For me, the most fascinating aspect of seeing MotoGP in person is being able to watch the best racers in the world do what they do best: ride. Such was my luck recently, as I was allowed to wander through the pits at Circuit Of The Americas (COTA) near Austin, TX, during an unofficial MotoGP test at the end of March. Five MotoGP regulars took part in the test: Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez, and Stefan Bradl.
The all-new, $400-million facility was doubly good for spectating because the northern lights of MotoGP stargazing is observing riders as they learn a new track. Nothing helps relate to these riders more than watching them make mistakes while learning new braking points, visual cues, and apexes. They are briefly recognizable as motorcyclists, more human and less ironclad robots with god-like speed and miraculous consistency.
Their techniques were all very deliberate, building steadily from sightseeing (quickly, mind you) to the typical routine of carrying incomprehensible speed around the circuit. Sessions for most of the first day were short for all riders, between three and seven laps. So much new information is best digested in small bites, even at the highest level.
Riders stressed that the main purpose of the test was simply to ride and see the track, but there were other plotlines at work, predictably. Rookie Marc Marquez alluded to an interesting fact when he said his team, “...did a very good job. They check the track, check the corners, and we start with a base, more or less, that they thought would work.” We know that HRC’s pockets are deep and its brain trust large, but as a fan I can’t say I ever expected the geeks at HQ were mapping an unknown circuit closely enough to create a solid suspension and gearing setup. Also, I think it’s fair to assume that this is common practice for major factory teams. Neat.
Throughout the MotoGP paddock, but especially at Yamaha in 2013, there is the question of sharing data between riders—and for that matter, what does “sharing data” really mean? Remember that last time Lorenzo and Rossi were teammates there was enough tension for Yamaha to erect a literal wall between their garages to avoid confrontation. Times have changed. One particular debriefing session in the Yamaha garage at COTA saw Jorge stroll over and squat down next to Valentino’s chair to share notes on setup. Oh, the warm fuzzies.
Tires were another hot point, or, rather, just the opposite. All of riders complained of low grip, and tires came off track looking smooth, almost unused. A slightly slippery surface reveals just how fickle MotoGP tires are, with lack of grip leading to less heat in the tires, which means even less grip, and so on. A vicious cycle. Riders theorized that with the full MotoGP circus in town on the third weekend of April (including Moto2 and Moto3), enough rubber would be laid down to create the grip necessary to make their highly specialized tires work properly.
By now, you know how much early testing translated into real speed at COTA—and whether or not Marc Marquez is the genius he appeared to be in testing, if COTA is a Honda track as he predicted, and whether or not Dani Pedrosa is an early favorite for the championship. Either way, as a fan it’s all very promising, in an era sown with the seeds of spec racing and a sanctioning body with its finger on the hair-trigger of rules changes.