MotoGP Update: Circuit Of The Americas, Day 1

World Champion Marc Marquez dominates practice at Texas track.

Marc Marquez Free Practice action shot

As the first of two free practices was about to start on Friday at Circuit of The Americas, the Big Question was, “Will this be a replay of last year when lack of grip effectively made the Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi uncompetitive?”

In the earlier Moto3 practice, consensus was that track grip was okay. At the first race in Qatar and before in preseason testing, Lorenzo had found reduced edge grip with the 2014 Bridgestone tires. His corner-speed riding style is very edge-grip-dependent in a way that more dirt-track-based styles are not.

In the pre-race press conference, Tech3 Yamaha rider Bradley Smith had spoken of the decision to also bring some 2013 tires to Austin. "The new 2014 tires are much better," he said, "and having the 2013s here will clarify things for Bridgestone and stop the whining."

So much has changed in a year. The new “Open” category, permitting those who accept both spec ECU and spec software to have 24 liters of fuel, has shaken up the old order. NGM Mobile Forward Racing rider Aleix Espargaro is suddenly on a 2012 factory Yamaha, and Ducati, having embraced Open and now taking marching orders from former Aprilia race chief Gigi Dall’Igna, is making progress again.

FP1 began and Marquez went to the top and stayed there unchallenged as the order behind him went through dizzying changes. At first, Valentino Rossi was second by 0.271 seconds. Was he about to bring his Qatar form to COTA? Meanwhile, Lorenzo was invisible back in 19th. In just a couple of minutes, Espargaro was second, with Cal Crutchlow third on a factory Ducati. Marquez went steadily faster, always out of reach. Now Rossi was second again, then Pedrosa. Lorenzo rose to eighth—still far below expectation. Marquez settled upon staying a full second out of reach in a class by himself.

Valentino Rossi Free Practice action shot

It was now possible to see something of the stylistic changes made by Rossi over the winter. Like Marquez and Pedrosa, he holds his upper body nearly horizontal mid-corner, far to the inside. One visual result is that the inside elbow comes very close to the track, but the purpose of this athletic exercise is to hold the machine up as much as possible, maximizing the rubber on the pavement. And just as the apex is approached, these riders lean over even farther, putting the bike on its tire edges.

In this attitude, they can turn the machine quickly, then lift abruptly (Dani Pedrosa quickest of all) to get on the meat of the tire for maximum corner-exit acceleration. At one point, Marquez, his elbow down, repeatedly tapped his inside knee slider on the pavement, checking his angle.

Another change often mentioned is that the Yamahas now have seamless-shift gearboxes. Rossi could be seen at full lean, confidently making an upshift with no “clunk” disturbance visible to the bike. Because gear changes can be made at any time, riders have greater freedom of action in corners. It is not the time saved by such gearboxes that is valuable, it is the reduced machine upset of their action that places lesser demands on tire grip, allowing that grip to be used for quicker turning instead of as insurance against upset.

While Pedrosa’s roll maneuvers look comparatively deliberate, Marquez’s are very quick, strong, and athletic; he wastes as little time as possible in such transitions. At the end of FP1, the top five were Marquez, Espargaro, Pedrosa, Rossi, and Dovizioso. Lorenzo was again lost, far down in 12th.

Here is a peculiarity that especially interests me: Hondas and Ducatis had the highest top speeds—in the range of 207 to 208 mph—while, at 197 mph, Espargaro’s Yamaha was slower than Hiroshi Aoyama’s Honda RCV1000R (“only” 235 horsepower at 16,200 rpm). What’s going on here? You’d think, with plenty of fuel, Espargaro’s Yamaha would be, at most, the usual five to six “klicks” down on the top bikes. What is holding it back? Espargaro has said, “It won’t rev.”

Andrea Dovizioso Free Practice action shot

The most plausible answer is not that Yamaha engineers misplaced the tuning sheet for this older bike but rather they have dialed it back deliberately. Is this permanent? And what if Espargaro turns out in time to be Yamaha’s best hope for top placings? Everyone is looking for evidence of “dialing up.” We wait and see.

Meanwhile Colin Edwards, Espargaro’s teammate on a similar bike, was wrestling with his demons down in 14th. We remember his classic battle with Troy Bayliss for the 2002 World Superbike title and regret that, in MotoGP, Edwards somehow never found the Ducati-like chassis flex that he likes. During Thursday’s press conference, he had said, “I’m trying to change my riding style to make this bike work, but it’s not really working.”

Nicky Hayden was just ahead of Edwards in 13th, no longer expecting Honda will ride to the rescue of the four riders on the new “production” bike. Gorgeous-looking, its performance has not met expectation. Is this a result of having metal valve springs instead of the pneumatic springs of the factory bikes? No one is whispering in my ear.

FP2 was more of the same: Marquez playing one-second keep away while the pursuing hopefuls shuffled and reshuffled their order. By the 2 p.m. start of FP2, air and track temperatures had risen from 70/79 degrees Fahrenheit to 81/113, possibly gifting Lorenzo with some of the grip he needed. Soon he was fourth, suggesting this might be the case. But others crowded in, leaving him eighth at the end of the session. The “new guys” pushed Rossi down, too. The final order was Marquez, Dovizioso, Pedrosa, Andrea Iannone, and Rossi.

Andrea Dovizioso

Cal Crutchlow

Dani Pedrosa

Jorge Lorenzo

Marc Marquez

Nicky Hayden

Valentino Rossi