How Has Marc Marquez Mastered Circuit of The Americas?

Four in row and counting

Marc Marquez race action
Marc Marquez.Courtesy of HRC

Marc Marquez won his fourth-straight Circuit of The Americas MotoGP with apparent ease, despite Ducati's faster-than-a-Formula-One-car 214-mph top speed down the 3,960-foot-long back straight and Jorge Lorenzo only being 0.069 of a second behind him in qualifying.

Marquez won in 2013, his first time here and his first win in MotoGP, overcoming Dani Pedrosa’s seven years in the class (second place) and Lorenzo’s five (third).

In 2014, riding a Honda that suited his style perfectly, he won again, shortening the race time by almost nine seconds. No one was close—he was unchallenged.

In 2015, Honda raised power and lowered drivability, forcing Marquez to seek a new way to ride. Yet he won again—albeit at a race time 13.7 seconds slower. Again unchallenged.

Marc Marquez race action
STRUGGLING?: Honda looked to be in trouble preseason. At CoTA, Marc Marquez proved otherwise.Courtesy of HRC

And now, on a slippery track, with the difficult switch to Michelin-spec tires still in progress, and with the 2016 Honda engine giving away top-end speed and acceleration in an effort to gain smoothness, he again eased away from the field to win with a time six seconds faster than second-place Lorenzo (who was delighted to score 20 points). Race time was an interesting 10.8 seconds slower than in 2015.

Armchair quarterbacks have been reduced to saying, “Marquez just loves this track,” but we can’t accept such arm waving. While others are losing the front, Marquez finds a way to ride that is fast and secure. What is that way? Why can’t the others do it?

Jorge Lorenzo race action
MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo battled to a second-place finish.Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

First, there is a match between Marquez’s natural style, the Honda, and the CoTA track. Marquez compresses braking and turning as much as he can to leave the rest of the corner to become his lift-and-go dragstrip, on which he accelerates to a high exit speed. We have all seen his braking—late and hard, with the rear wheel lifting. Just as he tips the bike in, he lets the back end swing out so he can set it down in an already-sliding attitude. As the bike approaches the apex, his angle of lean increases, indicating his most rapid rate of turning.

The problem is that this style suits small corners best—not CoTA’s big 180-degree sweeper around the Observation Tower (where Marquez says he loses time) and not the long turns on circuits referred to as “flowing,” some of which are coming up soon in Europe. But CoTA has the succession of small Turns 12 through 15, connected by short acceleration straights, and it has the “Formula One downforce corners” T6 through T9. It also has small corners at the circuit’s outer apexes—T1, T11, and T20—which are perfect for Marquez’s turn-it-into-a-dragstrip solution. He gains through every one of these small turns, and the others lose.

Valentino Rossi
Yamaha has yet to win at CoTA as Valentino Rossi crashed out early.Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

To better understand the differences between the leading riding styles, I spoke with Tech3 Yamaha rider Bradley Smith. He explained that the Yamaha is “very long, very stable. That’s how [seeking stability] you put springs in it, put geometry in it.”

A long wheelbase gives the rider more time to catch the wheel slips that corner speed constantly risks. A lower overall height slows the rate of weight transfer as a rider brakes or accelerates, keeping tire loadings more constant rather than standing the bike up in a stoppie or wheelie.

Smith spoke of “creeping around the bike” very gradually in order not to upset the tires, while by contrast there’s Marquez in a stoppie, yanking his taller, shorter-wheelbase Honda quickly around and firing off the corner.

Why not just adopt Marquez’s style? “Trying to ride it stop-and-go, I’m not fast enough,” Smith said. Former Yamaha rider Cal Crutchlow confirmed this, saying, “I’m from Superbike, so when I got on the Yamaha, that’s how I tried to ride it. It wouldn’t do it. I had to learn to ride it its way.”

Lorenzo, Marquez, Iannone pose for a selfie
SELFIE: Winner Marquez (center), runner-up Lorenzo (left), and Ducati's Andrea Iannone (right) were all quite happy to be on the podium at CoTA.Courtesy of HRC

A corner-speed bike needs maximum grip, so its spring rates have to be low to isolate the bike from bump upset. But if you try one-wheel braking on a softly sprung bike, you bottom the fork and knock the front tire loose.

An even more fundamental difference is risk exposure, as pointed out by Kenny Roberts 20 years ago. The corner-speed rider is on the limit, down on the tender tire edges, all the way around the corner, but the stop-and-go rider is only briefly at high-lean angle.

Another comment, especially relevant to our time, comes from Öhlins’ Jon Cornwell, who said, “Edge grip is a wasting asset.”

Marquez’s stop-and-go style looks hectic, and he uses a lot of sliding, but it applies what he learned in Moto2, the tire management university. Yes, he yanks the bike around, but his tires are pushed to maximum for just a short time. At Valencia 2015, I asked Pedrosa about the Honda’s rapid turning phase (when the elbow is on the ground!), and he said, “We’d like to stay down longer, but if we do, we can’t make the tires last.”

Marc Marquez celebrates with CoTA trophy
Marquez celebrates with the trophy.Courtesy of HRC

Again and again in 2014, Lorenzo would nail the start then lead at a high pace with Marquez as his shadow. By the end, Marquez would have more tire left than Lorenzo and could nip past for the win. At the time, it looked like Lorenzo would have to make changes to his style just as Rossi was doing—that the best days of corner speed might be over.

Then came 2015, and Honda’s more aggressive engine interfered with Marquez’s style. Little could be done to change this because MotoGP engines are sealed. In trying to force the issue, Marquez crashed out several times and finished third in the championship behind the Yamahas of Lorenzo and Rossi.

Marc Marquez race action
Marc Marquez.Courtesy of HRC

At CoTA, Michelin offered three front tire choices. The hard tire tended to lock at the end of braking, the medium sometimes washed out at tip-in, and the soft was good but not expected to go the distance. Marquez asked the Michelin engineers how many laps it could go. When told 12 to 16 laps, he decided to use it to pull away from the field and then slow to hold his lead. That’s how the game was won: Marquez pulled away running 2:04s and 2:05s for 16 laps then slowed to 2:06s.

Evidently wisdom is not age-related.