MotoGP thunders into COTA with fresh face at the top


Highlights

Marc Márquez, who’s swept everything in Austin, is struggling early on.

Maverick Viñales, another Spaniard, is emerging as the sport’s new star.

Austin motorcycle legend Kevin Schwantz sizes up the Grand Prix field.

When the world’s fastest motorcycles roared out of Circuit of the Americas a year ago, Marc Márquez could have taken the track’s signature 251-foot observation tower with him. The young Spaniard owned the place.

Márquez polished off his fourth straight MotoGP victory in Austin on the road to his third season points championship.

The 24-year-old Honda star has won every race here, the only North American stop on the 18-event circuit and COTA’s biggest showcase behind Formula One. But Márquez is reeling as the Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas gets ready to roll into town next weekend, and there’s a hot new rider in the sport.

Maverick Viñales, a 22-year-old Spaniard with a name and game to excite, has come out with guns blazing about his Movistar Yamaha in the first two races.

Márquez, meanwhile, made a mental error in Qatar, crashed out in Argentina and is just eighth in the standings.

“Maverick won both races convincingly. I think he’s the real deal,” said Kevin Schwantz, a former MotoGP world champion who lives in Westlake. “He showed in both races he’s not going to make a mistake in the early laps trying to get to the front. He bides his time, then pounces when the moment is right. He’s got a great head on his shoulders for such a young kid.”

Viñales grabbed fourth at COTA last year, his best MotoGP finish to that point. He left Suzuki Ecstar for Yamaha after the season.

Márquez’s title chances already are being written off by some insiders. Schwantz isn’t buying it.

“He just made a mistake in Argentina, got out a little wide on exit to turn 1 and he hit a bump on turn 2 at the wrong angle,” Schwantz said. “Coming from wide to get back across threw his timing off a little bit, and he went down quickly. At Qatar, there was a rain threat, and at the last minute he chose a softer tire. He was fast early on and then faded. He kind of beat himself with the tire choice.

“Márquez will not keep making those mistakes. I see him coming here and rebounding, making life difficult for Yamaha guys, for Maverick and Valentino Rossi,” who is second in points.

Márquez told reporters it’s too early to panic.

“The two Yamaha riders are really strong,” he said. “But in any season there are good and tough situations. We didn’t start in the best way, yet we will improve, and there is time. It’s important to know that when we fell in Argentina, we were in the lead.”

Honda overhauled its engine configuration in the offseason, and its riders appear to have an acceleration deficit.

“We’d have to look back pretty far — probably 20 or 30 years — for the last time a factory Honda hasn’t been on the podium in the first two rounds of the championship series,” Schwantz said. “I wouldn’t be too concerned if I were them, but it’s clear the gap is closing between the manufacturers.”

Although the Repsol Honda factory team has struggled out of the gate, the company is providing support for the LCR Honda team, whose Cal Crutchlow took third in Argentina.

Yamaha has a deep stable of talent. Schwantz pointed to two rookies on the Tech 3 bike: Johann Zarco, Moto2’s back-to-back champion in 2015 and ’16, and Jonas Folger.

More manufacturers than ever are involved, ramping up the competition. In 2016, there were a record nine different race winners.

“It’s not just just Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha,” said Schwantz, who does promotional work for Suzuki and serves as an ambassador for COTA. “Ducati is on board and showing promise. We have KTM in MotoGP for the first time. Aprilia is back and seems to be building a pretty competitive bike. In some races, all the motorcycles are within three seconds, front to back” in qualifying.

What fans won’t see at COTA is an American rider or team in MotoGP, Moto2 or Moto3.

“We seem to have lost our ability to get our young kids placed overseas because of lack of manufacturer support, mostly for our national championship,” said Schwantz, who won 25 top-level races from 1986 to 1995 and is a member of the American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame. “It may be starting to come back, but it’s a slow process.”

Nevertheless, American fans still like the show. Dorna, the commercial rights holder for MotoGP, reported a three-day attendance of 131,811, including a Sunday crowd of 56,528, for the 2016 event at COTA.

Circuit of the Americas Chairman Bobby Epstein said more fans are expected next weekend.

“Attendance for this event keeps growing as people have figured it out and told their friends,” he said. “We had a huge crowd last year and already have passed that in total sales this year.”



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