MotoGP could not have asked for a better, more exciting opening to its 2013 season.
Though Jorge Lorenzo won the race by six seconds from pole position without ever being challenged, it was the battle for second place between a resurgent Valentino Rossi and rookie phenom Marc Marquez that thrilled fans around the globe.
As an encore, the traveling carnival that is MotoGP will head to Austin, Texas for the first time this weekend. The riders will test their skills on the brand new Circuit of the Americas that, by all accounts, is stunning in its beauty, and brutal in its technical challenges.
Following is a look at how the CRT and prototype machines are likely to perform in their first visit to the Lone Star State's newest Grand Prix circuit.
Colin Edwards, known to race fans as The Texas Tornado, is coming home.
Sadly, his return comes after a disappointing opening round during which a transmission issue caused his front sprocket to break, forcing him to retire from the race with seven laps to go. From MotoGP.com:
We made a change just before the race, going a little bit harder on the front forks spring, and the bike was fantastic,” an enthusiastic Edwards began. “It did everything right tonight. I started the race feeling confident and tried to heat up the clutch to get it to slip and it didn’t slip at all, so then I had to readjust and lost positions.
The start was terrible; I saw the guys in front of me and started to make some moves…with seven laps to go I had an issue at Turn 10. I shifted down to fifth gear and it would come back to fourth, so I would have to shift again and it broke the front sprocket. I was lucky the chain didn’t lock up the wheel. Thanks to my team, my bike felt good today. We were just unlucky.
Throughout the preseason and opening round, Edwards has been much happier with his Kawasaki FTR than the BMW-powered machine he rode last year.
Still, it will not be easy for Edwards to earn the top CRT place in parc ferme.
The CRT team to beat is—and will likely remain—the Power Electronics Aspar Aprilia team. Randy De Puniet had a disappointing opening round, but teammate Aleix Espargaro finished seven seconds in front of the Frenchman, and only five seconds behind prototype-rider Ben Spies.
Look for Edwards, or any other CRT rider, to challenge De Puniet first. If they can accomplish that much, they may have a realistic shot at going after Espargaro.
Thankfully, with Yamaha having reached an agreement to lease its M1 engines to teams participating in the premier class, 2013 should be the final year of the race-within-a-race that the CRT experiment has provided.
The duo of Andrea Iannone and Ben Spies shared an entirely predictable opening round of the season.
They are on the worst of the prototype machines, and, fittingly, they finished as the last two bikes ahead of the CRTs.
Iannone crossed the line nearly eight seconds ahead of Spies, but that too was expected as Spies continues to rehab from offseason shoulder surgery.
Austin will be Spies' first Grand Prix in his home state, but his family and friends will not get to see Spies perform at the top of his abilities (per MotorcycleNews.com): "Ben Spies fears his recovering right shoulder injury won’t be back to 100 percent strength until early next month when the MotoGP world championship’s European campaign kicks off in Jerez."
The Pramac team will struggle in Austin. However, when Spies returns to full fitness and Iannone has a few races on the Desmosedici under his belt, look for the duo to inch closer to the factory Ducati team, and perhaps even the weaker of the satellite-team riders.
The Go & Fun Gresini Honda does not like Qatar, and the team can't figure out why.
When asked about his sixth-place finish in the opening round, the Spanish rider Alvaro Bautista said (per MotoGP.com): "I'm not so happy. Not for the position but for the feeling I have in the bike. The problem we had all weekend was the same we had last year at this track. I had no front stability, no feeling."
Since taking over at Gresini last year, Bautista has not been able to match the performance of his predecessor, Marco Simoncelli. He was running well at the final preseason test in Jerez, but then sustained fractures to two of his fingers and a strained knee as the result of a day-two crash, which forced him to miss the third and final day of testing.
Though Bautista wasn't invited, the rest of the Hondas ran well in the private preseason COTA test. Don't be surprised to see Bautista put in an impressive performance this weekend.
Stefan Bradl's Qatar campaign was cut short by a crash that mystified him and his team (per MotoGP.com):
"Since the beginning of the race I was not confident enough with the front tyre feeling and I felt the same issue we suffered on Friday - probably even worse,” Bradl explained. “It didn’t feel so bad in the warm-up, as I was lapping consistently fast.
"Unfortunately in the race I could not push over the front and could not do anything to improve my pace. Rossi passed me and I was not capable of following him because of the front issue, as I was losing the front in every corner.
"Honestly I have not made any mistake, so I cannot explain exactly why I crashed. We will investigate, checking the data together with my technicians.
The German rider—and 2011 Moto2 World Champion—has received increased factory support for 2013. He was invited to accompany the factory Honda team to the private COTA test earlier this year. With the increased factory support and his level of familiarity with the new track being superior to that of some of his rivals, a top-five finish is not out of the question for the LCR rider.
Cal Crutchlow's performances in practice and qualifying were pleasant surprises in Qatar.
More competitive racing up front has been the fondest desire of MotoGP fans for some time. So, to see Crutchlow finish Free Practice 4 with the fastest time, and then finish second-fastest in qualifying gave hope that there would be one more rider capable of challenging for race wins.
Challenge he did, at least initially.
For the first 17 laps of the 22-lap contest, Crutchlow was entrenched in a battle for second place with the factory Honda duo of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez.
With only five laps to go, he was caught from behind by the surging Valentino Rossi. Once Rossi was past, Crutchlow followed too aggressively and ran off the track in turn one.
Despite that single mistake, Crutchlow showed throughout the weekend that he is a force to be reckoned with.
Crutchlow's absence from the private COTA test will be to his detriment, but if he can acclimate himself quickly, there is no reason to believe he won't be back at the front, fighting for the podium.
His teammate, rookie rider Bradley Smith, had a much less auspicious start to the 2013 season, but no worse than one would expect from a rookie in his first race.
Smith, somewhat surprisingly—considering his pace throughout the practice sessions—qualified ninth-fastest for the race, ahead of Andrea Iannone and Nicky Hayden.
Then, only five laps into the race, he lost the front end in Turn 7 and crashed out.
Smith chalked it up to a learning experience, of which there will be many more before the end of the 2013 season. He is on a very good bike, but Austin is too soon for the young Brit to finish inside the top eight or nine.
A first trip to a brand-new racetrack is not the ideal setting for a team looking to fix its bike; but that is exactly the situation in which the factory Ducati team finds itself.
Much has been written about the Italian manufacturer's troubles with its ever-finicky Desmosedici, some of it by me.
It is, however, clear from Dovizioso's Qatar qualifying performance that if someone is able to do what Valentino Rossi and his crew could not and fix the Desmo's problems, Dovizioso will be fighting for the podium.
Nicky Hayden, better known to some as The Kentucky Kid, is improving, as evidenced by his finishing only 0.6 seconds behind Dovizioso in Qatar.
If the bike's problems remain for the race in Austin, the tight, technical corners of the track will be a nightmare for all unfortunate enough to be atop a Ducati.
The private preseason test will likely pay huge dividends for the factory Honda and Yamaha teams.
Repsol Honda team rider and rookie phenom Marc Marquez will benefit perhaps more than any other.
Marquez topped the time sheets for all three days of the private test, besting the only three riders with a realistic chance of winning the championship.
When you add in his strong showing at the opening race in Qatar, where he battled turn-for-turn with sport icon Valentino Rossi, choosing Marquez as your favorite to win the inaugural MotoGP race in Austin would be an easily defensible position.
Though he won six out of the final eight races last year, Dani Pedrosa's enigmatic ways are once again at the forefront.
After leading five of the first six preseason practice sessions, the Repsol rider finished day three of the COTA test 0.6 seconds behind his compatriot teammate.
Will we see the Pedrosa of late 2012 and early 2013, or will we see the rider who struggled in Qatar on his way to a disappointing fourth-place finish, a full 3.2 seconds behind his young teammate?
Either way, it will be telling.
Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi were unable to match the performances of their Repsol Honda rivals during the private COTA test.
Neither seemed very concerned about it, as they both skipped the third and final day of the test.
Rossi answered all questions about his abilities with the classic battle for second place in which he and Marc Marquez were involved in Qatar. The Doctor is back. To expect him anywhere other than the front of the field would be foolish.
Lorenzo's race win in Qatar was impressive, but he was never challenged after getting off the line well from pole position. Some of the most exciting moments of the season are going to come when he gets behind Rossi or Marquez for the first time.
Don't get caught up in their times from the private test. They were working on setting up their bikes for the track, not winning a race.
They will both be at or near the front on Sunday.