“I will pay the copyright.” With those words, Marc Marquez acknowledged he had used the same move—running across the dirt in the middle of the Corkscrew—to pass Valentino Rossi on Lap 3 of Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca that Rossi had so famously used to stop Casey Stoner in 2008.
With pole-sitter Stefan Bradl leading, Marquez had run up close to second-placeman Rossi on the entry to the Corkscrew. They touched, rebounded and Marquez had no place to go but inside. Yet even this was not sheer improvisation on the part of this studious 20-year-old. He had tried the move on a scooter before official practice and had decided, “It is not possible.” Then, in qualifying, he ran across the dirt in the Corkscrew for real; it worked, even though he later called it “a mistake.” For a lesser rider, such a move might not have been a good idea; the Bridgestone tires of slower riders are cooler, trickier and less able to regain grip after such an upset.
Early in the week, people had been saying that Honda was considering replacing Bradl next year (his contract is up at the end of the season), possibly with Cal Crutchlow. Bradl has been the “Honda alternate,” receiving all updates only a couple of weeks after the factory riders. Up to now, the German has seemed to lack some element to complete his style and has consistently had trouble on corner entry, falling more than once. A recent switch to Brembo brakes has helped, as sudden action from his previous Nissins had caused abrupt suspension dive. Why is this a problem? All riders have trouble in the first five laps with corner entry, brought about by the weight of a full fuel tank. Abrupt dive only taxes front grip more.
All three top finishers at Laguna—winner Marquez, Bradl in second and Rossi third—came close to losing the front in the early race laps. Rossi said, “I had a big, big moment with the front.” Bradl had “some problems with the front” with a full fuel load and so did Marquez.
How could Marquez, a Laguna first-timer, win the race? What has happened to the idea that Laguna is so quirky, so different, that “novices” like Marquez must wait for wisdom to come with on-track mileage? On the first day, he topped FP2, later commenting, “I find quite quickly the best lines. The bumps take a little more time.” Sometimes, a fresh look beats years of staring.
I recall when Freddie Spencer went to Portland International Raceway in the early 1980s and the local lap-record holder was assigned to show him the lines. Spencer immediately left the “teacher” behind, and on his third lap, he set a new record. I remember also Kenny Roberts discovering the power of his own analysis in 1974, learning that it was his brain and not his wrist that created fast lap times. Marquez is a studious, thinking rider, who makes it his business to learn quickly, forget nothing and seek the underlying meaning in events.
Bradl has raised his game, punching back through qualifying to set pole at 1:21.176, pushing Marquez down to second, with Gresini Honda’s Alvaro Bautista third. It was an all-Honda front row, with an all-Yamaha second row (Rossi, Crutchlow and Jorge “Mr. 10-screws-in-the-collarbone” Lorenzo). Asked if his 250cc GP star father gave him useful advice about Laguna, Bradl replied, “No, because he was always so slow at Laguna Seca!”
Rossi is still in the process of mutual adaptation of man and machine, bringing his technique up to date and exploiting the M1 Yamaha’s new capabilities (remember that he was away for two years—his “Ducati interlude”). During the race, he had to hold off an increasingly intemperate challenge from Bautista, staying out of reach without “spending” too much tire in the process.
Once he got past Rossi, Marquez stalked Bradl. Ups and downs in the separation between them indicated that Marquez was waiting for a clear tire advantage to appear and was just staying close, not yet pushing. Marquez had made a long run on a single tire in practice and had reason to believe such an advantage would materialize.
On Lap 17, Marquez ran up the inside of Bradl during braking for Turn 11, and it was done. From there to the end was just tire management; his margin of victory was 2.298 seconds. Later, he said, “I see I have something left in the tire—some grip.”
In victory circle, there was clearly comradeship between Marquez and Rossi. Rossi finds himself surrounded by hot, young talent that has come up through Moto2—the “tire-management university.” Racers race. “He was too fast for me [today],” said Rossi, “but we will have another chance.” About Rossi, some have said, “Other riders find him pleasant until they get too close.”
Lorenzo, riding injured, adopted a new strategy. Instead of trying for the top in practice, he eased into the weekend, becoming steadily faster and qualifying sixth, with Pedrosa seventh. They would finish fifth and sixth. Pedrosa had led the championship before his recent crash, but now Marquez leads him, 163 to 147. Lorenzo is third with 137 and Rossi fourth on 117, a single point above Crutchlow.
Crutchlow qualified fifth and finished seventh, below expectations of this tough, intelligent Englishman. Beaten up as he was from the previous race at Sachsenring, he was not at his best.
The two Ducatis banged fairings for eighth, and Nicky Hayden took the honors, with teammate Andrea Dovizioso ninth. Lack of mid-corner grip and corner-exit acceleration was compounded by Laguna’s special nature: Making Ducatis change direction quickly is highly physical, taking a toll on rider energy. The two “metal valve spring” Aprilias of Aleix Espargaro and Randy de Puniet have threatened to split or top the Ducatis recently, but both were out before the end at Laguna—a sigh of relief for red-coated Ducatisti.
MotoGP will return to “normal” when Pedrosa, Crutchlow and Lorenzo regain full strength. Can any of them challenge Marquez in the second half of the season? It will not be easy for any of the top men.