With Termas now in the past, all attention turns to Austin and the bizarre yet wonderful creation that is the Circuit of the Americas.
Name a track configuration and you’ll probably find an aspect of it included in the COTA circuit; with an elevation change of 41 metres, the longest straight on the calendar (1200m), twisty changes of direction and hard braking, there really is a little bit of everything, which helps to “keep Austin weird”.
Turn 1 is always a sight to behold; sitting at the top of an uphill climb on the front straight it tests both the braking and suspension setup of the bikes (too stiff a setting here will penalise the riders later in the track). While the riders themselves have to almost miss the corner to make it; turn in to hit the apex and you’ve probably gone too soon, wait too long and you’ll end up running off track (there’s a good runoff at turn 1 for a reason, and plenty of riders will be using it this weekend).
“I’ve always been strong there.. I think it’s a good track for my riding style. I’m confident.” – Maverick Vinales
Since Austin joined the calendar in 2013 it has belonged to only one man; Marc Marquez. His dominance of the States as a whole means he has won every MotoGP race he’s ridden there; 8 in total, plus a further 2 wins in Moto2. He’s only missed out on pole Stateside once, when Stefan Bradl just edged him out in Laguna Seca in 2013. COTA is where Marquez got his first MotoGP win, it’s where we saw that crazy sprint up pitlane when his bike broke down in qualifying and it’s the place he’s truly exerted his dominance over the last 4 years; the bike hasn’t been perfect but he has made the difference.
But this year there’s a new challenger. Maverick Vinales has firmly stamped his mark on the start of this season by winning the first two races of 2017 and he’s heading to Texas full of confidence; “I’ve always been strong there.. I think it’s a good track for my riding style. I’m confident and I know that I can do another good race weekend.” Vinales has won at Austin previously, in what was only his second Moto2 race and finished 4th on the Suzuki last year. He undoubtedly has the pace to take the fight to Marquez at COTA, but the real battleground this weekend will be the braking zones.
Honda make up time on the brakes; they don’t have much choice, it’s their strongest point and it gives them the chance to try to regain what they lose in acceleration but it’s not without risks. Cal Crutchlow illustrated it perfectly; “in the braking zone, it’s where we gain the most time.. but it’s also really crucial for us because it’s where we make the most mistakes, to be honest, because we take advantage of our strong point, so we have to try to not be too greedy”
There are a number of hard braking areas where the Honda riders could try to draw out an advantage; turn 1 is an obvious contender, along with the sharp hairpin of turn 11 followed by the long braking zone of turn 12 at the end of the back straight. But the changes of direction also play a huge part in Austin and Crutchlow also explained the Honda’s characteristics there; “the change of direction with our bike is quite heavy but once we load the front with the brake it’s quite good”.
While the first section up to turn 10 also features a lot of direction changes it’s the 3 corners following turn 12 that Crutchlow said they’d have to be careful with; “it’s really crucial to turn in that area but we know with the Honda the bike turns very well when it’s braking, but it doesn’t turn well in the middle of the corner, so we’ll try to take advantage in the long braking zone (T12) to be able to not have to push in the next 3 corners as much.. we do trail brake a lot and we have to load the front tyre to turn.. with the Honda bike, we make the corner very sharp, in and out (compared to others who round it)”.
“I have an account to settle with this track” – Valentino Rossi
After crashing out in Argentina, Marc Marquez undoubtedly wants to put that right this weekend saying “we’ll give 100% to get our first podium this season”, but he’s not alone in wanting to make amends for Termas, with the Ducati riders Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo both expressing their wish to put Argentina firmly behind them. Ducati have been on the podium at Austin for the past 3 years, with Dovi finishing in the top 3 twice and he’s convinced that they can be competitive again in 2017. While his team-mate Lorenzo now needs to make up for the track time he lost when he crashed out at turn 1 at Termas and really evaluate the changes they’ve made to his seat. Despite the tricky start to his time with the Italian factory, he’s remaining positive that it will be solved soon “I think we are on the right track to improve.. we’re working well together and I’m sure this difficult moment will be over soon.”
Another rider with a point to prove is Valentino Rossi, in his own words “I have an account to settle with this track” after he crashed out in 2016. He enjoys the circuit and with this week being 13 years after his first Yamaha win in Welkom, he’ll be hoping for a better finish this time around. The Italian isn’t entirely certain if the improvements they found in Argentina will carry over to Texas, but he’s hopeful that he won’t find himself so far behind in practice as he did at the first two races of the year. While he has become a master of the comeback, with his 2nd place in Termas the 35th time he’s finished on the podium after not being in the top 6 on the grid, it will make life a lot easier for him when it comes to chasing his team-mate if he’s able to qualify well.
This is Marc Marquez’s mountain
Tyres will, as always, prove key at COTA; especially in the latter part of the race, Alvaro Bautista said that your initial favourite tyre isn’t always the one you can use as the feedback from the tyre is incredibly important, particularly in the last third of the race when the front starts to close in the mid-corner. Front tyre wear can be high, particularly on the right-hand side and making tyres last will be a vital part of the setup work the riders do on Friday and Saturday. Michelin have brought soft, medium and hard compounds for both the front and rear, with the rear slicks being asymmetric with a harder right shoulder.
It looks unlikely that the weather will interfere with this weekend’s proceedings so it will all come down to the riders and how well they can setup their bikes for the unique challenge of Austin. Maverick Vinales is incredibly confident and if it were anywhere other than COTA you’d be crazy to count him out, but this is Marc Marquez’s mountain and if he brings his usual high performance this weekend then it might be a case of the only person who can beat him is himself. Valentino Rossi will undoubtedly be fighting at the front on Sunday, as will Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso. The Aspars of Bautista and Abraham will be hoping to continue their great performance in Argentina, as will the Tech 3 rookies Zarco and Folger. Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone finished 3rd last year with Ducati, while Vinales showed the Suzuki can go well in Texas, so he might finally be able to give a good performance this year.
MotoGP is far too competitive and unpredictable to even attempt to guess who’ll be standing on the top step on Sunday, but I’ll be very surprised if their first name doesn’t start with an M… but when has MotoGP not been surprisingly lately?
As always, this will be a race you don’t want to miss.