MotoGP is the premier class of professional motorcycle racing, a competition of the world’s fastest motorcycles piloted by the world’s best sport bike riders. The motorcycles themselves, by regulation, are custom designed by each of the participating factories. MotoGP’s racing season consists of 18 races, which begins in March and ends in November, each week at a different track around the globe. Only two races per season occur in the United States, and we had the opportunity of attending one of those two races which took place in Austin, Texas, at Circuit of the Americas earlier this month.
Thursday morning was overcast but not raining. In the paddock, the roaring sound of throttling engines echoed in all directions. The GP points leaders gathered for a press conference at the COTA media center. As the riders filed in, they greeted each other in a brotherly fashion. Rossi, Marquez, Dovizioso, Hayden, Lorenzo — each of them exchanged pleasantries before settling into the interview panel.
By Friday morning, the lingering clouds began to gather over Austin. The heavy humid air was now replete with raindrops. When we arrived to the circuit, the track surface was completely saturated with water. All of the motorcycles were fitted with special rain tires in time for free practice, a time when each team becomes re-familiarized with the track and makes adjustments to the motorcycle based on weather conditions and rider feedback. The spray emanating from the tires on the start-finish straight resembled plumes of white smoke trailing each rider as they roared past the grandstands at nearly 200 mph. By afternoon, we ventured over to the famous COTA tower that stands over 200 feet tall at the center of the circuit.
The more timid spectators who found themselves at the top of the glass-floored COTA tower kept a safe distance from the waist-high railing on the perimeter of the observation deck.Those brave enough to venture to the top of the tower were rewarded with incredible views of both the track and the expansive Texas countryside. From directly above, the bikes’ left side fairings were in full view, blazing past with riders dragging their right knee and elbow through the turn.
A heavy fog coupled with a spitting mist greeted GP fans who had come out for the Saturday qualifying sessions. The tarmac was not wet enough to necessitate the use of rain tires, but conditions were far from ideal for setting a record lap. As the fog began to recede, the grandstands became peppered with spectators. By afternoon, those who had braved the morning’s ominous weather were repaid with somewhat of a spectacle.
Qualifying sessions are only 15 minutes long. The outcome of the qualifying sessions are what determine the riders’ position on the start grid for Sunday morning. The bikes are outfitted with a special tire that is much softer and stickier than an actual race tire. The softness of the tire allows the riders to push the limits more than is physically possible during the actual race.
The fastest riders were all out in the second qualifying session. The fastest laps oscillated between Ducati rider Andreas Dovizioso, Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and Marc Marquez.
As the qualifying session was coming to a close, it seemed like Dovisioso would certainly take pole position. Then something crazy happened. With just a few minutes to go, Marquez pulled to the inside of the start-finish straight, braking hard. Unpleased with some aspect of the way his bike was performing, Marquez came to a stop and leaned his bike against the pit wall. In single motion Marquez hoisted himself up and over the shoulder-high wall into pit lane. He sprinted toward his back-up bike which his team had already prepared for him. Once on the fresh bike, Marquez put in one of the craziest qualifying laps in recent history: appearing to be inches away from crashing at every corner, Marquez beat out Dovizioso by three-tenths of a second. He set a new circuit record and won pole.
Like the fog, many questions hung in the air on Sunday morning at Circuit of the Americas. Was it going to be a wet race? Would Marquez be able to get a good start? If so, would his Honda be able to hang with the Ducatis and Yamahas?
The track was wet from overnight rain. Moto2 and Moto3 races immediately preceded the MotoGP race. Both races saw crashes and close calls in wet sections of the track. Because of track conditions, the GP races ended up being significantly delayed from its slated 2PM start time. Track workers descended on a wet section of the track under a bridge, attacking it with push brooms and a jet dry truck.
Once all of the GP bikes were lined up on the grid, the clouds broke and the sun came out in full force. The starting grid was like a swarm of bees as the teams attended to all of the last minute details. Glamazon-looking umbrella girls, whose outfits bore a swath of sponsor logos, stood over each rider providing respite from the now-scorching sun. Mechanics made final adjustments while camera crews darted in and out of the grid rows capturing all of the action.
The red flag came onto the start line, and the only souls left on the track were those sitting atop the fastest motorcycles in the world. In unison, each of the 1,000-cubic-centimeter beasts roar to a deafening pitch. With their tachometers in the red, the start signal went off and the riders released their clutch levers, sending a giant mass of bikes hurling up the hill toward turn 1.
Before completing the first lap, there was a collision between two riders, ending the race for both of them. Marquez managed a good start, but Dovizioso and Ducati were leading the way. After many seasons of struggling, Ducati was itself a competitor once again.
Despite the Ducati’s superior speed on the straights, it did not take long for Marquez to overtake Dovizioso for the lead. Not long after, Valentino Rossi began to battle Dovizioso for the second position. Lap after lap, Marquez created a bit more separation from the pack. For 21 laps these machines burned up the straights at almost 190 mph and got so low in the corners that the pilots’ knees and elbows kissed the ground. Rossi eventually made it into the second position, but lost it again to Dovisioso just a few laps before the checkered flag began to wave. Marquez coasted to his first 2015 victory with a gap of just several seconds.
The finish of the race was the perfect climax for the preceding four days of action. Marquez and Rossi, two fan favorites, had earned convincing spots on the podium. Honda, Yamaha and Ducati all made impressive displays of their capabilities. Undoubtedly, an exciting season full of unknowns lies ahead.