There was quite an admission of guilt from the podium trio at Austin on Sunday. Not one of the top three – Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso or Valentino Rossi – had ridden the entire race flat-out. They’re not getting lazy or anything, they just knew that Austin’s 20 corners and especially the Turn 3/4/5/6/7/8/9 flip-flops and the never-ending Turn 16/17/18 right-hander chew the hell out of the front tyre. So don’t abuse it or it will abuse you.
All these things considered, Márquez was miraculous on race day. Following overnight rain, the track had lost some grip, so he held back in the early laps while Dovizioso crept ahead at the rate of several tenths a lap. Was Márquez struggling? Was he, hell. He was just getting acquainted with the new grip character and once he knew what he was dealing with, he surged forward and that was that. Another brilliant win, his 20th in the premier class, which puts him equal with his forefather Freddie Spencer.
But I won’t remember the weekend for Sunday’s 43-minute race. Much more memorable was what happened on Saturday afternoon.
MotoGP’s recently introduced 15-minute qualifying system is not an easy thing. Even Rossi admits that it took him at least a year to get his head around it. Only freaks of nature (that’s Márquez and Casey Stoner, mostly) can jump on a motorcycle and stick it on the edge right out of pitlane. Most racers need to build up to speed, to get a conversation going between themselves, the motorcycle and the racetrack before they feel comfortable enough to start dancing.
Márquez was already dancing and already on pole when he rode into the pits halfway through qualifying to get another rear tyre: gloriously new, gloriously sticky and ready to be burned to hell by his throttle hand in a matter of minutes. His crew pulled the bike onto the roller starter. Mechanic Roberto Clerici hit the trigger, the bike failed to fire and instead fired itself back at Clerici. They tried again, same thing.
When something like this happens to most racers, their state of flow, their state of being in the zone, is thrown into chaos. They are no longer a racer, they’re just someone in a panic.
Even the apparently minor problem of mislaying a glove for 30 seconds during the process of dressing for battle can be enough to dissolve a racer’s cool and explode his focus. That’s why most racers have very strict rituals for getting ready – they need to go through the exact same motions each and every time, or they can’t inhabit that special place they need to go.
No worries, MotoGP roller starter batteries can run low on juice – low enough so they can’t turn over a high-compression MotoGP engine – so Repsol Honda always have a spare on hand. Márquez’s RCV was rolled back onto the new starter, still the engine wouldn’t start and again the bike fired itself back at the squatting Clerici. Only when mechanic Jordi Castella leaned heavily on the bike’s seat – to increase traction between the rear Bridgestone and the starter roller – did the engine finally bark into life.
Márquez exited pitlane with six minutes to go, his heart all a flutter, no doubt. He was still on pole and despite that little upset there was no real need for outright panic: he still had just enough time for another three laps, more than enough to consolidate his position as the fastest man.
A little more than two minutes later Márquez was exiting the final corner, about to start the first of his final two flying laps. He shifted from second to third to fourth and then noticed an engine warning light flashing on the RCV’s dash, so he sat up, braked in a hurry and swerved towards the pitwall. The warning lights are there to alert the rider of a potential engine problem. With only five engines allowed per rider for the whole season, Márquez knows he must never ignore those lights.
As he slowed, one of the Pramac Ducatis – no doubt hoping for a tow – only narrowly avoided him. By the time he had got the bike stopped he was at the very end of the pitwall. Many riders would’ve given up at this point. There’s 3min 20sec of practice remaining, he’s 100 metres from his pit, his other bike may not even be ready and he’ll need to climb aboard and finish his out-lap before that time is up, if he’s to cram in another flying lap.
It didn’t really add up but for Márquez there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. The pitwall is as tall as he is but he leapt over it and sprinted the 100 metre back to his pit, in leathers, helmets and boots.
Of course, his team did have his other bike ready, even if it was wearing the wrong front tyre. Never mind, by the time he had exited the pitlane speed restriction zone he was racing because he had just 2min 20sec to beat the chequered flag and start his final flying lap.
By this point, any normal racer would have been thrown into a state of complete turmoil. His heart would be pumping from the sprint, his head would be pumping with panic. The state of grace he needs to inhabit to coolly take huge risks and get away with them would have evaporated. Márquez, however, has a different heart, soul and nerves to the rest of us.
By the time he had finished his out-lap with just seconds to spare, he had been relegated to the third row by new pole-sitter Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Iannone, Scott Redding and Cal Crutchlow.
And this is when it started to get interesting. We don’t often see Márquez back against the wall, with nowhere to hide. Even when he demolishes a rival in a last-lap attack you can’t help but wonder if he’s still holding something in reserve for a special occasion.
And this was the special occasion. Through COTA’s flip-flop section – Turns 2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9 – his RCV sounded extra angry, revs rising and falling as he flicked from one edge of the tyre to the other and back again. He threw the bike so hard into Turn 9 (where Moto2 winner Sam Lowes had a purling tumble in practice) that he surely should’ve crashed, but he didn’t. However, his speed did take him wide on the exit and onto the outside kerb into COTA’s scariest, most exciting corner: the over-the-brow, fourth-gear Turn 10 left. Still on the kerb and greedy with the throttle his rear tyre bounced across the kerb and nearly flicked him out of the seat. No worries, he was deep in the zone, so he’d saved that slide even before it had happened.
He charged down the hill towards the Turn 11 hairpin that precedes the all-important back-straight. Coming down the hill, all the load thrown onto the front of the bike, the rear wheel jumped violently to the right. Márquez put his left foot down, sole skimming the ground like a motocrosser, the rear end shuddering this way and that as the bike pivoted around its steering head.
None of this put him off for a moment and he yanked the handlebars to the right to pitch the bike into the left-hand hairpin. The machine was still so unsettled that he must surely run wide and lose the whole lap, but he nailed the apex and was off down the straight, chased hard by Dovizioso who was hoping to learn from the master.
Those two scares at Turns 10 and 11 had taken their toll, however. His second sector time was a more than a tenth slower than his previous best. Surely he had blown the lap? But no, by the end of the second sector his lap was already a tenth of a second faster than anyone else.
At 211mph he hit the brakes for the dead-stop Turn 12 hairpin. Once again the rear tyre took to the air and tried to overtake the front while he skidded his left foot across the tarmac, the bike once again refusing to settle down. The rear kept hopping into the air and because there was no time to wait for it to settle, he just went ahead and flicked into the left-hand hairpin. Again, it was obvious what would happen next: he was going to run a metre or two wide and lose the whole lap.
But he didn’t, somehow, by some miracle, he again nailed the apex. Through the triple right of Turn 16/17/18 he was using angles of lean that should have learned physics professors scratching their heads in disbelief and frantically stabbing numbers into their calculators. His fourth and final sector was almost two tenths up on Dovizioso’s best and the whole lap more than three tenths up.
The Repsol Honda crew stopped nervously chewing gum and started hugging and backslapping. Things were different in the Ducati pit where the crew stood around slack-jawed in grief and disbelief, as if their bank accounts had just been hacked by internet thieves.
As Dovizioso said: “I tried to follow him to learn the line, to see the details and learn some secrets, but he made so many mistakes… and he still made the lap time!”