As the checkered flag fell in Argentina, the shape of the 2017 season changed. Suddenly, Yamaha’s Maverick Viñales and partner Valentino Rossi, the Boys in Blue, sit on top of the world looking down. Those looking up, WAY up, include defending champion Marc Marquez of Honda and the factory Ducati team, currently residing on the other side of the proverbial tracks. Marquez has never lost, deep in the heart of Texas, which makes Sunday’s contest what my wife (eyebrows raised) refers to as “critical?”

Even though it’s so early in the season – Round 3 – the Yamaha contingent appears to be in danger of getting away. Viñales with two wins, Rossi with two podia. Things in general going quite well thank you. Jorge Lorenzo and his new employers at Ducati Corse – not so well, a 10th and last week’s early DNF to show for his efforts thus far. Marquez and Dani Pedrosa slammed to the tarmac instantly at the same exact location – different laps, with Jack Miller narrowly avoiding a third crash there – in a mechanical Venus Flytrap for factory Hondas at Turn 2 last time around. Having left for Argentina in a bit of a hole, the Repsol Honda team imploded, their 2017 machine appearing difficult to ride and hard on tires. Perhaps, as LCR loudmouth Cal Crutchlow intimated, gas consumption, too.

Marquez has never lost in the first four seasons at the pretentiously-named Circuit of the Americas (as if Laguna Seca and Indianapolis don’t exist). The purpose-built facility has been a Honda favorite since its inception in 2013. In this wacky season, it would not surprise to see Marquez, Viñales and The Black Knight, Jack Miller, fighting for podium spots in a reprise of 2014, when Miller won the Moto3 race, Viñales the Moto2 and Marquez in MotoGP.

Things could not be going much better for Yamaha’s Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi right now.

As strange as it sounds, the 2017 season could devolve into an uneven two man, intra-team race between Viñales and Rossi, similar to the F-1 whippings administered by the 2002 factory Ferraris of Schumacher and Barrichello, who took turns winning 15 of 17 races that year. After last season, with nine different winners, we thought we were past all that. This weekend could shed some serious light on that thinking.

Recent History at COTA

Marc Marquez, whom I refer to as Captain America while the rest of the world calls him Marc Marquez, has never experienced defeat in Austin. He won easily as a rookie in 2013. He overwhelmed teammate Dani Pedrosa in 2014 by over four seconds, with Andrea Dovizioso a further 17 seconds in arrears on the factory Ducati.

Marc Marquez has yet to be beaten at Circuit of the Americas.

In 2015, Dovi finished second and Rossi third in a generally uneventful procession. Last year, while Marquez was sunnily getting away, Pedrosa lost his grits, his bike taking Dovizioso down from behind; the Italian never knew, as it were, what hit him. Besides #93, the last men standing on the podium were Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo, and a “cautious” Andrea Iannone on his Ducati GP16, paying penance for his takedown of teammate and podium threat Dovizioso the previous round. Viñales edged out then-Suzuki teammate Aleix Espargaro for 4th place that day.

Disorder in the Standings

Due to the logarithmic scoring system and early season shakedown cruises – curiously, Lorenzo’s complaint after his first lap fall in Argentina being he missed out on 25 laps of data – the championship standings after two rounds are currently out of equilibrium. I looked back at the standings a year ago, and they were generally orderly, what you might expect, Aliens Marquez, Lorenzo, Rossi and Pedrosa occupying the top four spots.

Scott Redding sits a surprising fourth overall in the championship, just a single point ahead of fellow Brit Cal Crutchlow.

This year, things are startlingly different. Undefeated Viñales and the experienced Rossi stand well clear of Dovi in 3rd, 16 points behind Rossi. Pramac Ducati Brit Scott Redding sits 4th. Read that last sentence twice, because you’ll probably never see it again in your lifetime. Squabbling over 5th place are Crutchlow, surprising German rookie and Tech 3 Yamaha upstart Jonas Folger, and Miller, still ambulatory this early in the season.

Another British rider on the grid, Bradley Smith is well back of his compatriots. He and teammate Pol Espargaro scored KTM its first ever MotoGP championship points at Rio Hondo.

Marc Marquez sits in a fantastic 8th place, 37 points down to Viñales, under a degree of pressure he has not previously felt in the premier class, on a bike he does not like. Jorge Lorenzo, humbled triple world champion, is a bit of a steaming pile in 18th, consorting with the likes of Tito Rabat and the debut KTM team of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, the Laverne & Shirley* of MotoGP. (*You know, ‘always together.’)

Rule #1: Beat Your Teammate

Riders know that if you do this one thing on race day, you can consider your outing to have been a success. Just beat your teammate. Here’s where the teams stand after two rounds, up close and personal:

Factory Teams
Repsol Honda Marquez – 13 Pedrosa – 11
Movistar Yamaha Viñales – 50 Rossi – 36
Factory Ducati Dovizioso – 20 Lorenzo – 5
Factory Suzuki Rins – 7 Iannone – 0
Factory Aprilia A. Espargaro – 10 Lowes – 0
Factory KTM P. Espargaro – 2 Smith – 1
Satellite Teams
Pramac Ducati Redding – 17 Petrucci – 9
Aspar Ducati Bautista – 13 Abraham – 8
Tech 3 Yamaha Folger – 16 Zarco – 11
Marc VDS Honda Miller – 15 Rabat – 5
Reale Avintia Ducati Baz – 9 Barbera – 6

As you can see, the Boys in Blue have secured almost a third of the points on offer in the first two rounds, a trend which seems unsustainable. And, ignoring the Yamahas, the satellite teams are taking it right to the factory boys all across the board. Over time, numbers like these typically regress to the mean. Essentially, I’m suggesting that the 2017 season is nowhere near over, that there is plenty of meaningful racing yet to come, and that the factory Movistar Yamaha team cannot afford to become slack or over-confident. Both Marc Marquez and Andrea Iannone have now assured us that neither will crash out of a race again this season. Taking neither offer, I would be more inclined to put my money on the Catalan than the erratic Italian.

After crashing out in Argentina, Jorge Lorenzo sits dead last among all Ducati riders with a paltry five points.

Notice too how on the three satellite Ducati teams, the GP15 rider leads the GP16 rider two to one. Had Hector Barbera not started the season injured, it could easily be three for three, with the factory bikes no better. Would it be heresy to suggest that Gigi Dall’Igna’s magic peaked in 2015 and has been quietly trending downward since then? Or is it the different riders changing things around? All these anomalies make predicting podium celebrants, a fool’s errand in the best of times, an overt waste of time. One can hope, for the sake of the season, that Marquez makes up some ground with the Yamahas this weekend. He had been mostly bulletproof in Argentina until last round. Anything other than an outright win on Sunday must be considered a painful loss.

Your Weekend Forecast

Maverick Viñales will look to win his third consecutive race. Viñales previously tasted victory at COTA in 2014 in the Moto2 class. He also finished second in the Moto3 class in 2013.

Looking ahead four or five days, the weekend’s offerings weather-wise appear to have something for every taste and budget. Friday – hot and cloudy. Saturday – cool with rain. Sunday – cool and dry. The race goes off at 3 pm Eastern time in the U.S., and we will have results and analysis right here as soon as possible.

Just for giggles, let’s do this: Two Spaniards and one Italian on the podium. There.

  • Junker

    I think you have it, but I’ll say: one Spaniard and two Italians.

    Elsewhere, one Brit complaining about something, another Spaniard wondering WTF have I done to my career

    • Old MOron

      Let’s not forget the Spaniard who’ll be checking his hair and spreading sunscreen on his tattoos. Or his Italian teammate who will be pleading with him to swap bikes.

      Or the Aussie who’ll be tweeting from the Clinica Mobile that it’s only a flesh wound.

      Or the Italian who’ll be explaining that when he promised not to crash, he actually meant that for the European rounds.

      • Junker

        and one diminutive Spaniard who will be saying, I don’t like this one either, HRC; and one French rookie who wishes his rear tires came from somewhere other than France, and…

  • Old MOron

    I like it:
    Miller the Black Night – still ambulatory this early in the season.
    Laverne and Shirley dreaming of glory on Schotz Brewery KTM team.
    Gigi’s magic peaking early.
    The Maniac Joe promising not to be maniacal.
    Cap’n Marquez on a sinking ship.

    Good stuff, Brucey.

    • I’ve tried to go back and figure out who I blatantly stole the Laverne & Shirley reference from. It was a comment regarding one of the Rio Hondo articles referring to Smith and PEspargaro. Now you guys are working for me–love it.

  • Starmag

    I’ve never seen anyone, including Stoner, ride like “Captain America” did those first two years. Sliding both ends, elbow and knee saves, etc. Did he lose his vibranium shield?

  • Born to Ride

    Marquez is completely undefeated in the US if I’m not mistaken. He won consecutively at Laguna and Indy before those circuits got cut, no? Here’s to hoping we get a new American champ.

    • Somebody needs to slow down #25 or it’s going to be a long season.

      • Gruf Rude

        We just need to get Ianonne within ‘striking distance’ of him . . .

    • His streak is in jeopardy this weekend. If Austin turns out to be another cakewalk for MV, I’m gonna have to start paying more attention to Moto2 and Moto3.

      • Old MOron

        You should be watching Moto 2&3 anyway, Brucey. Good racing!

        • Right, and be like you west coast freaks who get up at 2 am to watch this stuff. I generally catch the last few laps of Moto3, all of Moto2 and as much of the MotoGP race as I can stand.

          • Old MOron

            Two AM? Might as well stay up all night. Catch up on sleep during church.

          • spiff

            Subscribe to the Motogp website. 100 euros, but it is on demand with a no spoiler option.

          • Old MOron

            That’s right, Brucey. Bookmark this page and go there often: http://www.motogp.com/en/videos/spoiler+free

          • Got it. Better yet, it’s a write-off.

  • spiff

    All I have been listening to the last week is growls and snorts about how Marquez is going to be sandwiched between the factory Yamahas on Sunday.

  • Prakasit

    2 Spaniards and 1 Italian. Hmmm, that would be: Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Iannone, right?

    • Rabat, Rins and Petrucci.

      • Prakasit

        So, I am not too far off then.

        • Reaching deep into my bag of cliches, I’d say your guess is as good as mine.

  • JMDGT

    Good sense says you can’t count Marquez out of the money here. Especially considering the history. In an effort to refrain from wishing bad luck on anyone I have to go along with our good friend Spiff. Go Rossi. End transmission. Another great analysis on your part Bruce. It is complimented by all the great comments posted here. This is way better than a tire review but not quite as good as having a personal umbrella girl at ones disposal. It is some of the most enjoyable commentary all the way round.

    • I’d have to agree with you. I would gladly give it all up–the riches, the fame, the dozens of page views–to have my own brolly girl. Especially when I’m cutting the grass or changing the oil in the Prius. Notice how Dennis has my comments set to ZERO up top, trying to make me look bad, like I don’t do enough myself.

  • john burns

    Bruce, you are increasingly Da Man, “a mechanical Venus Flytrap for factory Hondas…”
    I got to ride CotA a couple weeks ago, I see why it should be good for Marquez unless Homeland Security turns away the hard front Michelins like what happened in Argentina. Did you win the MO contest??

    • Coming from Da Man hisself, I am flattered. Since the KTM promo was silent on things like, you know, airfare, lodging, local transportation, meals and so forth, I assumed it was limited to Austin residents living within walking distance of the track. My bad.

      • Vrooom

        I thought that too. At least SW residents. Being in the Northwet that wasn’t going to work.

  • tjeepdrv

    I thought I was the only one who though the track had a dumb name.

    • Ian Parkes

      It’s not just rude to Indy and Laguna Seca but, a point Bruce missed, also Termas de Rio Hondo, and all tracks throughout all the other nations in the Americas.

  • schizuki

    I’ll give you a bonus WSBK preview:

    1) Rhea win
    2) Sykes, Melandri, Davies next (any order)
    3) Nicky Hayden 10th

    There. I just saved you having to watch it. You’re welcome.

    • You got anything on British SuperBikes? Didn’t they spawn Crashlow?

      • Vrooom

        How about Haslam, Shakey, Iddon. Next weekend.

    • schizuki

      Saddest thing is, it’s exactly the same as last season, just with an Italian thrown in the mix for flavor.

  • Mahatma

    Just an off-topic question to you americans:Is Elkhart lake still open,or have they levelled it?Is it too dangerous for modern racing?Love that circuit.Think it’s the best circuit I’ve “raced” on in a simulation/watched (indy car) on telly.

  • William Marvin Parker

    Excited for any MotoGP race in America, but I’ve never found the racing at COTA particularly memorable. Would be nice to see it at more flowing motorcycle friendly track like BARBER, but with Carmelo heading Dorna that’s not likely anytime soon.

  • Vrooom

    I don’t have much confidence that Marquez will perform under this kind of pressure, but I’m not his biggest fan. It has to be a win or bin race for him, as you said he’s never been down this far this early. I’m thinking Vinales, Rossi, Dovi, Iannone, Crutchlow for a top 5, which sounds crazy, but I’m going with it. Folger will have another top 10 finish, Rins and Zarco are likely to be there too. Three rookies with alien possibilities makes for fun races.

    • Gruf Rude

      I think Marquez can perform but I have my doubts about his Honda.

    • If Vinales beats Marquez on Sunday in Texas the rest of the Aliens will be reduced to hoping he falls and injures himself, misses a coupla rounds, and makes it a race again. If Marquez wins, and gains some significant ground on Vinales–10 or 15 points–we’ll have us a season.

      • Mad4TheCrest

        I believe MM will win, but unless Vinales finishes off the podium (and way off), MM will have to keep on winning to regain traction for the title. Can he do that with this years’ Honda?

        • Honda got some splainin’ to do. Even his detractors will admit Marquez has balls of steel and the balance and strength of a gymnast. The 2013-1014, the second half of 2015 and 2016 versions were mostly incandescent, if you ask me. Just sayin’. Dude needs the win on Sunday; got jiggy wid it in FP2.

  • Gruf Rude

    The ‘squiggles’ at turns 3, 4 and 5 at Austin are really dangerous. A couple of riders narrowly avoided serious injury last year and the year before when bikes went down, slid off the track, then slid back across the racing line on the next ‘squiggle.’ Poor design. I hope there won’t be a repeat this year.

  • Old MOron
    • spiff

      Zarco’s time should be telling of what Maverick can do on a factory bike with soft tires.

      • Imagine Zarco on the factory Yamaha. 2019, after Rossi retires, teamed with Vinales. Honda finally promotes Jack Miller to the factory team with Marquez and fixes the major problems therewith. JLo, his pride and body wounded after two years failing in red, wins 13 races in the 2019 season. In WSBK. Ducati re-accommodates Dovizioso and Lorenzo, hires Franco Morbidelli and another young Italian fast mover out of Moto2 and continues development aimed at improving the handling of the GP19. New World Order on the horizon.

        • spiff

          A lot going on in there huh Bruce? I think some of it may even come to fruition.

    • This is totally unfair. You’re doing actual research. As for Your Dog, a term which will re-appear in this column going forward, I’m having trouble dealing with one savant. One and a half would put me in the red.

  • Gruf Rude

    Track is ridiculously bumpy and Michelin once again is having a problem supplying tires that can handle the variable weather conditions. FP3 is just a crash-fest . . .

    • Old MOron

      Crazy bumpy. But I’m not sure I’d blame all those crashes on Michelin. Some riders were able to handle the lack of grip, and some weren’t. One could point out that there shouldn’t be a lack of grip to begin with, but the track was so cold, and it was windy. You can’t have record-lap-setting conditions all the time.

      • spiff

        Marquez seems to be able to go beyond the limit in practice, and hold it to the limit when it counts. Almost like it is part of his plan. The others seem to be gun shy after a trip to the kitty litter.

    • The people behind the track include some scramblers and hangers-on, and may have found it necessary to ‘save money’ on applying the racing surface. I would suggest that it be completely resurfaced to remove the bumps and lower the abrasion. Dudes need to come up with another 5 mill.

      • Ian Parkes

        Not just resurfaced. If a track’s getting bumpy, the problems are deeper than that.

  • Old MOron

    It’s great to be able to watch all the races live. Moto 3’s restarted contest was awesome. Moto 2 was pretty good, too. Okay, both races were over about half way through, but the opening halves made the entire races worth watching.

    Some real nasty crashes in Moto 2. Would rather not have to see those.

    But now we wait for the main event. Oh, boy!

    Oh, since Zarco and Lorenzo start next to each other on the second row of the grid, I predict Zarco will duff him up at some point, and Lorenzo will complain to the press.