They say a champion is not defined by the extent of their success, but how they respond in the wake of disappointment. By his own ludicrously high standards, the Qatar Grand Prix was certainly a disappointment for Marc Marquez and the Repsol Honda team, setting a tantalising scene for MotoGP’s third visit to the Circuit of the Americas.
For much of the opening weekend at Losail, the question didn’t seem to be whether Marquez would win, but how far he would win by. Marc topped all three practice sessions and even though he was beaten to pole position by Andrea Dovizioso’s Ducati and teammate Dani Pedrosa, it was difficult to look past the reigning champion for victory given his long-run pace in practice.
The Marquez masterplan began to unravel within seconds of the lights going out with the Spaniard outbraking himself into the first corner, sliding off the circuit completely and falling all the way to the back of the field. Such a challenge isn’t exactly foreign territory for Marquez who came from the back to win on two occasions in his title-winning Moto2 campaign but working his way through one the most competitive fields in MotoGP history proved impossible even for him, and fifth was the end result.
The fascinating aspect of Marquez’s race though was the fact that even in clear air, the Honda RC213V underneath him was hardly any quicker than the Yamahas and Ducatis up ahead of him. It took Marc twelve laps to work his way up to fifth, by which point he was 4.6s off the lead but try as he might, that gap never fell below three seconds. Marquez was slightly faster for a few laps, but didn’t have the astonishing performance advantage many had expected.
Some may say that Marquez had thrashed his tyres in his ascent up the order, and there may be an element of truth in that but without question, the three leading manufacturers were very closely matched in race trim and Austin should provide a thrilling contest, especially with Repsol Honda missing the consistent Dani Pedrosa. With arm-pump striking once again in Qatar, Dani has undergone yet more surgery in a bid to rectify the problem and the 29 year old won’t be seen again until Jerez at the earliest. Hiroshi Aoyama steps in to replace him.
Fortunately for the defending champions, their sole contender for victory is preparing to ride around a circuit he has never been beaten at. The Circuit of the Americas joined the MotoGP calendar in 2013 and even in the inaugural test, Marquez was a long way ahead of the opposition. It was here that he became the youngest winner in premier class history two years ago and last season saw him cruise to the second of ten unanswered victories to kick off 2014, both wins coming from pole position. Marc has found a groove around COTA that no other rider appears to have found.
Andrea Dovizioso was the closest challenger to the Hondas twelve months ago and Ducati have been the talk of the paddock following the stunning debut for the GP15 at Losail. Softer rubber undoubtedly assisted him in claiming pole position but the Italian’s challenge for victory was totally legit. ‘Dovi’ pushed the Yamahas to the limit, often leaving them for dead on the long pit straight, and with sector three placing particular importance on top speed, Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone will surely be a threat once again.
For the first time in five years, Sunday will see a Grand Prix start with Valentino Rossi as championship leader but ‘The Doctor’ faces quite the challenge to retain that advantage. Rossi and teammate Jorge Lorenzo have made no secret of the fact that COTA, with its long straights and many hairpins, doesn’t suit the Yamaha anywhere near as well as the Honda, and fear they may be up against it. Neither have good memories of Austin either with Rossi no better than sixth on two visits while Lorenzo will still be trying to live down the mother of all jump starts that ruined his 2014 race.
They may be assisted by the elements with horrendous conditions forecast for all three days of the Grand Prix of the Americas. COTA hasn’t seen a spot of rain in either of its MotoGP weekends to date so any interference from above will send the form book flying out of the window. It’s unlikely that you will find many complaints at Yamaha if the Grand Prix is run under flag-to-flag rules. Jorge Lorenzo and Aragon spring to mind.
Wet or dry, the fight to finish as leading satellite rider will be intense with Cal Crutchlow pipping Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro by less than a second two weeks ago. Smith’s biggest hurdle will be the chaotic final practice session with only ten automatic Q2 spots available and many competitive bikes challenging for them. The Briton was forced into the nerve-jangling Q1 session in Qatar and won’t want a repeat. The Pramac Ducatis of Yonny Hernandez and Danilo Petrucci will be leading the chase on their 2014 machines with Suzuki pair Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales also eyeing a Q2 place, the latter returning to the scene of his sensational maiden Moto2 success.
In his absence, the intermediate class provided a race packed with drama at Losail with all three pre-race favourites hitting trouble. Johann Zarco took eight points home with him despite being stuck in third gear, ensuring he at least has a slight edge over Tito Rabat and Sam Lowes, his likely championship rivals. Jonas Folger leads the lot of them after his maiden win in Qatar and the German will have his work cut out retaining that lead beyond Texas.
The best method of predicting who will lead the Moto3 standings when the chequered flag falls on Sunday would probably be to draw a name out of a hat. Fourteen riders made up the leading group after eighteen laps in Qatar and chaos is quickly becoming the norm in the lightweight class. Alexis Masbou starts proceedings looking for back-to-back wins for the first time in his career.
In many ways, it’s sad that the spectators will only have a single home rider to support in Nicky Hayden, the 2006 world champion celebrating his 200th Grand Prix, but those that do brave the weather are sure to be treated to three sensational races on Sunday. The most open season for years delivered on its billing in Qatar and the second chapter of 2015 looks set to do the same.
RED BULL GRAND PRIX OF THE AMERICAS SCHEDULE (UK TIME)
|Moto3 FP1||15:00||MotoGP FP1||15:55||Moto2 FP1||16:55|
|Moto3 FP2||19:10||MotoGP FP2||20:05||Moto2 FP2||21:05|
|Moto3 FP3||15:00||MotoGP FP3||15:55||Moto2 FP3||16:55|
|Moto3 QP||18:35||MotoGP FP4||19:30||MotoGP Q1||20:10|
|MotoGP Q2||20:35||Moto2 QP||21:05|
|Moto3 WUP||14:40||Moto2 WUP||15:10||MotoGP WUP||15:40|
|Moto3 RACE||17:00||Moto2 RACE||18:20||MotoGP RACE||20:00|