As the checkered flag fell in Argentina, the shape of the 2017 season changed. Suddenly, Yamaha’s Maverick Viñales and partner Valentino Rossi, the Boys in Blue, sit on top of the world looking down. Those looking up, WAY up, include defending champion Marc Marquez of Honda and the factory Ducati team, currently residing on the other side of the proverbial tracks. Marquez has never lost, deep in the heart of Texas, which makes Sunday’s contest what my wife (eyebrows raised) refers to as “critical?”
Even though it’s so early in the season – Round 3 – the Yamaha contingent appears to be in danger of getting away. Viñales with two wins, Rossi with two podia. Things in general going quite well thank you. Jorge Lorenzo and his new employers at Ducati Corse – not so well, a 10th and last week’s early DNF to show for his efforts thus far. Marquez and Dani Pedrosa slammed to the tarmac instantly at the same exact location – different laps, with Jack Miller narrowly avoiding a third crash there – in a mechanical Venus Flytrap for factory Hondas at Turn 2 last time around. Having left for Argentina in a bit of a hole, the Repsol Honda team imploded, their 2017 machine appearing difficult to ride and hard on tires. Perhaps, as LCR loudmouth Cal Crutchlow intimated, gas consumption, too.
Marquez has never lost in the first four seasons at the pretentiously-named Circuit of the Americas (as if Laguna Seca and Indianapolis don’t exist). The purpose-built facility has been a Honda favorite since its inception in 2013. In this wacky season, it would not surprise to see Marquez, Viñales and The Black Knight, Jack Miller, fighting for podium spots in a reprise of 2014, when Miller won the Moto3 race, Viñales the Moto2 and Marquez in MotoGP.
As strange as it sounds, the 2017 season could devolve into an uneven two man, intra-team race between Viñales and Rossi, similar to the F-1 whippings administered by the 2002 factory Ferraris of Schumacher and Barrichello, who took turns winning 15 of 17 races that year. After last season, with nine different winners, we thought we were past all that. This weekend could shed some serious light on that thinking.
Recent History at COTA
Marc Marquez, whom I refer to as Captain America while the rest of the world calls him Marc Marquez, has never experienced defeat in Austin. He won easily as a rookie in 2013. He overwhelmed teammate Dani Pedrosa in 2014 by over four seconds, with Andrea Dovizioso a further 17 seconds in arrears on the factory Ducati.
In 2015, Dovi finished second and Rossi third in a generally uneventful procession. Last year, while Marquez was sunnily getting away, Pedrosa lost his grits, his bike taking Dovizioso down from behind; the Italian never knew, as it were, what hit him. Besides #93, the last men standing on the podium were Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo, and a “cautious” Andrea Iannone on his Ducati GP16, paying penance for his takedown of teammate and podium threat Dovizioso the previous round. Viñales edged out then-Suzuki teammate Aleix Espargaro for 4th place that day.
Disorder in the Standings
Due to the logarithmic scoring system and early season shakedown cruises – curiously, Lorenzo’s complaint after his first lap fall in Argentina being he missed out on 25 laps of data – the championship standings after two rounds are currently out of equilibrium. I looked back at the standings a year ago, and they were generally orderly, what you might expect, Aliens Marquez, Lorenzo, Rossi and Pedrosa occupying the top four spots.
This year, things are startlingly different. Undefeated Viñales and the experienced Rossi stand well clear of Dovi in 3rd, 16 points behind Rossi. Pramac Ducati Brit Scott Redding sits 4th. Read that last sentence twice, because you’ll probably never see it again in your lifetime. Squabbling over 5th place are Crutchlow, surprising German rookie and Tech 3 Yamaha upstart Jonas Folger, and Miller, still ambulatory this early in the season.
Marc Marquez sits in a fantastic 8th place, 37 points down to Viñales, under a degree of pressure he has not previously felt in the premier class, on a bike he does not like. Jorge Lorenzo, humbled triple world champion, is a bit of a steaming pile in 18th, consorting with the likes of Tito Rabat and the debut KTM team of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, the Laverne & Shirley* of MotoGP. (*You know, ‘always together.’)
Rule #1: Beat Your Teammate
Riders know that if you do this one thing on race day, you can consider your outing to have been a success. Just beat your teammate. Here’s where the teams stand after two rounds, up close and personal:
|Repsol Honda||Marquez – 13||Pedrosa – 11|
|Movistar Yamaha||Viñales – 50||Rossi – 36|
|Factory Ducati||Dovizioso – 20||Lorenzo – 5|
|Factory Suzuki||Rins – 7||Iannone – 0|
|Factory Aprilia||A. Espargaro – 10||Lowes – 0|
|Factory KTM||P. Espargaro – 2||Smith – 1|
|Pramac Ducati||Redding – 17||Petrucci – 9|
|Aspar Ducati||Bautista – 13||Abraham – 8|
|Tech 3 Yamaha||Folger – 16||Zarco – 11|
|Marc VDS Honda||Miller – 15||Rabat – 5|
|Reale Avintia Ducati||Baz – 9||Barbera – 6|
As you can see, the Boys in Blue have secured almost a third of the points on offer in the first two rounds, a trend which seems unsustainable. And, ignoring the Yamahas, the satellite teams are taking it right to the factory boys all across the board. Over time, numbers like these typically regress to the mean. Essentially, I’m suggesting that the 2017 season is nowhere near over, that there is plenty of meaningful racing yet to come, and that the factory Movistar Yamaha team cannot afford to become slack or over-confident. Both Marc Marquez and Andrea Iannone have now assured us that neither will crash out of a race again this season. Taking neither offer, I would be more inclined to put my money on the Catalan than the erratic Italian.
Notice too how on the three satellite Ducati teams, the GP15 rider leads the GP16 rider two to one. Had Hector Barbera not started the season injured, it could easily be three for three, with the factory bikes no better. Would it be heresy to suggest that Gigi Dall’Igna’s magic peaked in 2015 and has been quietly trending downward since then? Or is it the different riders changing things around? All these anomalies make predicting podium celebrants, a fool’s errand in the best of times, an overt waste of time. One can hope, for the sake of the season, that Marquez makes up some ground with the Yamahas this weekend. He had been mostly bulletproof in Argentina until last round. Anything other than an outright win on Sunday must be considered a painful loss.
Your Weekend Forecast
Looking ahead four or five days, the weekend’s offerings weather-wise appear to have something for every taste and budget. Friday – hot and cloudy. Saturday – cool with rain. Sunday – cool and dry. The race goes off at 3 pm Eastern time in the U.S., and we will have results and analysis right here as soon as possible.
Just for giggles, let’s do this: Two Spaniards and one Italian on the podium. There.