MotoGP 2014 COTA Preview

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Marquez at Aragon

Marquez, HRC look to dominate, deep in the heart 

When last we saw our helmeted heroes in action—it seems like months ago—Honda’s brilliant Marc Marquez out-raced grizzled Yamaha veteran Valentino Rossi to the flag in a riveting season opener in Qatar.  Rossi’s teammate and two time world champion Jorge Lorenzo lost his marbles on Lap One, ending up in the kitty litter, any chance he might have had for a third premier class title vanishing in a puff of smoke and a shower of sparks. 

Things in the Movistar Yamaha garage are unlikely to improve this weekend, as The Circuit of the Americas—COTA to those in the know—appears to have been custom- built for the Honda RC213V.  With but one long straight and a mess of first-gear corners, COTA places a premium on rapid acceleration, where the Honda has, in recent years, enjoyed a clear advantage over the Yamaha YZR-M1.  Some will point out that Yamaha installed its own “magic box” transmission in the M1 in the midst of last season, leveling the playing field to a degree.  But only the wildest of Yamaha devotees would suggest that HRC will not enjoy a productive outing in Austin this weekend.

Recent History at COTA 

MotoGP history at COTA defines “recent”, as last year’s race marked the circuit’s premier bash.  Marquez and Pedrosa dominated the timesheets during practice, with Lorenzo pressing to keep up and Rossi having all kinds of problems, ranging from smoke and water damage to his bike (from a fire in the Tech 3 garage on Thursday night) to braking issues that would plague him for most of the year.

LCR Honda handfeste Stefan Bradl and then-Yamaha Tech 3 Brit Cal Crutchlow had a few shining moments leading up to the race, but ultimately it was Marquez, Dani Pedrosa and Lorenzo starting and finishing one-two-three.  In the process, Marquez became the youngest rider ever to win a premier class race, an accomplishment that launched him on the way to becoming the youngest rider ever to win a premier class world championship.

Marc Marquez does love himself some COTA.

Jorge Lorenzo—Fearing Marquez, Blaming Bridgestone

Q:  From a distance, how can you tell when a MotoGP rider is complaining about Bridgestone tires?

A:  His lips are moving.

Generally, MotoGP riders, at least those not winning championship trophies, blame a lot of their problems on tires.  The four current pilots who have won premier class titles—Marquez, Rossi, Lorenzo and Nicky Hayden—generally have fewer, if any, complaints about rubber.  (This calls to mind the old expression that a poor carpenter blames his tools.)  I’ve made my position on this topic clear in the past: in the absence of a grid-wide tire failure (such as NASCAR/Goodyear experienced in Indianapolis in 2008), when tires become an issue, either the team selected the wrong compound or the rider doesn’t know how to manage them properly during the race itself.

Which is why I find it so surprising that Jorge Lorenzo, of all people, should have spent so much time this winter and spring complaining about the new heat-resistant slicks that Bridgestone developed specifically to mitigate tire degradation under race conditions.  At Losail in March, it became a veritable chant—no rear grip, no rear grip—despite which he managed to qualify 16/100ths of a second behind polesitter Marquez.  His inglorious exit late on Lap One did nothing to confirm his complaints, for two reasons: first, he blamed himself for having been too aggressive on cold tires (doing a reasonable impression of Alvaro Bautista in the process) and second, Valentino Rossi spent the day on Marquez’ pipes running the same tires on the same bike.  Tires weren’t an issue for The Doctor.

I believe Jorge Lorenzo spent much of the offseason contemplating another year of chasing Marc Marquez around the globe and that Marquez is now firmly planted inside his head.  I believe Lorenzo was shocked and appalled when Marquez took the pole in Qatar, on a Yamaha track and with a broken leg.  I believe Lorenzo believes he is incapable of beating Marquez’ Honda on his own Yamaha.  Which is why I believe Lorenzo may consider switching teams—perhaps with Dani Pedrosa—during the silly season that commences in the early fall.  Life is short, and no one more competitive than Lorenzo; if you can’t beat ‘em, it might just be best to join ‘em.


An Open Class Rider on the Podium?  It Could Happen.

Austin is one of those tight layouts were Forward Racing’s Aleix Espargaro, he of the Yamaha power, soft tires, plentiful fuel load and unbridled optimism, should have his first real chance to podium on one of the new Open class machines.  He was highly competitive at Losail despite trashing both of his bikes in practice—channeling Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy”—thus starting ninth, and ultimately finishing fourth.  He has been legitimately fast all winter and topped the timesheets during the first three practice sessions in Qatar, on a track not particularly well-suited to his strengths.  If he can manage a front row start in Texas, I expect him to joust with Rossi in a tooth and nail battle to join Marquez and Pedrosa on the podium.

The other pleasant surprises at Losail—Andrea Iannone on the satellite Ducati, Hayden and Scott Redding on Honda Production Racers and the factory Ducati pair of Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow—will have their work cut out for themselves in Texas.  Bradley Smith on the Tech 3 Yamaha, Bautista on the Gresini Honda and LCR’s Bradl were fast, too, for awhile. Should any of these guys finish on the podium, in my late dad’s words, I’ll buy you a good cigar.

The mental condition of Jorge Lorenzo, facing what amounts to his season opener 25 points in arrears of Marquez, remains to be seen.  Suffice it to say that if he crashes out again this week, some serious questions will arise in the factory Yamaha garage and above. (The possibility exists that Marquez crashes out and Lorenzo wins in Texas, putting my first month’s worth of work here squarely in the hopper.)

Your Weekend Weather Forecast 

Conditions in the greater Austin area for Friday through Sunday are expected to be sunny and quite warm, with the possibility of Sunday turning cloudy and slightly cooler.  Curiously, Bridgestone has announced that it is unable to supply the new heat-resistant slicks this weekend and that the 2013 tires will be the only choices on offer.  Based upon his litany of woe these past few months, this should be seen as good news for Jorge Lorenzo.  The bad news?  He and Rossi got spanked pretty good last year, the Repsol Hondas outscoring the factory Yamahas 45-26.

One more example of how you need to be careful what you wish for.

We’ll have race results and analysis right here for you on Sunday evening.

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