MotoGP had a dramatic race weekend at the Circuit of the Americas (or COTA, as it is fondly known) as reigning World Champion and Honda rider Marc Marquez crashed out of contention while leading the race, after having started from pole. What makes this even more shocking is that Marquez is the regarded as the “King of COTA” for winning 6 consecutive races since 2013 — basically, Marquez has been undefeated since COTA was added to the MotoGP calendar.
Marquez’s crash opened the window for a fight for the top step of the podium — valiantly fought between a legend (Valentino Rossi of Yamaha) and a young driver who eventually won for his first MotoGP victory (Alex Rins of Suzuki). P3 went to Jack Miller for Ducati, which made it yet another race with three different constructors on the podium.
What makes COTA special
Each of MotoGP’s tracks is characteristic in its own way — and COTA is no different. Located on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, it is a circuit where Formula 1 and Indycar also race. For MotoGP, it is one of the sport’s newer circuits — and is not for the faint-hearted. The COTA track is notorious for its abrasive and bumpy surface thanks to degrading asphalt.
In fact, Aleix Espargaró of Aprilia categorically called the situation dangerous, revealing, “I never rode on a track like this. It’s not at the level of MotoGP, not at all. I don’t think we can race here one more year with these conditions, absolutely no way.” Honda rider Cal Crutchlow agreed, though he added that the bumps gave the COTA “character.” It is a wild track, and it takes a true-blooded “lone star” to tame it — something that Marquez has excelled at, every year.
This year, there was an effort to even out the track by removing some of the bumps (similar to the work done last year). While the impact of this work was apparently negligible, it added an element of uncertainty for riders. It didn’t help that Free Practice 3 was cancelled due to a storm.
So what happened to Marquez?
Although Rins is the hero of the weekend, it’s impossible to celebrate his success without understanding what happened to race favourite Marquez. During qualifying on Saturday, Marquez was his usual dominant self as he grabbed his seventh consecutive pole at COTA. He was flanked by Rossi in P2 (his first front row since November 2018 in Malaysia) and Cal Crutchlow in P3 (returning to the front row after over nine months).
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It seemed like Marquez had perfectly poised himself for yet another COTA win until it all fell apart on Lap 9. While comfortably leading the race, Marquez had a crash at Turn 12. It was shocking — the King of COTA would finally be dethroned. Explained a low-key Marquez after the race, “Of course it was a mistake because you cannot crash when you are leading by 3.5s — this is a mistake. Sometimes it happens, this is racing. I’m disappointed, it was hard to understand, but it’s like this. We now just need to focus on the next race in Jerez and understand it.”
Marquez was not the only front-running driver to be caught out on Sunday. Crutchlow, who started in P3, was fighting Rossi for P2 when he suddenly crashed off at Turn 11. This incident marked yet another sudden twist this season for the British rider, who had managed to grab P3 in Qatar on his comeback from an ankle injury — but then was penalised for a jump start in Argentina.
The battle for victory: Rins beats Rossi
If anyone had told Rossi and Rins before the race that they would be battling for top honours, surely it would have caused disbelief. And yet, that is exactly how circumstances lined up. Rossi inherited the lead after Marquez crashed out, but Rins was close behind. The Suzuki rider, who had climbed up the order after starting P7, was in the form of his life. With just four laps to go, he got past Rossi to take the lead. Although fans hoped for a last-lap comeback in typical Rossi style, Rins brought his Suzuki home about half a second ahead of Rossi for his maiden MotoGP win.
Expressed a visibly moved Rins after the race, “I’m so happy, I have no words to explain these feelings. Thanks to Suzuki, they did a really job, making a good bike all these years.” This victory is special to Rins on a personal note (his previous best-ever result was P3 in two races in 2018) but also so Suzuki as a team. Suzuki’s last win came way back at the British MotoGP in September 2016 at the hands of Maverick Viñales.
After a disappointing run in 2017, the team seemed to be gaining strength towards the end of 2018. Can Suzuki leapfrog to the front of the field as a constructor to be reckoned with and break into the Japanese monopoly at the front of Yamaha and Honda, along with Ducati? This strong COTA result is definitely a step in that direction.
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Rossi seemed content with his P2 outcome. He revealed, “Sincerely, I pushed at the maximum. The race was very fast, but in the end he (Rins) was better than me. He rode very well. I did [make] two mistakes in braking, if not maybe I can try one attack on the last lap but it’s like that. It’s a shame because I haven’t won for a long time, but we are strong and we will try [again] next time.”
A Rossi victory would be a dream come true to MotoGP fans everywhere, and we can only hope to see one before the season ends! What is amazing is that age seems to have nothing on Rossi as he continues to lead the team forward, while his highly feted teammate Viñales struggles for results.
Jack Miller finished third for Pramac racing, making it his first return to the podium since June 2016. Andrea Dovizioso took fourth for the Ducati factory team. Petronas Yamaha SRT, the new team on the block in MotoGP had their best result yet in MotoGP as Franco Morbidelli finished P5 while Fabio Quartararo took P7 (the best result by a rookie rider this season).
It is getting slightly repetitive saying this, but once again it was a disappointing day for the teammates of Marquez (Jorge Lorenzo) and Rossi (Maverick Viñales). Lorenzo bowed out of the race with a mechanical failure — coincidentally on Turn 12, the same corner as his teammate to make it a double DNF for Repsol Honda. Hopes were high for a strong showing from Viñales after he topped timesheets in FP1 and FP2. Unfortunately, he is one rider whose results have looked better at all other times than the actual race this season — and this time too, he only managed P11 finally.
The season is closer than ever
Just a glance at the championship standings will indicate how close and unpredictable the season is turning out to be — could anyone have guessed that Rossi would have more points than Marquez, for example? Dovizioso leads the standings thanks to his overall consistency. Rossi is only three points behind, with Rins jumping up to be just two points behind Rossi after this win.
Reigning world champion Marquez is only fourth. The top four riders represent four different constructors and are separated by just nine points. Speaking of the Constructors standings, Ducati leads the table with 57 points, Honda tied with Yamaha at 51 points with Suzuki just behind at 49 points. The competition is on and the room for errors is only decreasing.
Next, the action shifts to Jerez. While we will all be waiting to see how Marquez bounces back, this is also the event where his beleaguered teammate Lorenzo “expects to return to the front” after fully recovering from injuries. If that is the case, a battle among the two talented Honda riders is a scintillating prospect. Our eyes will also be on Rossi, who can literally taste victory after two second-place finishes this season.
This post was first published on Firstpost