FAST KID: Marc Marquez replaced retired world champion Casey Stoner on the factory Repsol Honda.
Marc Marquez! Just 20 years old, he won the practices, he won the pole, he won everything. See him drag his elbow in corners, so far over he leaned his Repsol Honda.
“I like the elbow,” he said. “When I feel it touch, I can go down a bit more.”
Confidence. Marquez smacked the Honda over decisively. He rattled across apex rumble strips, sure that tire grip would survive the upset. His movements were urgent, not graceful. He had no time for grace.
Circuit of The Americas (CoTA) is the latest proof that Texas does it big—$400 million big, right next to Austin, the state capital. This now becomes America’s third MotoGP venue, with Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Does anybody care? Yes, official attendance over three days was 131,000.
During Friday practice, even the Hondas were slipping on pavement washed clean of rubber by rain the day before, and tires were stiff with cold. It had been this way at the CoTA test a month before. This is a Honda track: lots of first-gear corners, a first-to-sixth dragstrip straight 3900-feet long. So strange, then, that at the first GP of the 2013 season in Qatar two weeks before, Yamaha had dominated and Honda had lacked rear grip. Marquez had done well in his first MotoGP race, the top-finishing Honda after the factory Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.
That’s how it is. Near the limit, small things make big differences. The Yamaha men were saying that, “It’s as though the Hondas have electric suspension; they just squat and shoot out of the corner.” But a month earlier, I had said to Dani Pedrosa, Marquez’s teammate, that the Yamaha men were saying, “Honda’s engine is so sweet when they’re on the edge of the tire,” and he had replied, “Our people say the same about them.”
UPHILL START, BIG TURNOUT: Official attendance on race day was 61,000.
Finding those small things is the game, played hard through practice in the detailed process of machine setup. What will give the rider confidence, unlocking his talent? On Saturday night after qualifying, it looked as if Yamaha could finish 15 seconds down on Sunday. On Sunday morning, both Yamaha men “found something” in gearing and weight distribution. At the end of the race, Lorenzo was third by only three seconds. The changes had worked, but there was no time to optimize. Even so, it was close. At the test, Pedrosa had said, “There are two strong teams, and at the end of every season, they are always very close.”
Marquez came up through Moto2, a spec-engine, spec-tire class in which all riders have identical power. It’s a contest of tire management. Many young riders are fast for a lap, or even for five, but only a rider who has carefully managed his tires can be up front at the end. There is no “just goin’ for it;” you get the tire grip you earn through intelligence. Braking, steering and feeding power are the routine tasks, the “dirty dishes” of racing. Great champions reduce these to automatic responses, freeing their minds for higher functions like altering style as the fuel load burns off and changes handling or probing for weak spots in rivals’ technique.
Race tires are kept hot in electric blankets before the start, but on Lap 1, they cool and lose grip. The rider pushes hard, accepting risk to heat them back up to peak grip temperature and keep them there. The past master was now-retired two-time MotoGP champ Casey Stoner. Now, everyone must do the same—no cautious laps, ever.
Corner speed has been the dominant style because it is kind to tires. Low spring rates, early and moderate braking, big round lines and gradual throttle are “Lorenzo’s way.” The weakness is, how can you accelerate when you’re using 100 percent of tire grip for cornering?
At first, Stoner looked like a corner-speed rider, but he had learned something new. On the very edge, these rigid-carcass Bridgestone tires are more flexible. Stoner found that feeding throttle would make the rear tire flex/creep sideways without damaging the tire as a classic “point-and-shoot” Kenny Roberts’ dirt-track style would do. In this way, he was able to force the understeering Ducati to hold line. Now, all the top men are doing this.
Marc Marquez and teammate Dani Pedrosa.
At CoTA, we saw Marquez far, far off his bike on the inside—even dragging his elbow—but this was not “lean angle plus.” He was holding the bike as upright as possible. When he throttled up, he pushed the machine up abruptly, onto a part of the tire capable of delivering acceleration.
Both Honda and Yamaha are using very low spring rates—“like on a 250,” I was told—because this best isolates the bike from bump disturbance. This makes higher corner speeds safe and usable. The days of hard suspension as a tool for breaking loose the rear tire are past.
Surely, there is also some value in Ben Spies’ “Superbike style” of late, hard braking, getting the bike turned and power on. It bit him at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan last year (where he was out of brakes after a lap or two), but it did get him to MotoGP.
Each of these elements is a tool, available to all. Marquez clearly did the best job of combining them in adapting to the tricky CoTA surface. Versatility of style marks the greatest champions, not slavish adherence to a fixed style—just “doing it harder.” For most riders, their style is their security, a safe refuge in a dangerous game. Therefore, change is anxiety.
When three-time world champion Freddie Spencer arrived at the GP level in 1982, he instinctively exploited every possibility. Marquez is doing this now: learning something new from every lap he rides, probing, discovering, remembering and adding to his knowledge of what is possible. His high flight is sustained by his intelligence and perception.
Marquez offers the other MotoGP riders a choice: Either adapt, breaking out of stylistic comfort zones and finding what he has found, or stare at his seatback.
FIST PUMP: Marquez celebrates with his crew and Honda MotoGP boss Shuhei Nakamoto.