MotoGP Update: Circuit Of The Americas, Day 2

More practice, qualifying, edging closer to Sunday’s races.

Marc Marquez COTA action shot

With Saturday morning’s FP3 in the can, four riders were less than a second behind leader Marc Marquez, a change from yesterday when the Spaniard was always a second clear. The four were Stefan Bradl, Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso, and Bradley Smith.

Part of this improvement was due to warmer weather (and threatening dark clouds), making it easier for other riders to “catch up” to Marquez’s ability to get his tire to working temperature. Another part was determined riding; Smith’s hectic motions showed him to be pushing hard.

On Friday, Marquez had said that with a qualifying tire (not used in this series), he would expect a 2-minute, 1- or 2-second lap time, and in FP3, he turned a 2:03.046—a .4 improvement.

Yamaha factory riders Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi looked lost in seventh and 10th, respectively, but at least two factors were at work here. First, some of the riders ahead of them were making speed from tires too soft to race on, while Rossi, for example, clicked off useful and realistic race-pace laps. Second, I thought I could see Lorenzo experimenting with style changes, trying what I call "the drop," whose foremost practitioner is Marquez.

The rider begins the turn at a fair angle of lean, and in Marquez’s case, you can see the amount he hangs off the inside (with the goal of holding the bike up to make wider tire footprints) is limited by the crook of his upper elbow, which is hooked over the top edge of the gas tank. The drop is quite abrupt and comes as the rider nears the apex. The upper elbow slips past the tank edge, allowing his upper body to drop to a lower position and the elbow to do its famous “tarmac kiss.”

Jorge Lorenzo COTA action shot

I thought I saw Lorenzo trying this motion. Because novel experiments like this take time to perfect, it probably did not help his lap time. Rossi has already come far with his style changes, so while Marquez does the expected in Sunday’s race, there will be an equally serious “Yamaha derby” going on behind him.

On Friday, Pedrosa described to me the “new style coming from Moto2” as “with the elbow so low.” A central lesson learned in Moto2 by riders like Marquez, Bradl, and the Espargaro brothers is the absolute necessity to put your weight where it is needed at all times.

During braking, Marquez moves back, allowing him to brake harder without rear-wheel lift (well, it does tap languidly on the pavement as he is entering the corner). His body is radically to the inside and as low as possible to hold the bike higher, saving the tender tire edges. He is always in motion, and those motions are very quick.

Why is this radical style not natural to men who came up before the existence of Moto2? Because in the two-stroke days, solutions were more formal, often coming from setup or tire alternatives in an era before today’s spec tire. But in the madhouse of Moto2, everyone is constantly improvising.

At the pre-event press conference, American Moto2 hopeful Josh Herrin said, "In US racing, there's one Josh Hayes, but in Moto2, there are 40 of them!" As we see, the winning play has been to become a gymnast who treats the motorcycle as a sidehorse, always repositioning himself on it to best load the tires, regardless of discomfort.

Nicky Hayden paddock shot

Nicky Hayden's Honda RCV1000R stopped again, making twice in the weekend for this unusual event (GP bikes are high-quality engineering, usually running like airliners), and he ended the session 16th.

Colin Edwards was 19th, struggling to find a way to ride a chassis that is stiffer than what works for him. That has been the tragedy of his years in MotoGP. None of the crews he’s worked with were allowed by factory engineers to use effective methods (a Sawzall is traditional; ask men like Rob Muzzy or Kel Carruthers) to soften up his chassis.

In afternoon FP4, Rossi was first out. Marquez used this time for some experiments, going too deep twice and running off. One of those times, he brought the rear wheel quite high off the ground before he decided to go straight. Dovizioso led, then Pedrosa, then Marquez, who didn’t come close to his best times while trying things. The overall top-five order after FP4 was just as in FP3.

As expected, Alvaro Bautista and Aleix Espargaro topped Qualifying 1. Lorenzo was first out in Q2 with a clear track, but the action was Marquez, who lowered the lap record just like pounding in a nail. Not without drama! He lost the front and recovered it, turning a 2:03.051, then a 2:02.886. On a fresh tire came a 2:02.815, and in case anyone thought that was all, a qualifying-topping 2:02.773.

Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez, and Stefan Bradl

The front row is all Honda: Marquez, Pedrosa, and Bradl. The second row is all Yamaha: Aleix Espargaro on the "Open" 2012 factory Yamaha YZR-M1 in NGM Mobile Forward Racing colors, followed by Lorenzo and Rossi. And the Ducatis? After all their promise, it was back to nowhere, despite soft tires, engines moved forward, and top speeds equal to the best Hondas. Cal Crutchlow was seventh, Andrea Iannone, lately so far up the list, a lowly ninth, and Dovizioso 10th. Smith on a Tech 3 Yamaha, was eighth.

The field closed up a lot from day 1, when Marquez sailed a full second out of reach. Qualifying brought that down to just 0.289 second over Pedrosa in second, and under half a second on “those other guys,” the Yamaha riders in fourth, fifth, and sixth.

Americans Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards, Jr. were 14th and 19th.

Andrea Dovizioso

Valentino Rossi

Stefan Bradl

Nicky Hayden

Marc Marquez

Jorge Lorenzo

Dani Pedrosa

Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez, and Stefan Bradl.

Cal Crutchlow

Wayne Rainey and Yamaha's Bob Starr.