Viñales, MotoGP’s top gun, flying out front as circuit lands in Austin


MotoGP has discovered a new top gun, and his name is Maverick Viñales.

The 22-year-old Spaniard, named by his father after Tom Cruise’s fighter-pilot character in the 1986 box-office smash, is picking off the world’s best motorcycles on a routine basis this year. Two races, two victories aboard his Movistar Yamaha.

Next stop: the Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas at Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

“It’s a little bit different in this position with everybody shooting for you,” said Viñales, who finished fourth in Austin last year and fourth in the season points race. “The change is I spend even more time trying to stay on top. More time on focus, on concentration, on the team.”

Yet COTA has its own top gun, and that’s Honda’s Marc Márquez, who has won every MotoGP race this track has served up. So there will be quite an Old West-flavor shootout come Sunday.

“It’s impressive for him to have four wins in a row here, but we know we have a good level,” Viñales said. “If we’re at 100 percent, we know we can be there at the end fighting for the win.”

Nobody has beaten Márquez on American soil since the 24-year-old Spaniard moved up to MotoGP in 2013, but Viñales is intrigued by the options COTA presents.

“This is a circuit I really like,” he said. “I won my first race in Moto2 here and also had one of my best races here with Suzuki. I think it is an excellent circuit for my riding style.

“For sure for me it’s a good track. I’ve always been strong here and it fits with my riding style. There are a lot of acceleration zones, which are good for us. I love the ‘up and down’ circuits. You can try things at different places on this track and maybe gain an advantage.”

Yet the Catalon rider, who started on dirt bikes when he was 3, respects the challenges COTA offers.

“You have to be really precise,” Viñales said. “You must figure out the braking points. We have to work for the last 10 laps because here’s it’s really important, we know the rear tire can be difficult at the end. Last year that was a disaster. Now I’m excited to see how it goes with my Yamaha.”

Maverick embraces his name, even the daring connotation that goes with it.

“For sure, it’s a cool name,” he said. “I want to stand out on the track, too. I want to push the limits but take care of the equipment,” unlike Maverick’s reckless flying in the movie. “On the Suzuki last year, I could be more aggressive. With the Yamaha, it’s important to be smooth.”

At the Red Bull Grand Prix news conference Thursday, Maverick was asked on social media if he viewed iconic factory Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi as his wing man Goose, his mentor Viper or his main rival Iceman.

“I hope Goose,” Viñales said, “then I can learn a lot from him and we can fight to the end … nice fights.”

Rossi is the all-time leader with 88 MotoGP wins and nine world titles, and he’s second in this year’s points race.

“He works very calmly, and I think that’s one of his great secrets,” Viñales said of the 38-year-old Italian.

If Rossi isn’t Viñales’ toughest competition this weekend, it’s bound to be Márquez, the defending series champ who’s struggled out of the gate but owns COTA.

“From the first two races, we don’t have the best base setup and that’s something we have to improve,” he said. “Yet we arrive here with a good mentality, and I feel strong on the bike.

“In the past, Austin has been good for me. My confidence is really high here, but it is a new year, conditions change, there’s weather, tires, other things. You don’t know. Even a first podium of the season would be really good. We’ll see on Sunday if we can fight for the win.”



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