motogp

The MotoGP 2018 mid-term report

Which MotoGP rider is dux of this year’s class? Who gets extra detention or has to write lines? Who deserves a gold star for encouragement? It’s time to name names …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Disclaimer, before we start: it’s hard to come up with a MotoGP mid-season review that lands smack-bang in the middle of the 2018 season, with the 50 per cent point coming halfway around the 11th racing lap of the Brno circuit in the Czech Republic on Sunday August 5. So you’ll have to forgive us as we go a few laps early on what has become an annual tradition – the half-term grades for the good and great of two wheels this season. And in a season like 2018, there’s plenty of material to pore through.

We’ve had insanely close races (Qatar and Assen, the latter instantly – and appropriately – hailed as one of the greatest Grands Prix of all time), the customary annual Marc Marquez masterclasses in Austin and Germany, the absurdity of the start of the race in Argentina (hello to all Jack Miller fans), and the frankly bizarre sight of Jorge Lorenzo, who was nowhere early in the season, winning back-to-back races on a Ducati at Mugello and Catalunya, the latter reprising memories of his most dominant Yamaha days where he broke the spirit of his rivals with one devastatingly metronomic lap after another.

Nine races down, 10 to go – so near-enough to halfway. Who has stood out, for the right and wrong reasons? Who has exceeded expectations, and who has fallen short? Who needs to finish the second semester of the year strongly? And who might be getting extra detention if the travelling MotoGP paddock was a school classroom?

Here’s our take on who has earned what so far.

Dux of the class

He’s become a regular in this spot, so perhaps the better way to make a case for Marc Marquez is to give you time to think who should be here in his place. (Waiting). See, told you. His wins have gone from utterly dominant (COTA) to calculatingly brilliant (when he broke up the pursuing pack with two spectacular laps to end one of the bigger brawls for a win the sport has ever seen at Assen), but it’s two races he hasn’t won that show why, barring something unforeseen, he’s likely to become a five-time MotoGP champion in his first six seasons by the time November rolls around. One was his controversial ride in Argentina, where he was in a different league in practice before a sketchy track caught him out in qualifying, and then his race … well, that, and the contact with several riders (particularly Valentino Rossi) that sparked a war of words wasn’t his finest moment, but one that showed the pace he has over the rest when he’s pushing as hard as he can. The other was Barcelona, when he realised he couldn’t safely keep up with a blistering Lorenzo and settled for second when Andrea Dovizioso, who looked to be his primary title rival at the time, crashed out early in the race. There’ll be the odd race like Mugello, when he fell (and didn’t manage to save a slide for once) and couldn’t get back into the points, but his rivals are going to need a lot more of those if they’re to deny the Spaniard a high five at (or perhaps before) Valencia.

Honourable mentions: One for Lorenzo, for his Mugello/Catalunya double after being basically invisible on a red bike for a year and a bit beforehand. Watching such consistent excellence in a sport with so many variables lap by lap is mesmerising when it happens. And another for Johann Zarco, who (before his home GP in France) looked the Yamaha rider most likely to snap the manufacturer’s losing run (more of which later) with a series of searing performances.

Others have had flashes in a year where 10 different riders have already made the podium, but nobody has been as fast for as long as Marquez has this year, and it isn’t close.

Encouragement award

Rossi deserves a reward ribbon here for his persistence, hauling a bike that isn’t at race-winning pace into podium contention time and time again with (typically) canny racecraft and decisive overtaking that overcomes his (alas, also typically) underwhelming qualifying efforts; he had a dramatic pole at home at Mugello and was on the front row at Assen, but he’s often having to fight recovery missions from the third row or further back.

Danilo Petrucci is worthy of a mention here as well, the Italian nabbing a podium at Le Mans and nabbing a factory Ducati seat for next year after Lorenzo’s shock defection to Honda to be Marquez’s teammate in 2018.

His Alma Pramac Ducati teammate Miller gets kudos too, finishing the first five Grands Prix of the year in the top 10, taking a big-balls pole with the lap of his life in Argentina, and riding an immaculate race in France, where fourth was arguably his most convincing big-bike result yet (even more so than his win at Assen 2016, as he conceded himself).

Elsewhere, Alex Rins has been fast when he’s stayed on the bike long enough; in the first nine GPs of the year, the Spaniard had two podiums (second at Assen and third in Argentina) and a fifth place in Italy, but five race-ending crashes. And Rins’ compatriot Tito Rabat has nearly scored as many points already (30) as he has in his best MotoGP full season (35 last year), turning his career trajectory around on a satellite Ducati after leaving Marc VDS Honda behind at the end of ‘17.

Could do better

Maverick Vinales was expected, along with Dovizioso, to be Marquez’s main roadblock to the title this season, but the Spaniard has been up and down in temperament as well as results, a pole in Austin (after Marquez was penalised) and just three podiums in the first nine races seeing him sit third in the title chase through persistence more than any real pace, and with his frustration mounting by the race. Rossi has done marginally better on the same equipment, but perception is everything – and the sight of Vinales getting swamped in the early laps of races on cold tyres and with a full fuel tank has been depressingly common in 2018.

Dovizioso winds up here too, if only for the strange way his season has shaken out – so, so consistent when he challenged Marquez for the title all the way to the line last year, he’s already crashed out three times in 2018 to make his chance of the crown the longest of long shots by the halfway mark.

Dovi’s compatriot, Andrea Iannone, completes our trio here, the Suzuki man showing why he should be pictured under ‘mercurial’ in the dictionary given how hot (back-to-back podiums in Austin and Jerez) and cold he can blow. In his sixth season (and his last one with Ducati before moving to Aprilia for next year), he’s nothing if not consistently inconsistent …

Needs a strong second semester

Vinales, for his own state of mind and Yamaha’s future given Rossi, 40 next February, won’t be (dare we contemplate) around forever. Dovizioso, who simply can’t afford to be out-scored by Lorenzo before the Spaniard splits for Honda, particularly as he had a 40-point lead over his teammate after four races. Miller, who will be hoping to rekindle the form from his first five races as he prepares to step up to become his team’s leader next year when Petrucci moves up and Moto2 front-runner Pecco Bagnaia moves in. And Alvaro Bautista, the Spanish veteran who sits 13th in the championship, who must prove his worth if he’s to be picked up by anyone for 2019 after the Angel Nieto Ducati satellite entry sold its grid slots to the Petronas Yamaha MotoGP team, to be run by the Sepang International Circuit. Which brings us to …

Extra detention

Dani Pedrosa’s body of work over a 13-year stint in the premier class didn’t deserve to end up like this, nor in this category. The Spaniard announced ahead of the German GP that 2018 would be his last lap, finally putting an end to persistent rumours that he’d switch to the aforementioned Malaysian-backed Yamaha project after spending his entire career riding for Honda. Once he puts a full stop on his career in Valencia, he’ll surely be remembered as the best rider never to have won a premier-class world title, and you wouldn’t bet against him riding with more freedom than he’s had so far this year and snaring another win before he leaves, extending his remarkable run of at least one victory in all of his MotoGP campaigns.

It’s testament to the esteem Pedrosa is held in that we’d even contemplate another victory after how underwhelming 2018 has been to date; on the same bike as the championship leader, remember, Pedrosa has a best result of fifth, has missed Q2 twice and is 116 points behind Marquez. Ten different riders have made the podium this season, yet nine races in, the 32-year-old isn’t one of them. Pedrosa’s legacy remains intact no matter what happens from here, but this isn’t the end we envisaged for one of the sport’s front-runners for over a decade.

Loyalty to Honda could have been one reason for Pedrosa not finishing his career on a Yamaha, but Yamaha’s wretched recent record could have been another, which is why they’ve also ended up in our mid-season naughty corner. Yamaha’s last win came when Rossi saluted at Assen last year, 19 races ago, and the most recent round at the Sachsenring represented an unwanted record for the manufacturer, as the drought became its biggest ever (Yamaha previously went 18 races without a win between Malaysia 2002 and South Africa 2004, Rossi’s first race with the marque). Three riders in the top five of the standings is one thing, but entirely another when they have zero wins between them …

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Miller Time: The road to recovery

Jack Miller writes about being an innocent bystander in some first-lap chaos in Germany, and a comeback ride that left him happy but annoyed with himself in equal measure.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

Started 14th, finished 14th – doesn’t sound like much of a German Grand Prix, does it? But there was a lot more going on in that race than what it looks like in the results, and while 14th isn’t going to get me that excited, it’s better than being where I was after three corners, which was last and almost in the fence.

It was a pretty chaotic start in the middle of the pack, and you probably saw what happened when Pol (Espargaro) ran into (Alex) Rins and I didn’t have any choice but to run off track at Turn 3.

It all actually kicked off before at Turn 2 when Pol hit me, he definitely rode a little bit out of control on the first couple of corners. He then hit (Andrea) Iannone and Rins, I forget in which order but he hit both of them, and I got tangled in it. I ran off through the gravel trap, managed to miss all the bikes and riders and got as far as the wall, managed to stay on and dug myself out of that, and there I was in last place, 29 laps to go and a fair way behind the rest of the pack for something I basically had nothing to do with. An innocent bystander, basically. So from there, it could only really get better …

From there it was head down, bum up and salvage what I could. I managed to get two points and somehow stay inside the top 10 (just, but I’ll take it) in the championship, and the good thing was that the pace was pretty decent. All weekend we’d been working on the race pace and that had been a challenge, because 30 laps around Sachsenring is a tyre management challenge as much as a race. The race pace felt good and my fastest lap for the race was ninth-fastest overall, so it probably shows you where I could have been without the incident. A pretty good recovery for me, really.

My pace was good enough to be well inside the top 10, that’s the annoying part. But part of that is on me too, because I’ve got to qualify better than where I did in 14th. That’s three races in a row I’ve missed Q2, and that’s the problem when you get buried for the start like that, you end up back in the pack with those sorts of guys and there’s always drama. For the second half of the season we have to recover some of the qualifying pace from the first half of the year; I was in Q2 for five of the first six races and you can avoid some of that other stuff when you’re ahead of it and they’re all running into one another instead of me. That’s got to be a focus for me because someone else’s problem can destroy your race like it did for me this time.

I’ve been coming to the Sachsenring for a while now, my first world championship race on a 125cc was actually here seven years ago, and while there’s some unknowns with whether we keep coming back here, I hope we do. It’s a small track, the shortest we ride all year and the race is the most number of laps, and it’s a strange place to ride a MotoGP bike because it turns left all the time and there’s no real straights to speak of. But I don’t mind it at all, it’s got a character of its own, and the place is always packed with fans – it was hot here today, there’s 90,000 people packed in, it’s a good look for MotoGP. It’s enjoyable because it’s different. It’d be pretty boring if all the tracks were the same with one kilometre-long straights and whatnot, so you wouldn’t want 19 tracks like that, or 19 like this. A mix is good, so for that reason I hope Sachsenring stays on the calendar.

We’re nearly at the halfway stage of the championship now – nine races down, 10 to go – and I’m keeping to that pre-season goal of being inside the top 10. I’d probably hoped for better after how well things started with the pole in Argentina and the fourth place at Le Mans, but 10th so far is something to build on.

We have a mid-season break now, but it’s not as long as it used to be, just two weekends, so there’s no going back home to Oz for me. I’m at World Ducati Week at Misano in Italy next weekend which should be a bit of fun, and I’m going to drive my van there to do some dirt-tracking and whatnot. Then it’ll be a drive back to Andorra, eventually – there’s no real plans yet – before we have the back-to-back at Brno and Red Bull Ring. The Ducati should go pretty well at those tracks, so there’s two to look forward to.

Cheers, Jack

Miller Time: Back in my good place

Aussie MotoGP rider Jack Miller writes about getting his season back on track at the Dutch TT, his new Ducati deal, and what really happened with those Honda contract rumours …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

It’s been a while since I’ve had something good to write about, as we didn’t manage to finish the last two races – one of them my fault in Mugello, one where we had a mechanical (failure) in Barcelona. So even to finish at Assen was good, and to be back in the top 10 again was better. But it would have been better still if I was a little bit further up the front.

The race for the win at Assen was pretty intense as you all saw, and the slightly frustrating part for me was that I had a better view of it than most of you because I was right there behind it, but never really close enough to get involved. Definitely looked like some fun up there. Those eight bikes up the front seemed to be changing places every corner and I could see it, but it was just a bit too far for me today.

I was happy to finish, especially with the way the rear tyre was dying on me at the end, but you always want more. Thirteen seconds behind (race winner) Marc (Marquez) at the front isn’t a lot, and 11 seconds off Alex Rins who was second is about four-tenths of a second a lap. But I didn’t think there was much more for me today, and looking back at the race 45 minutes after getting off the bike, it was hard to see where I could have gained much more time. I lacked a little bit of edge grip with the tyre for the whole race compared to the guys in front of me, and I just couldn’t hang with them at the pace they were running. Annoying a bit, but that’s the facts. I’ve finished six races this year and all of them in the top 10, so it was good to keep that run going.

My race was clean, and I expected the race pace to be a bit faster for the guys right at the front, so maybe the wind played a part there – it was a lot windier today than it had been all weekend, and they were carving each other up at the front which affected the lap times too. My pace was pretty stable and that was something after a difficult weekend – we just missed making Q2 on Saturday in final practice, and then I just missed getting out of Q1 and was a row back on the grid from where I probably wanted to be. Friday started rough for me and we really chipped away at the problems we had, so to bring it home in that sort of race – made a good start, didn’t make any mistakes, stayed calm – was as good as it was going to get. Did what needed to be done, basically.

I was ahead of my teammate Danilo (Petrucci) when he crashed out and I had (Andrea) Iannone in front of me, so I was getting ready to attack him in the final laps for 10th as I didn’t have a lot of pressure from behind. He was struggling with tyres or something and ran wide at the final chicane, but there was no penalty for him because he backed off and didn’t try to take advantage of the mistake. The first time, anyway. A couple of laps later he did the same thing and didn’t back off to hand back the time he gained, maybe he thought he’d get away with it and see if he could live with the consequences. I knew he had a two-second penalty, and he would have as well. So as long as I stayed closer than two seconds, he’d hand me a place for free. I was actually close enough to have a lunge at him if I had to, but there wasn’t a lot of point. Why risk it? I was going to get the position at the end anyway. So, 11th over the line, but 10th in the results.

I’ve not spoken not you all since I confirmed I’d be staying here at Alma Pramac Racing, which happened at the last race in Barcelona. I’m so stoked to be back here again next year and on a factory Ducati too, and there’s a lot of pressure off my shoulders for the rest of this year having next year sorted out so early. So it’s time to get down to business now, keep the momentum going from the start of the season where I’ve had a pole in Argentina and a fourth in the dry in Le Mans, and try to avoid races like Italy and Catalunya where we don’t make the most of things. The rest of this year is head down, keep learning and make myself ready for the factory bike and the extra responsibility next year. Knowing where I’ll be in 2019 already takes the pressure off and gets the distractions out of the way so I can build from here. It’s more than I could have hoped for this early in the year, normally things aren’t as settled as that for me, or at least they haven’t been much in the past.

The Repsol Honda stuff? You might have read that I’d signed to go there around Mugello time, and don’t worry, I read it too … So let’s clear that up: there was talk, definitely, but no contract negotiations. It’s a big step from talking about something to negotiating to signing … so I don’t know who said what to who or whatever to turn that into a story that I’d definitely be racing there next year. Talking … it’s always good to know what your options could have been over there. Signing something? That’s a lot different …

Germany is next in a couple of weeks, and we’re almost at the halfway stage of the season already. It’s a really particular sort of a track with left-handers one after the other, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Ducati goes around there – I’ll speak to you from Sachsenring.

Cheers, Jack

Miller Time: Flying higher in France

Jack Miller writes about equalling a season-best with fourth at Le Mans, and how he feels about being higher in the MotoGP standings than ever before.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

It’s going to be a pretty good night here at Le Mans for the team after my fourth place and second for my teammate Danilo (Petrucci) – there were more than 100,000 people here today and the roads getting out are 100 per cent jammed, so either we stay and celebrate, or I need to find another way out … For me though, this was a pretty big result. Could be better, could be worse … But all things considered, maybe this was the most convincing race of my career in MotoGP.

I know, what about Assen 2016, I can hear you saying it. There’s never going to be anything that feels like that win, but it was raining, guys crashed out, etc etc. I was fourth this year in Argentina when I was on pole and pretty frustrated to be off the podium, but that was another weird race with that start (don’t worry, I’m coming back to that) and everything that went on. This one in France was different. Less than a second off the podium, six seconds off the win, a dry and normal day, no random stuff happening. Completely on merit. Maybe not the most exciting race for me, sure, but definitely one to be happy about.

All weekend I had good pace, and I was more hopeful of that rather than expecting it because Le Mans hadn’t been great for me in MotoGP, or for Ducati in the past – this is normally a Yamaha track. But I was within half a second of the session-leading time in every session except first practice, and never out of the top 10 after FP1. Qualified seventh, was fourth in the morning warm-up … it was a result there to get.

The track was the hottest it had been all weekend in the race, up to 45 degrees, and that maybe hurt me near the end when I was trying to chase Valentino (Rossi) down for the podium. I always seemed to be about 1.5secs behind him and could never really push as much as I wanted at the end, both me and Danilo went with the soft front/soft rear tyres and we had to manage them in those last few laps. I had a moment with a big tyre squish in the corner coming onto the back straight, missed the apex, got up on the kerb … that was the warning for me. Maybe if I don’t make that mistake, I’m there to battle with him on the last two laps. But anyway, you saw how easy it was to throw it down the road today with ‘Dovi’ (Andrea Dovizioso) and (Johann) Zarco crashing. So fourth for me is a great result, and two bikes in the top four for the team is awesome. The best GP17 here last year was ‘Dovi’, and he was 11 seconds off the win – a year later and on the same bike I was six seconds off, so that’s pretty damned good.

I’m up to sixth in the championship now – and actually only 10 points off Maverick (Vinales) in second, now Marc (Marquez) has run off at the front after winning again. It’s the highest I’ve ever been in MotoGP and it feels like it’s not a fluke, there’s not one crazy outlier result that has me up there where maybe I shouldn’t be. That’s eight top-10s in a row if you go back to last year, and twice the next-best off the podium in five races. I want one of them for sure, but I’m pretty optimistic it can come. Keep the run going, keep learning (I felt like I learned more being closer to the front today), and anything can happen. We’re not far from those guys at all.

I mentioned the race wasn’t the most exciting, for me anyway, but that’s fine when you grab a heap of points. I was in a train with Danilo and Vale from the beginning, and we all moved forwards as a pack, Danilo better than us other two, but we all moved up with the crashes ahead and then got past Jorge (Lorenzo), who went with the same tyres as me but couldn’t make them last as long. I passed him just after the halfway stage, and then we all got strung out a bit. Danilo couldn’t get to Marc, Vale couldn’t get to Danilo, I couldn’t get to Vale. But still. A bit boring can be pretty good …

I mentioned Argentina before, and you might have seen that there’s a new rule being brought in which some people are calling the ‘Miller Rule’ after what happened off the start there, where I was waiting on the grid while there was a huge mess behind me with guys changing tyres, going off the grid, starting at the back … it looked a bit ridiculous. From now on, any rider that doesn’t come to the grid after the warm-up lap will have to start from pit lane and do a ride-through penalty in the race. If you choose the right tyre on the sighting lap and everyone else comes in, then there’s more of a price to pay. Like what happened in Argentina, except for the price to pay bit … Would have been handy to have had that on that day (I probably would have been in front by 30 seconds on the first lap), but at least it’s sorted out for next time, and there’ll probably be a next time.

Mugello is next, and my first Italian Grand Prix on an Italian bike. That’ll be cool, and the Ducati usually flies there too. I’ve generally sucked there (three races, one point), but this year so far has been all about fixing those circuits where I haven’t done well before like Jerez and now Le Mans. Why not there too?

Cheers, Jack

Miller Time: Stepping up in Spain

Aussie MotoGP rider Jack Miller writes about finally overcoming his Jerez hoodoo, and offers his thoughts on the dramatic crash that took out three big names at the front of the field.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

That one had been a long time coming. Like four years a long time coming. Jerez has pretty much sucked for me since I got to MotoGP, and I hadn’t even managed to score a point here until this year, not one. So to get 10 points, finish sixth and be right up there all weekend makes me feel, let’s say, content. Could have been better, but really happy anyway.

I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I’d qualified better, and definitely if I’d started better, I had a bit of a shocker. I fell down to 16th at one stage on the first lap, so to pass a heap of guys and work my way though, that was pretty satisfying.

In the end, I was three places off the podium, but just 1.5 seconds behind (Andrea) Iannone who finished third, so that’s a bit frustrating. What if I’d been able to qualify further up, probably where I should have been? I easily got through to Q2 on Saturday – I was sixth-fastest in the overall practice times – so 12th in qualifying was a fair bit less than I wanted. That 1.5 seconds to someone who started five places ahead of me … yeah, frustrating. But only a little bit. Nine seconds off the victory, that makes me happy because it shows we’re making improvements.

It was a pretty warm one by the time we raced on Sunday, and this wasn’t a race you could do well in on the early laps, you had to have tyres that would last. I’d barely done any laps on the hard Michelins all weekend, so I popped a rear one in to get a feeling for it in Sunday morning warm-up. The track was only 16 degrees then and it ended up being 40 in the race at 2 o’clock, so maybe not the best preparation. But there was no way, for me anyway, you would have been able to race the medium and push it all the way for 25 laps, and the soft tyre, forget it. It was a bit of a step in the darkness, but really happy with the decision.

Everyone saw the crash that took out ‘Dovi’ (Andrea Dovizioso) and Jorge (Lorenzo) along with Dani (Pedrosa), and I was the third bike in a train with my teammate Danilo (Petrucci) and Valentino (Rossi) at the time, so it was crazy to see those guys all off their bikes and on the side of the track as we came through soon after – actually Dani’s bike was in the middle of the track, so we were a bit lucky there, especially as I was the last one of us to see it.

The whole thing was a bit odd. Dani, being a smaller guy like he is, was probably hanging off the side of the bike and didn’t see Lorenzo cutting back in, because Lorenzo does that sometimes. He should have been able to see Dani coming beneath him as he was cutting back, out of his peripheral vision he should have been able to spot that. ‘Dovi’ getting caught up in that, that sucks for him because he’s a championship contender, so to have points taken away like that is pretty harsh.

It was later that lap when I figured ‘hang on, we’re all top six now’ and that maybe a podium was on. Turn 6 where those guys went down is one the best passing spots and I was able to get Vale there to get up to fifth, but he got me back at the last corner with three laps left (my slowest lap of the race) and I didn’t get another shot at him the last two laps because I’d taken too much out of the front tyre coming back through early on. I was having a few moments, so it was time to mellow it down a little bit and bring it home. In the end, none of us got Iannone anyway – Danilo passed him for a lap, but Iannone came back. Fourth and sixth is a great result for the team though, for sure.

That’s four top 10s out of four for me now this season and I’m still top 10 in the championship, which was definitely the goal coming in this year after just missing last year, and being with a new team and all of that. Seems to me that it’s realistic to stay there, too. All weekend at Jerez I felt good, my injuries from before Austin didn’t bother me and I had really consistent pace at a track that probably doesn’t suit our bike and definitely hasn’t suited me in the past. That’s a really good sign.

I’ve got family over from home at the moment plus I’ve been spending some time with Billy Van Eerde as he did his first Red Bull Rookies races this weekend (give him a follow, he’s got a good head on his shoulders and I reckon he’s going to go really well), so there’s been a bit on. But we’re straight back into it tomorrow with a test at Jerez for Monday, and then it’s time to go back to Le Mans for the French GP. I feel closer to being a podium contender all the time now, and it’s all the small details where we’ll improve the most – the starts, first laps and that sort of thing. Tidy that up, and we can challenge for podiums in the future.

Cheers, Jack

The five MotoGP lessons we learned from the flyaways

MotoGP returns to Europe this Sunday for the Spanish Grand Prix – but what did the races in Qatar, Argentina and Austin tell us about what’s about to happen next?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

After three races in faraway places, the MotoGP calendar begins its European swing this weekend with the Spanish Grand Prix, the first of 11 straight events in the sport’s heartland before the Asian flyaways to (nearly) end the season. But what happened in Qatar, Argentina and the United States gave us plenty of food for thought, and some pointers of what’s to come from Jerez this Sunday onwards.

We’ve had three race winners already (Andrea Dovizioso at Losail, Cal Crutchlow at Termas and Marc Marquez – who else? – at COTA), and there’s five riders within eight points at the top of the standings. But what the numbers don’t tell you on face value is the story behind them. New title contenders have emerged, perennial front-runners look shot for the season already, and the sport’s benchmark might (gulp) be further ahead of his rivals than ever before.

What have we already learned about 2018 just three races in? Plenty. But we’ll restrict ourselves to these five findings.

The metronome keeps ticking
Marquez almost laughed when he realised, after dominating in Austin to win his sixth straight MotoGP race at COTA, who he trailed in the championship standings by a single point as the sport returned to Europe – none other than his 2017 sparring partners, Dovizioso and Ducati. “‘Dovi’ is the most consistent rider,” the Spaniard said, and nobody was arguing with him. The Italian hasn’t changed his approach this year after the best campaign of his long career 12 months ago; in a world of high-speed chaos, ‘Desmo Dovi’ is the constant, winning when he should (Qatar, where the Ducati was a rocketship on the straight), and doing the best he could when he couldn’t (he was last on the timesheets after a dreadful opening day of practice in Argentina, but finished sixth in the race and banked 10 precious points). It’s a potentially title-winning approach if he can pull it off for the entire season, but one that’s fraught with risk – one down race last year (Australia) all but killed off his championship charge, and he’ll need his trademark metronomic approach to last all 19 races against the spikiness of Marquez’s results. Dovizioso is unlikely to beat himself, but can he really beat …

The fastest rider is still the fastest rider
With four MotoGP titles in his five years in the premier class, Marquez has hardly been hanging about – but it was one race where he was classified 18th this season that best shows the advantage he seemingly has over the rest. Sure, we could dissect Austin and his superiority there, but poring through the lap times from Argentina – yes, the same race where he copped so much criticism after three penalties and a certain coming-together with one Valentino Rossi – shows that the rest of the field should be very, very afraid of Marquez in full flight.

Looking at every lap from the 24-lap race in Argentina isn’t the best indicator, given Marquez was stuck in traffic at the back of the field after serving a lap seven ride-through penalty – but the excellent MotoGP website motomatters.com found that if you extrapolated the fastest 20 laps of his race, he was over six seconds clear of race-winner Crutchlow, and light years ahead of those riders expected to mount a challenge to his championship dominance (nearly 14 seconds to the good of Maverick Vinales, and over 21 seconds ahead of Rossi and Dovizioso). Like we said, terrifying. As, some would argue, was his conduct coming through the pack in the race, not to mention the ferocity of the vitriol coming from the Rossi and Marquez corners of the internet in the days afterwards …

It remains to be seen if Marquez’s modus operandi for the remainder of the season will be to do what he did in Austin – clear off at the start of the race and try to leave any controversy behind – but if there were any doubts as to who the fastest man (still) is in MotoGP, Austin – but, more strikingly, Argentina – answered that question.

Is it a race in two already?
Are we set for Marquez v Dovizioso Mk II for the title? Sure, the early standings have Vinales (five points behind Dovizioso) as well as Crutchlow and Johann Zarco (eight points adrift) right there as we head into Jerez, but it’s hard to see the latter pair, for all their skill, speed and smarts, making a championship charge for the entire season on satellite machinery. Jorge Lorenzo is struggling mightily on the second Ducati (more of which later), and while Rossi is, well, Rossi, he’s won just one of the past 31 Grands Prix since 2016, which is no recipe for a title tilt. Which might mean it’s up to Vinales to stay in the mix if the biggest prize isn’t to be decided by a one-on-one battle again in 2018.

A pole (inherited, but a P1 start nonetheless) followed by a second-place finish at COTA was a step in the right direction for Vinales, but finding a development path with the Yamaha that both he and Rossi seem happy with seems to be an impossible task, and both riders constantly talk of the compromises they have to make with a bike that isn’t quite ‘there’ for either of them and their preferences. Can a middle ground be reached that enables one – or both – riders to stay in the mix with Dovizioso’s consistency and Marquez’s velocity? Which way do Yamaha lean? The next few races will tell us plenty.

Jack Miller, the wise man of MotoGP?
The internet more or less melted in the wake of Marquez v Rossi in Argentina, with memories of Malaysia 2015 quick to surface with the various fanbases, and media doing all it could to light the touchpaper for extra eyeballs and attention. By the time the riders had assembled in Austin, the media debriefs of both protagonists broadcast by the sport’s official website in an unprecedented move (just think of the clicks!), Jack Miller had heard enough.

A participant in the pre-event press conference, Miller spoke like a man who had been waiting for the opportunity to vent for a week. “We are all here racing and risking our lives, and I think for these fans and also riders to fight against each other, I think is quite silly and immature,” Miller said, metaphorically wagging a finger at those who stoked the fire. “They are quite old and they have to remember life is short and we are risking our lives here. I have seen this situation unfolding with a lot of people and people picking sides, and I just want to refresh people’s memory of Marco Simoncelli and Dani Pedrosa and how that ended …”

Miller, the wise old head of MotoGP? There’s still plenty of ‘Jackass’ in the 23-year-old Australian – there was a reason he and no other rider dared to take on the slick circuit in qualifying in Argentina and roll the dice the way he did, which paved the way for his amazing first career pole position – but there’s also an increasing maturity to his riding in his first season on a Ducati with the Alma Pramac team, which, when allied to his natural talent and bravery, means he’s a man on the rise.

Three top-10 finishes in succession to start the season shows that things are pointing in the right direction. Now, if only Miller can successfully navigate the weekends between races without hurting himself …

The silly season starts earlier than ever
We’re three races into a 19-race 2018 season, yet we’re already talking about 2019 and beyond. Zarco off to KTM to get the full factory ride Yamaha can’t provide because of the Rossi/Vinales pairing that will last until at least the end of the 2020 season? Lorenzo to escape his Ducati hell and sign with Suzuki? In three races, he has six points and is in 16th place in the standings, 40 points and 15 places behind his teammate … Dovizioso rejecting Ducati’s initial offer for a contract extension (as he might, given reports that his current deal pays him one-sixth of the money being spent on Lorenzo)? There’ll be more as the northern hemisphere summer nears. Some weeks we might even talk about the racing …

Miller Time: A battle in Texas

Aussie MotoGP rider Jack Miller writes from Austin about overcoming a shoulder injury and a bad qualifying to sneak into the top 10 again.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

Another top 10 finish? Yeah, I’ll take that – that’s six in a row for me now. It was a tough old weekend for us in Texas and definitely a bit of a let-down after how good Argentina was, but sometimes you have to make the best of a shitty situation and get what you can out of it, so ninth place is a pretty positive end to what wasn’t the most positive of weekends.

I expected more coming into the weekend, but we struggled with the bike set-up from the get-go (as the Americans would say), and I was struggling with a shoulder injury that I carried into the weekend as well. Not ideal.

We kept pretty quiet about the shoulder all weekend, but now we’re done, I can admit that it wasn’t great. I was out training in California after Argentina, and I fell off doing some mountain biking. The injuries are nothing that some rest time and recovery can’t handle, but I ended up with some muscle damage, some bruising and a little tear on my rotator cuff on my right shoulder. And a crack in my collarbone as well. I tell you, sometimes the time between the races can be more dangerous than the race weekends themselves …

I had a crash in final practice just before qualifying and had to use my second bike for Q1, so that was partly the reason I struggled and only started from 18th. Saying that, 18th and not hurting myself again after the injury I came in with actually wasn’t a bad result – there’s no small crashes here because of the nature of the track, as I found out the hard way a few years ago when I had to miss the race here. So, 18th sucked, but being upright and not too sore afterwards was a win of sorts.

I would have liked to have finished in front of my old teammate Tito (Rabat), but he got me in the end after I passed him for eighth with about three laps to go. We had a good last-lap battle and I think we both enjoyed it a lot, but he got me this time. He passed me at the end of the back straight on the last lap but ran a little wide, so I got back through. But then he got me at the left-hander soon after that; I ran narrow to try to block the inside kerb, but as I did that I saw his front tyre coming out of nowhere, so I guess he was pretty set on coming through. He got me by about a tenth of a second at the line by the end. But a good battle anyway, and I’ll have to make sure I get him back next time.

The Circuit of the Americas is an amazing facility and they’ve clearly spent a heap of money on it, but the track itself doesn’t tend to produce great MotoGP races for whatever reason. Part of that is because Marc (Marquez) clears off and wins every time we come here, but the track layout doesn’t give you as many passing chances as you’d think. I did most of my passing at Turn 1 up the hill, because it’s so wide there that you can take all sorts of different lines and still get the bike stopped up the top. I always try for a tighter line there, and that made my race in some ways today because I got a few spots on the first lap of the race, and I was able to get past Jorge (Lorenzo) there later on too.

It’s Turn 1 and the corner before the long back straight, they’re my preferred spots. But it’s funny, passing is way harder than you’d think here. There’s some good passing spots in theory, but if you pass you can run wide so easily, and then the other guy cuts back on you, squares the corner off and stays ahead anyway. It’s a wide track with a lot of run-off, so that’s the result. It’s a bit one-line, follow the leader, that sort of thing.

The other big talking point about the track was how bad the surface was, especially on Friday when we realised what had happened to it after they’d tried to remove some of the worst of the bumps from when we were here last year. Friday was definitely the worst it has ever been, it was filthy. It’s time to resurface the whole thing really, you can’t keep sticking band-aids on it and expect the problems to go away, it just won’t happen. It’s gone past being able to be fixed and patched up, and I reckon it needs a fair bit of work.

It’s back to Europe now after a long few weeks away, and it’ll be good to get back “home” and do some training, and try to get the shoulder more right for Jerez. I’ve got young Billy Van Eerde near me in Andorra at the moment, he’s the young Aussie who’s doing the Red Bull Rookies Cup this year and has been there a couple of weeks, so I’ll spend some time with him and get him ready for what he has coming up. And maybe ease up a bit on the mountain bike …

Cheers, Jack