It’s getting close to crunch time in the title fight, but Texas may welcome a certain eight-time World Champion back to the front…
A lot has changed since the last time MotoGP™ raced at the Circuit of the Americas, not least of all the winner in the last two races: Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team), who went from maiden victory to back-to-back hero in a week. Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) remains the points leader, the Frenchman only just defeated at Misano, and this time as we saddle up in Austin there are only three races left thereafter. But despite the very different landscape and the drama of the last year and a half for eight-time World Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team), there surely remains one lone star to be expected in Texas. So can he do it?
One thing we can probably guarantee is that he’ll try. It’s not, however, going to be easy. Where before the MM93xCOTA collab seemed more unstoppable force and immovable object all in one, this season is different after a tougher return than many expected for the history-making Spaniard. There has been some solid progress and some good results since those first emotional laps back on a MotoGP™ machine though, and even earlier in the year when everything was far from going right, Marquez showed he remained the king of going left. His win at the Sachsenring was an emotional one, for him and Honda, and it also unearthed a self-confessed margin; the risk that day was worth the reward, and life remains a little easier going anti-clockwise. It allows for a little more to be unleashed.
Fast forward to Aragon and another anti-clockwise hunting ground of choice, and again the number 93 was straight back at the front. This time, though, it wasn’t on the top step – but it wasn’t through lack of trying. Marquez was the only rider able to stay in Bagnaia’s postcode on Sunday and the two staged a truly spectacular duel, the existence and outcome of which make two different points.
The existence underlines that Marquez should not be counted out at COTA, that he retains a splash of magic even as he fights back to fitness, and that left is still not only his speciality but also an extra help in that tussle back to the top. And the outcome? That says Bagnaia is probably a little less overawed by the record books in Texas, something that could prove powerful unto itself: unflappable in the face of Marquez is no mean feat.
How the world watched a battle for the ages in Aragon!
There was also a time when a Ducati track meant one thing, but those days are over. The number 63's poetry for Borgo Panigale, added to clear improvements in their previously 'weaker' areas, make one serious package of man and machine. So there's no reason to expect a serious drop of form in Texas, and that puts a little more pressure on Quartararo than the Frenchman likely expected a few races ago. Because COTA has also never been Yamaha's favourite territory either...
The Iwata marque have, however, had some good results, and Quartararo praised some good improvements at the Red Bull Ring, which had also previously been a tougher one. So is it an assault on the win, an exercise in damage limitation, or simply a numbers game? 48 points of advantage at the top allows for each of those options.
Behind the Championship top two and the Marquez narrative though, there's another for Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) too. 67 points off the top, and 75 left on the table after Austin, make it a long shot for the reigning Champion to defend his crown. But that also takes some pressure off, and it was a Suzuki on top at COTA on the single occasion Marquez faltered. Then it was Mir's teammate Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Estar), who crashed out at Misano, but can the Hamamatsu factory find that frontrunning form again? There was also some high praise from both riders following the Misano test, so the grid were warned.
A new Suzuki chassis... for this year?
Texas is also now serious crunch time for the riders just behind Mir in the standings: Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) and Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team). The former arrives from arm pump surgery so is likely expecting to move back forward, but the latter also praised the two days of testing on the Riviera di Rimini and is only one point further back. What can they do? Miller was also on the podium last time we saddled up in Texas.
Then, he was ahead of an intriguing Yamaha-Ducati lock out from second down to seventh. Valentino Rossi, now at Petronas Yamaha SRT, was the lead Yamaha only half a second off the win, and he'll want to go out swinging in the States as he races there for the final time. Quartararo will take heart from that too as we return. Then came Miller. and then came Andrea Dovizioso, who is now taking it on on a Yamaha - the same Petronas Yamaha that in 2019 came home behind him in the hands of Franco Morbidelli, now at Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP). With the state of play looking pretty different in 2021 as every one of that group arrives in a different seat, track records don't tell the future but the shuffle continues to create some interesting stories as some return, some prepare to depart and others fight back.
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Speaking of, Jorge Martin (Pramac Racing) will want to do just that at COTA as the rookie race winner now finds himself under a little more pressure in the fight for Rookie of the Year. He'd pulled well clear despite his injury struggles earlier in the season, but a first premier class podium for Enea Bastianini (Avintia Esponsorama) at Misano - with race-winning pace - means it's now just ten points the Italian trails the Spaniard, so it's game on in that showdown too.
There will also be plenty to watch out for at KTM and Aprilia, with both factories gearing up with pretty different machines as we return stateside for the first time since early 2019. Then, KTM hadn't won a race and they've now won five. Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) is also sixth in the Championship, only 16 points off Miller, and the South African has continued his Sunday charges to varying degrees in the last few races. Where will KTM shuffle into the pack in Texas?
Aprilia take a "step forward" at Misano Test
Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini), meanwhile, is the rider on Binder's heels and the Noale factory will want more than what they got at a slightly muted Misano. Maverick Viñales scored his first few points with the marque last time out though, so that narrative keeps retaining headlines. How will the all-new RS-GP fare at the Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas?
Bagnaia arrives on the crest of a wave, Quartararo retains his advantage in the points, and Marquez is six for seven in Texas. What awaits as MotoGP™ saddles up stateside in 2021? The only thing we can guarantee is another fantastic horsepower rodeo, so tune in for more at 14:00 (GMT -5) on Sunday the 3rd of October.