Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Welcome to the thrill-seekers’ saloon: MotoGP saddles up in Texas

Welcome To The Thrill-seekers' Saloon: Motogp Saddles Up In Texas22 riders. 300 horsepower each. Are you ready to rodeo?

Last time Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing) led the World Championship, it didn’t last long as part of a rollercoaster duel to the end of the season. But this time, the hunter will remain the hunted not only from the conclusion of the Portuguese Grand Prix until the next round, but also until at least after the Tissot Sprint at the Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas. 18 points doesn’t mean he can relax in this rodeo – it never does in the world’s most exciting sport – but it does mean he’s now holding quite a few cards as the paddock heads stateside for Round 3.

Closest to Martin heading to COTA is Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), whose season so far has consistently been one spent at the front barring that one DNF in the Sprint in Portugal. He’ll be the first looking to cut the gap back down, and looking to get back on the podium as a bare minimum.

Then there’s Enea Bastianini (Ducati Lenovo Team). One of only three riders in the field who’ve won at COTA and close to Martin’s tail by the end of the GP race in Portugal, the ‘Beast’ will want to come out swinging and show Qatar was most definitely a blip. Meanwhile, Pedro Acosta (Red Bull GASGAS Tech3) arrives fresh from his first premier class podium and still very much riding a wave of fully deserved hype. Can he maintain the roll at COTA and finish as top RC16 again? Or more? Binder won his third race, so that’s one milestone on the line in a fight that’s fast mixing overtakes and pride in the KTM/GASGAS camp. Binder will also want to make his own statement in that.

There was already plenty to talk about in the fight just behind the top three in Portugal, even before *that* moment. Reigning Champion Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) didn’t find that step he had done in Qatar, and that was interesting in itself. Then came Marc Marquez (Gresini Racing MotoGP™), in the #1’s postcode in 2024 despite Pecco’s domination at the venue the season before. But there’s even more.

From Bagnaia’s perspective, beating Marc Marquez in the way he tried to last Sunday was exactly what he had to do to take his first win. Lap after lap, the two disappeared at the front at Aragon in 2021: Marquez’ backyard, a talisman track. Bagnaia rolled on as the number 93 loomed, dropped back a couple of metres, and then loomed again. Over the last three laps, Marc Marquez made seven attempts at overtaking the now-two-time MotoGP™ champion ahead of him, and Bagnaia repelled all of them with perfect judgement of where the move was coming and how he needed to respond to brush it off. That’s consistently been one of his calling cards. So why change what worked a dream before?

From Marquez’ perspective, it’s a shorter term question: why change what worked a dream on Saturday? Sure, it may be a different rider, with a slightly different playbook, but it’s equally understandable to expect the same or a similar result when you make the same move. And it was clean enough. Going when he did, and not waiting for the final lap, also likely made the #93 more confident of success, thinking it was even less expected than it seemed it had been on Saturday. But this time round, there was a response, and the two lines crossed as the two Champions collided.

The judgement from the FIM MotoGP™ Stewards was racing incident. The fact you can make both cases and, ignoring one, make the other sound like the whole truth and nothing but, makes it hard to argue with that call from a neutral perspective. But Bagnaia and Marquez will remain partisan, and now the race is on to come out on top next time the two share a racetrack. In a battle, in pure pace, however it may be.

So now, we have an eight-time World Champion with seven wins at COTA, plus one comeback from dead last to sixth, looking to show that it’s not him in Bagnaia’s postcode, it’s the #1 trespassing on his. Especially here, a track that used to simply have Marquez pencilled next to victory as a formality. On a different bike, against different rivals, is an eighth about to prove a point, and at his 250th GP? Meanwhile Bagnaia, after stunning speed in the Sprint to win before a crash out the lead on Sunday at COTA last year, knows just how sweet it would be to prove the exact opposite. At a talisman track, just like Aragon.

So what of the other drama in Portugal? Maverick Viñales (Aprilia Racing) became a Tissot Sprint winner in style on Saturday, moving through to the front and then giving Martin no right to reply. He was also just about close enough coming out of the final corner on the penultimate lap on Sunday to at least still be looking for an opportunity to do the double. But it wasn’t to be as a late technical issue took the chance and those 20 points away, and they were 20 points that would have put him third in the standings. Can COTA bring some redemption, less for man and instead for machine? Teammate Aleix Espargaro, meanwhile, will want more too after a difficult weekend in Portugal looking for more pace, and Austin would be a statement place to find it after a tougher track record at the venue for the #41.

At Trackhouse Racing, Miguel Oliveira and Raul Fernandez will both be looking for more on track, but the spotlight is guaranteed off it as the new American team prepare to race on home soil for the first time. Their bikes will be in downtown Austin, the sister NASCAR team will do a demo lap, the flags will be flying and the fans excited to see that incredible livery up close and personal. It’s also Raul Fernandez’ 100th GP so there will be plenty to celebrate.

Jack Miller (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) had a pretty successful Sunday he can use as a springboard to try and home in on the podium fight, and Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) wrung a solid result out on the Algarve too as Yamaha look for more progress. They’ve confirmed they’ll continue doing so with ‘El Diablo’ too as the Frenchman has been announced as staying for another two seasons. On the other side of the box, teammate Alex Rins will want to stay the course over race distance in the coming weekends, but this one in particular will be very interesting after the number 42 won in awesome style in Austin last season. It was also only his third weekend on the Honda. Now it’s his third weekend on the Yamaha, and his speed at COTA across the classes has been proven on plenty of occasions, as well as on two different premier class machines.

There were some positive signs for Marco Bezzecchi (Pertamina Enduro VR46 Racing Team) in Portugal too as the number #72 took sixth on Sunday after a really tough opener. It’s not victory but it’s a step towards it, onto more familiar turf. Franco Morbidelli (Prima Pramac Racing), meanwhile, may well have crashed out early on Sunday last time out, but considering he missed all of pre-season due to the training crash he suffered at the very same venue, his speed itself was pretty noteworthy on the Algarve. Can he take another step in Austin?

Joan Mir (Repsol Honda Team) should be noted for some positives from Portugal too, the 2020 Champion taking P12 but with quite some daylight ahead of the other Hondas, led by Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda LCR). The task is a group project to move forward for the Japanese factory, but the squabble for supremacy within had a very clear victor last time out. Mir also only had Quartararo ahead of him of those machines with the most concessions under the new system. Augusto Fernandez (Red Bull GASGAS Tech3) also had a notable step forward last time out, just missing out on the top ten in a close finish behind Fabio Di Giannantonio (Pertamina Enduro VR46 Racing Team).

‘Diggia’ is one looking for his Qatar speed and form over the latter half of 2023, and Johann Zarco (Castrol Honda LCR) is another after he’d had Mir’s number in Qatar, although he is very new to the bike, and so far has the edge on fellow Honda debutant Luca Marini (Repsol Honda Team). Marini will hope that the venue where he took his first premier class podium, thanks to both form and memories, will prove a turning point as he adapts to a new machine.

Last but by no means least, Alex Marquez (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) had a slightly AWOL weekend in Portugal, 13th in the Sprint and then crashing early on Sunday. Given his successes last season and a solid opener in Qatar, he’d be the first to say that the target is much more. Can he lock on target for a quick bounce back in Austin? We’re about to find out.

A new Championship leader with a gap that presents a conundrum between push and manage. A South African on the verge of becoming the rider from his nation with most podiums, with a point to prove on his machine as well as to the rest. A rookie whose point is already somewhat proven, a ‘Beast’ finding even more beauty… and a bubbling rivalry between two riders with a combined 11 world titles, one of whom saddles up with seven COTA trophies already nestled in his trophy cabinet. It’s time for the Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas. Surely, we’ll see you there?

TISSOT SPRINT: 15:00 (UTC -5) on Saturday
GRAND PRIX RACE: 14:00 on Sunday

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