Neil Morrison: the one that got away…
This could have been the one. The one in which Maverick Viñales asserted himself on the MotoGP championship for real, potentially amassing not just another win, but striking a stake into the heart of Marc Marquez’s own title hopes, around a circuit the reigning champ has legitimately come to call his own over the past four years.
For the first time in five visits, one neared the Circuit of the Americas with that added spring in the step on Sunday morning. As a breathless qualifying attested, this wasn’t to be another Marquez whitewash. On Saturday evening, the reigning champion was sure of it. Viñales too. Yet in the end for the young Yamaha hopeful this would be the one that got away. The race was no more than four minutes old when Viñales’ hopes of victory came undone. A front-end tuck over the bumpy turn 18 was enough to scupper not only his 100 percent record in Movistar blue, but his championship advantage too.
Having become the first rider sporting the Yamaha crest to score an season opening double-salvo since Wayne Rainey 27 years before, Viñales had the chance to match the feat of another American and brand legend – Kenny Roberts Senior – by winning the first three. Such feats bring with them a certain weight.
Speaking after, the 22-year old was at a loss to explain what had gone wrong. “I’m like you now. I don’t know,” he said. “We checked everything. It was all the same. Even [the speed] was a little bit lower speed than in the morning.” Without wishing corporate interests in mind, Viñales merely hinted the medium compound front tyre was the cause. “I know the front tyre was not as good as this morning. On the left side I had some warnings at the start of the second lap.” Not the first time, and certainly not the last a rider has pointed the finger of blame at the rubber, which begs the question: was this a first chink in the armour, a mistake brought on by an over-zealous approach? And a rider subsequently jockeying to cover up his mistake?
There can be no denying Viñales had attacked the weekend as though he had been personally affronted by Marquez’s unabated success in Texas. What better venue to prove his newfound might than the venue that had played host to four straight Marquez romps? From his post-race comments in Argentina, it was clear this was a weekend Viñales had circled on his calendar to state his case as the worthy successor to his Catalan elder. Never had a rider come so close to Marquez at this circuit through free practice.
And while his five-month Yamaha stint has been an unqualified success thus far, Viñales’ ability to start in the same vein has as Marquez or predecessor Jorge Lorenzo could be one of the areas marked ‘in need of improvement.’ Marquez knows as much and it could be said his fall in Argentina was his own bid to exploit his compatriot’s weakness.
The third in an ever-arching series of right bends, turn 18 sports a newly laid ripple in the middle, brought about by the high downforce of Formula 1 cars. Marquez had spoken of the need to find a new line through there on Friday. Not only had it claimed Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo in free practice. Four others came a’cropper there across the weekend, suggesting it is entirely plausible that Viñales was applying too much pressure early on after a mediocre start.
Yet watching the crash, it’s hard to disagree with the former Moto3 world champion’s assessment that he did little wrong. Triple world champion Wayne Rainey – a self-confessed fan of the Catalan’s approach – backed up Viñales’ claim. “It was a strange crash,” Rainey said, having watched Sunday’s events unfold from the Movistar Yamaha garage. “It didn’t look like he was off line. It didn’t look like he hit any bumps. It just looked like it washed out. For him to make a mistake you’d have thought everyone would have seen it. But I didn’t really see a mistake.” Team boss Massimo Meregalli echoed this: “We have checked the data and there‘s nothing strange or different from what he has done since Friday,” he said, backing up his rider’s words.
Yes, he may be slightly weak in the early laps, but Viñales rarely panics. On Saturday he had spoken of rarely taking the M1 to its limits around the 20-corner track. A day later and he insisted he had got away with pushing Suzuki’s GSX-RR harder through 2016. ”Last year, in 18 races, I just crashed in Argentina. All the other tracks was pushing even more than this year. I was more on the limit,” he said.
A glance at the timesheets backs this up. Sat behind Valentino Rossi when starting lap two, Viñales matched the Italian’s times through sectors two and three. Rossi’s lap time on the second lap was a 2m 5.476 – more than half a second off Marquez’s fastest lap, which was, in turn, slower than the predicted pace of the leaders. It appears Maverick wasn’t pushing all that hard. “If I crashed doing a 2m 4 medium or low, pushing to catching Marc to fight for the victory I know it would have been my mistake,” he admitted.
A Michelin spokesman said there were no signs the medium compound front he had used was at fault. But there have been murmurings on more than one occasion that two tyres of the same compound can react in radically different ways. At Misano a year ago, for instance. Over the offseason, Andrea Dovizioso had complained of similar issues too. And as Saturday morning’s crash-fest demonstrated, changes in track temperature can significantly affect the working performance of the rubber. A hike of 18 degrees between warm-up and the race may also have played its part.
In truth, we may never know the true cause of Viñales’ fall. And while it not only robbed us of a spectacle toward the front, and the Movistar man his chance at delivering a body blow to his nearest rival, there was enough in Viñales’ weekend performance to suggest this was no more than an unfortunate blip. Around Marquez’s favourite track, even entertaining the idea of winning was a kind of achievement, and saw him returning to Europe with an emboldened sense of nobility.
Photos by CormacGP