Round up from COTA

Published: 16 April 2015

The second round of the 2015 MotoGP season will be remembered for two things; Marc Marquez' stunning pole lap and a day when the record books were torn apart by British riders. Throughout the winter almost every piece that fans have read about this year's MotoGP season has focused on how incredibly competitive that all three classes will be in 2015.

I still firmly believe that this will be the case however Texas saw a thoroughly dominant win for Danny Kent in Moto3, Sam Lowes take a calculated race win in Moto2 that saw him ride away from Johann Zarco in the closing laps and Marc Marquez open a steady gap in the MotoGP race once he hit the front of the field.

Digging under the surface of these results however showed however that the early season prognosis looks much stronger than just a cursory look at the results sheets from COTA.

Marquez was stretched in COTA

Marquez has been unbeatable at COTA since the circuit was added to the calendar three years ago but he was pushed to the limit last weekend. His pole lap was a study in maximum attack with every corner a possible crash. Riding to that level is not sustainable and even Marquez will know that having to resort to that type of lap on a consistent basis is a recipe for disaster.

The advantage of Ducati using the soft tyre in qualifying meant that Marquez had to ride on the ragged edge to have a hope of pole position. When you combine this with having to park his bike on the pit straight and run down pitlane to jump onto his second bike and you had a perfect storm of a hard charging Marquez with the adrenaline pouring.

That lap will be remembered for years, similar to his exploits of Estoril 2010 in 125's, Valencia 2012 in Moto2 and his many heroics in MotoGP. That we're witnessing a master at work isn't missed by anyone and the moments when he has to dig deepest into the reservoir of his talent pool are still some of the most thrilling that we see in MotoGP.

Is the Ducati now the best bike on the grid?

This would be a statement that would have been derided only a year ago. Since the work undertaken by Gigi Dall'igna and his staff began last year however Ducati has made consistent strides to get closer to the front. Now the bike is primed to win Grand Prix and given the performances of Dovizioso and Iannone in the opening two races it's clear that the Italian bike is now one ready to win.

The GP15 does nothing in isolation better than any other machine but the sum of its parts may now be greater than the Honda and Yamaha bikes. Top speed is hugely impressive with the Ducati, it has the ability to hold tighter lines than the Honda and out accelerate the Yamaha. The only negative about the bike at the moment is that it is weak under braking. Once this flaw is cured the bike should be strong in all areas.  

Perhaps the biggest indicator of the strength of the Ducati comes in the form of Iannone. The Italian looks much more composed this year than he has at any other point of his career. In Texas there was a point in mid-race that he was the fastest man on track and was closing the gap to the podium finishers despite having started on the fourth row and having to avoid the first lap crash of Redding and Espargaro.

Last weekend Iannone looked controlled and composed and at having claimed his first podium in Qatar with a solid performance it might be time for "Crazy Joe" to change his nickname once again...maybe "Calculated Joe" might paint a more accurate picture of the Italian in 2015.

Smith makes a big step

Bradley Smith's maturation over the winter from a self-confessed "angry ginger kid when things were going bad" to a much more team orientated, self confident man was on display in Texas. Smith had easily the most complete race of his three year MotoGP career. The manner in which he fought with the top riders in the early stages was hugely impressive but the biggest surprise was his ability to hang with factory Yamaha's of Rossi and Lorenzo throughout the race.

To be beaten by just three seconds by Lorenzo, in effect to lap within a couple of tenths of Lorenzo throughout the race distance, marked a massive step forward for Smith. It was one that his team boss, Herve Poncharal, took note of with the Frenchman telling MCN that Smith was "a changed man" over the winter. "He's a different man and a different rider, so much more mature and working and trusting the team so much more," said Herve.

"At the end of the day I was pleased with the outcome," said Smith after the race. "I got sixth place, top satellite, and ten seconds behind the leader, so the best performance so far of my MotoGP career, so I've got to be happy with that."

Injuries curtailed him at the opening test in Sepang but it could also be argued that this was the genesis of Smith's Texan performance. Having been able to complete a full test programme at  Sepang 1 and set reasonably fast times Smith has clearly found the key to unlocking more trust from his crew and he has also trusted them far more.

Building on this momentum, and continuing to put pressure on Pol Espargaro, is now key for Smith as he strives to ensure that he keeps his seat with the team for next year.

Miller claims points

Claiming points in his second MotoGP was a solid reward for the work that Jack Miller has undertaken so far this year. He has been able to consistently learn and improve throughout the winter and the work that he is doing with Christian Gabarini has been impressive. The pair have the Open Honda working well and Miller will only get faster as the season progresses.

He does however have to improve in some areas, the biggest being his race craft. Having been involved with crashes of Karel Abraham and Stefan Bradl in the opening two rounds it's imperative that he has a clean weekend in Argentina to avoid earning himself a reputation in the top class. While his rivals have no doubts about his talent there have been grumblings about the manner in which he rides in races and how he will need to change his aggressive style to avoid crashes.

To take away the aggression completely would be a mistake for Miller, there are plenty of examples of riders not willing to take a dive down the inside in the midfield. Being slightly constrained in those battles can cost you dearly. However, Miller will need to find a balance between recklessness and aggression. He showed last year that he had the speed to fight with anyone in Moto3 and that he was more than willing to scrap for a win but MotoGP is a very different class and being slightly too late or too early with a lunge can have dramatic consequences. Miller has avoided costing himself a crash in a race but having ended races for two rivals in two races he's threading a fine line.

Open Honda struggles at Aspar

The other Open Honda riders have had a more challenging season. COTA marked the 200th Grand Prix of Nicky Hayden's career. The former world champion struggled to find a good setup at his home round but finishing 13th offered some hope to Hayden, less than ten second behind Hiro Aoyama.

The electronics package of the bike has been a challenge for Aspar to configure. The huge jump in power output has played havoc with the electronics and it has meant that being able to get the bike setup correctly has been difficult for the Spanish team. Hayden couldn't get the bike to work for most of the weekend so the step made on Sunday was definitely encouraging but being able to hit the ground running with a solid base setup will be much more important in the coming races.

That lack of a base setting cost Eugene Laverty plenty of time in Texas. The Irishman's opening day of practice was almost completely wasted by an electronic problem that saw the bike unable to detect a left handed corner from a right hander. Getting this basic factor calibrated and mapping the circuit to the electronics took until Saturday and once this was achieved Laverty was much more comfortable on the bike and able to qualify as the leading Open Honda, and ahead of Aoyama.

Sunday's race however saw him fall back through the field with tyre problems before adapting to the issue, "I had to ride with no lean angle," to finish 16th but within a second of his teammate. Having been accustomed to winning in WSBK Laverty is having to adjust to the cut and thrust of MotoGP where learning in year one is the biggest requirement. He feels ready to fight much further up the field but until the electronics problems are solved he is riding with one arm tied behind his back. His consistency in Qatar and his speed in qualifying at COTA showed that he is as fast as anyone on the Open Honda but right now that bike just isn't competitive enough for Miller, Hayden or Laverty.

Lowes ready to dominate?

It's very early doors of the season but the speed of Sam Lowes at both races is such that he has made it perfectly clear that no one can compete with him in terms of outright pace at the moment in Moto2. One swallow doesn't make a summer and one victory doesn't make a champion but given what he has achieved so far this year the question needs to be asked, can Lowes find the consistency to win the title?

That's the obvious target now for the Lincolnshire lad and having been unsure of whether he had the ability to compete at the front of a Grand Prix field last year he now is a rider completely comfortable with his place in the intermediate class hierarchy. Tito Rabat is the reigning world champion but has struggled so far this year to match his dominance of last year's title winning season.

 Rabat doesn't look to have the same level of confidence and in a much more competitive field it will be very interesting to see how he can perform this weekend. Last year his early season results gave him a comfortable cushion to his title rivals but this year it'll be much more of a dog fight to come out on top in the class.

Johann Zarco has the speed to win, and he could well win this weekend, but the Frenchman has always had an issue with consistency. He blows hot and cold but he needs to be respected because of his early season speed. Zarco was a title contender in 125's and will sure to be there or thereabouts when the season comes to a conclusion.

Alex Rins is the darkhorse. He is a hugely talented rider, who for most of the last three years was much more highly regarded than Alex Marquez, but a tough season in 2014 that saw the Monlou squad rally around Marquez left him robbed of confidence for most of the year. Now surrounded by the Pons Racing team that won four races last year with Maverick Vinales Rins is sure to be fast for most of the season. Can he be fast enough to challenge for the title? Possibly but it's very difficult to win the Moto2 crown as a rookie, the bikes are difficult to get dialled in every week and the competition is so high. Rins has the talent but may have to settle for plenty of race wins but no title.

For Lowes the biggest advantage that he has at the moment is his raw speed. In Qatar especially his dominance over a single lap was incredible. At COTA he wasn't as dominant but when he needed to be he could open a commanding lead over Zarco in the final third of the race. It was something that Poncharal was hugely impressed with when he talked to MCN about Lowes' ability and the Moto2 title race.

"Right now the only guy that can beat Sam is himself," said the Tech3 team boss. "His raw speed is incredible and if he manages to do what he did in the race and calm down he'll be difficult to beat. With all due respect to Zarco, Sam is quicker and I think it will be difficult for Tito now too. I won't discount Rabat because he was so good last year."

Kent needs to strike when the iron is hot

Danny Kent's incredible performance in Texas was the most dominating victory in Moto3 history. Never before in a dry race had we seen anyone able to open such a comfortable gap over the field, sometimes at a second a lap, and for Kent the key now is to kick on and win another couple of races as soon as possible and start to open a championship lead.

The Englishman is at the top of the championship for the first time in his career but he already looks incredibly at ease with the prospect of challenging for a title. After he won the race he quickly discounted any talk of the title but by saying "points win prizes" he made it perfectly clear exactly what his goal is for this year.

Title or bust is possibly too big an exaggeration for Kent at this moment but the confidence that he will bring to Argentina after his American win will be huge and if he can strike quickly in Argentina and get another win he'll have laid down a huge marker to his rivals. The Kent of 2015 versus the rider that we saw last year is a night and day difference and it's something that Poncharal was keen to point out when he compared Kent to when the 21 year old was racing for Tech3 in Moto2.

"I never had any doubts about his speed but his problem before was a lack of self confidence," said the Frenchman. "He was always waiting for a tow or a fast rider, and he didn't believe that he could go fast on his own. Here he was the master and it's not very often that we've seen anyone open a gap like that in Moto3.

"I'm so happy for him because he was talked about as the new Barry Sheene and then he was talked down about but now what he's doing is more than impressive and he's going to have a lot more races like today. For me he's clearly the favourite for the championship because he has speed, experience and the self confidence of knowing that he can do it."

Tweets of the week
Sorry to everyone but I am not racing @circuitamericas next weekend, it would have been an honour to ride for @26_DaniPedrosa #NotMeantToBe

Bummer I'm not racing, no prep was needed as I wasn't planning on winning, just replacing a good friend and having some fun in Texas!:)
Casey Stoner on the decision by HRC not to grant him the opportunity to replace Dani Pedrosa.

Quotes of the week

To me Casey is like a son. So this was very tough. I understand Casey is disappointed because many, many times I asked Casey ‘please come back, please do a wild-card. Casey approached Hondaand he wanted to help Dani and the team. To be honest I was a little bit surprised, but I was very happy to get this kind of request from Casey. Then in Japan we discussed this. For HRC Casey is quite important. He is a VIP. For us, if Casey race again in MotoGP at least he has to fight for a podium. This is our target. For Casey himself I have no doubt he is very, very fast! But for the rest Casey needed a good set-up machine. For this we couldn’t find confidence.
Nakamoto on the decision made by HRC not to name Stoner as the replacement rider for Pedrosa.

This is the best win of my career. It's at a higher level and last year a lot of people wrote me off because of crashing but I've come so far in such a short space of time. In 2009 I was still working as an electrican when these guys were in 125's! The emotion hit me on the cool down lap and I needed to slow down so I could have a little cry and still look cool when I got back into the pits! It's a massive weight off my shoulders because I could have won in Qatar and I had the crashes this week.
Sam Lowes on what his success in COTA meant for him.

I was really impressed with what Sam did this weekend. If I could give Sam any advice it would be to get to MotoGP as soon as possible because he's better learning here than anywhere else. It takes too long to get fast here and if you miss that boat you're in the shit. I'll speak to him and see if we can work something out soon!
Cal Crutchlow when asked about what advice he'd give Sam Lowes following his Moto2 win.

I hope HRC are still looking at Moto3 races!
Danny Kent jokes about Jack Miller's elevation to the top class after his Moto3 race win.

What have we learned?
 

1. Unsurprisingly in Austin we learned that Marc Marquez will as formidable as ever in 2015. However, the manner in which he had to push for pole position and to get to the front at COTA will give us all continued hope that this year could be one of the greatest seasons in MotoGP history. The fight between Honda, Yamaha and Ducati is as close as we've ever witnessed and at any race weekend those three bikes should be very closely matched.

2. Lorenzo needs a bit of fortune to get his season back on track but he's been competitive at both rounds and should be fine over the course of the season. It's far from ideal to give Rossi, Marquez and Dovizioso a head start but everyone will take points off each other this year and that should play into the hands of Lorenzo when we get to Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello-three circuits he is always strong at.

3. The pressure is rising on Pol Espargaro. Having been outpaced by Bradley Smith again in COTA Espargaro needs a strong result in Argentina. He was a hapless victim of Redding's crash on Sunday but even discounting that he never looked like matching his teammate in Texas. That's bad news for Espargaro in a contract year. There's no doubts that he has the speed, his performances last year were exceptional, but with one year remaining on his contract and plenty of fast Moto2 riders coming through the ranks the fight for Smith and Espargaro to remain at Tech3 will be intense.

4. Who are those Moto2 riders team bosses will be forming an orderly queue behind for their services next year? Alex Rins, Sam Lowes and Jonas Folger are likely to take top billing in the rider market over the summer. Rins, a Moto2 rookie, leads the championship after two rounds and looks to have brought the maturity and intelligence that we saw in Moto3 to bear immediately on the intermediate class machine.

As mentioned earlier Lowes is now firmly on the radar of teams given his performances over the winter and in the first two rounds. He's a rough diamond but his speed has been incredible so far. Folger was linked with Tech3 last year, when Bradley Smith was suffering through his nadir of five crashes at the German GP.

5. Danny Kent and Fabio Quartararo have been superb so far in 2015. Both have stolen the show at both race weekends with their ability to set fast times on their own. While Qatar didn't give them an opportunity to exploit that speed Texas most certainly did and Fabio already looks to be everything that he was advertised as in the Spanish championship.