performance from The Doctor, especially in terms of qualifying. Ahead of the return to Europe and the tracks he loves, he’ll be happy with his best career result at COTA and despite the bike still needing work, they’ve made an important step forward.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Rossi on Sunday though, with controversy never too far behind him. On lap 7 while chasing down Marquez in third, he found himself getting up close and personal with Tech 3 rookie Johann Zarco at turn 3. The Moto2 World Champion saw a gap and went for it, but with both Zarco and Rossi going for the same bit of asphalt, Rossi was forced to run off track, cutting the next corner out entirely. Race Direction deemed that he gained an advantage and added a 0.3-second penalty to his race time at the end. A decision that has proved “slightly” controversial…
“For me, the penalty wasn’t right.” – Rossi
The rule I agree with, you can’t have riders gaining advantages by running off track, but the exercising of that rule in this instance is where I object. While Rossi did gain time and move closer to Marquez, it was irrelevant; he didn’t gain any positions and he was never able to make a move on Marquez. It’s also important to note that he didn’t have much of a choice, there was nowhere else for Valentino to go. If he went straight on, the chances of both he and Johann ending up on the floor were high. Head of Race Direction Mike Webb made the point that Rossi could’ve taken the advantage away himself by closing the throttle to ease off slightly.. sure he could but on lap 7 of a race? Realistically that’s not going to happen.
Ultimately the penalty was meaningless as Rossi finished over 2 seconds clear of Pedrosa, but opinion remains divided over whether or not it should’ve been applied in the first place. I’m firmly on the side that it shouldn’t. Penalising a rider for being forced off track when they didn’t gain any positions from it? Seems a bit unfair to me.
Speaking about the decision after the race, Valentino Rossi said “For me, the penalty wasn’t right. The problem is we either do it like this, or we crash together at a very dangerous point. But for me, though accepting Race Direction’s decision, the mistake was made by Zarco.” He also made a few comments about the way that Zarco is overtaking in MotoGP, suggesting he might try another way as “this is not Moto2 and if you want to overtake you have to overtake in another way. He always arrives too much in the line and for me, he has to stay more quiet.”
In his defense, Johann Zarco made it clear that he hadn’t intended to cause any problems for his fellow Yamaha rider, he just saw a chance and went for it, saying “I really didn’t want to cause a problem for Vale and I know I can learn a lot from him so luckily we both recovered.”
That overtake aside, it was another good race from the rookie, finishing in a solid 5th place. He got a great start and battled well with various other riders throughout the 21 laps. Overall, he’s adapted to MotoGP incredibly well in such a short time and the European races could see even more to come from him.
Other good results were had by Cal Crutchlow in 4th, Andrea Iannone in 7th who finally got some good feeling from his new Suzuki and Tito Rabat who finished well in 13th.
Someone who did not have a good weekend in Austin, was Aleix Espargaro. On Saturday he crashed 3 times and broke an engine and Sunday didn’t prove any better for the Spaniard. He had a bad feeling with his front tyre from the start, ultimately leaving him no choice but to come into the pits and change it. “Making a pit stop is always the last thought.. it seems like a lack of respect for the work my team has done, but today I had no choice.”
KTM also had a tricky weekend at a track they knew they would struggle at, with Pol Espargaro retiring with a clutch problem that left his belly pan full of oil and Bradley Smith finishing 16th after grip issues with the hard tyre.
One team I had expected better from was Ducati, their top speed should’ve helped them, particularly on the back straight but Andrea Dovizioso finished 6th saying that “we never had the pace that we had hoped for” while his team-mate Jorge Lorenzo initially moved up to 4th battling with Maverick Vinales, before slipping back to 7th where he remained for much of the race before front graining issues left him unable to stick with the riders around him, eventually finishing 9th.
After 21 laps, it was Marc Marquez on the top step gripping the bull-horned trophy, as is usually the case at COTA, but this year Dani Pedrosa took the fight to him and it’s Valentino Rossi leading the championship.
The first 3 flyaways are done and now it’s time to head back to Europe, with Jerez in two weeks time (although Honda and KTM have a test at Le Mans this week, with Aprilia heading to Mugello). Can Rossi get his first win of 2017 and extend his lead or will Vinales come back as strong as he threatens? Will familiar territory prove helpful for Honda and will Ducati make a step forward? The next 12 races are where the work really gets done and everyone will be happy to be heading home. Ready for the next race? You bet.