The reversal of fortune in Austin, Repsol Honda’s Maximum Marc Marquez winning while young savant Maverick Viñales kissed the tarmac for the first time in Yamaha blue, has produced an early three-man race for the top of the 2017 heap. Valentino Rossi, teammate Viñales and Marquez now stand separated by 18 points with a lot of season left. Six races in the next eight weeks means the offshore shakedown cruises are over. There’s a title to be won. In Europe.

Marc Marquez’s much-needed win at COTA shot him right back into the title chase. Marquez still trails Valentino Rossi by 18 and Maverick Viñales by 12 but there’s still a lot of racing ahead.

After three far-flung rounds overseas, MotoGP returns to its European cribs with a wide-open race on its hands. Behind the top three, another small cadre of riders – Cal Crutchlow and Dani Pedrosa among them – entertains serious thoughts of contending for serious points. Here’s what we know so far:

  • Viñales and Marquez are in a league of their own, a league in which Rossi is trying desperately to remain. In our pre-season look we suggested Viñales could win the title but for the likelihood that he would crash out of too many (4) races.
  • That said, Rossi is leading the championship, guile, patience and a sense of the moment overcoming mad skills and youthful exuberance. For now.
  • The Ducati GP17 is not a radical improvement over its predecessor. As a result, Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo and Danilo Petrucci will not threaten for the title, but will, at the right tracks, battle for the podium. (They could actually finish 1-2-3 in Austria if it doesn’t rain, since there aren’t many of those pesky turns.)
  • Crutchlow and Pedrosa are not Aliens. Very good, but not (or no longer) great. Plenty of actual miles on both.
  • If Johann Zarco were 22 instead of 26 he would be Alien material. Have to wait and see on Alex Rins. Still not sold on Jonas Folger. Very much sold on the 2016 M1.
  • Jack Miller, in a contract year with Honda, is improving.
  • A front row start in Argentina does not mean Karel Abraham is not a Tranche 5 rider.
Yes, this really did happen at Rio Hondo.

Recent History

The 2014 race featured Marquez winning easily from pole during his epic 10-for-10 start to the season. Rossi managed second place for his second podium of the season; we had no idea he would end up spraying magnums of champagne 13 times on his way to second for the year. Pedrosa went through on Lorenzo late for the last podium spot, another indication that 2014 would not be Jorge’s year.

Jorge Lorenzo won at Jerez in 2015 but will be hard pressed to do it again this year with Ducati.

2015 was vintage Lorenzo. Qualify on pole, get out front early, attach bike to rails, press “Go,” and keep the last 26 laps within half a second of one another. Reg’lar as a piston, dad used to say. Dull as dishwater, mom used to reply. The resulting procession left Marquez (nursing a broken digit on his right hand) second and Rossi third.

Last year, we observed The Doctor as he made a house call on Lorenzo, winning at Jerez for the first time since 2009. He led every lap after an early challenge, Jorge-style, and was joined by teammate Lorenzo and Marquez on the podium. The church bells rang in Tavullia a year ago as glazed Italians got off watching Vale, sense of the moment firmly in hand, spitting in the eyes of both Lorenzo and Marquez. On their home soil. Oh yes.

Vale won last year at Jerez, ending a streak of 15 wins by Spanish racers on Spanish circuits.

Rossi, Lorenzo and Marquez have each won here in the last three years. Maverick Viñales, The Heir Apparent, has a checkered record in southern Spain, his only win coming in 2013 with KTM in Moto3. An 11th and a 6th with Suzuki the past two years. In front of his homeys. I think I speak for all of us when I say how much I would like to see Rossi, Marquez and Viñales go knives-in-a-phonebooth over the last three laps on Sunday. I can hear ancient announcer Nick Harris gathering himself, saying, “Here. We. Go.”

Let’s Talk About Tranches

Maverick Viñales, Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi are a clear step above the rest of the grid after the opening three rounds.

After Round 1:

Tranche 1: Viñales, Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi
Tranche 2: Pedrosa, Iannone, Crutchlow, Bautista
Tranche 3: Petrucci, Lorenzo, Zarco, (Rins), Miller, Barbera, A Espargaro
Tranche 4: Baz, Redding, P Espargaro, Folger
Tranche 5: Smith, Lowes, Rabat, Abraham

After Round 3:

Tranche 1: Viñales, Marquez, Rossi
Tranche 2: Pedrosa, Crutchlow, Dovizioso ↓, Zarco ↑, Miller ↑,
Tranche 3: Bautista ↓, Iannone ↓, Petrucci, Baz ↑, Redding ↑, Folger ↑
Tranche 4: A Espargaro ↓, P. Espargaro, Barbera ↓, Lorenzo ↓, (Rins ↓)
Tranche 5: Smith, Lowes, Rabat, Abraham

Moving: Zarco, Miller, Baz, Redding, Folger
Moving : Dovizioso, Bautista, Iannone, A. Espargaro, Barbera, Lorenzo, Rins

One of two possible conclusions is available when 12 of the 23 riders re-tranche after two rounds. 1. The author doesn’t know what he’s talking about. 2. A two-race span is entirely unpredictable in this sport, at any point in any season. Even at the tail end of the annual Pacific sweat rounds and Valencia. That a rider can go from 25 championship points to zero in the blink of an eye makes “trends” difficult to identify.

Johann Zarco has impressed so far in his rookie season.

Zarco has been the surprise of the season, starting with the first half-dozen laps at Qatar. Miller and Scott Redding are top ten guys, or should be. Loris Baz is punching above his weight on a Ducati GP15. Folger has impressed early, but rookies get excited and crash.

Dovi, on the other hand, has his usual bad luck and a bike he claims needs to be redesigned from the ground up (the unpleasant sound you hear in the background is that of Gigi Dall’Igna grinding his molars to powder listening to Dovi). Hector Barbera and Alex Rins have been hurt. Alvaro Bautista, Andrea Iannone and Lorenzo have been unguided missiles. And I had expected more from Aleix Espargaro than he has shown thus far on the Aprilia.

Andrea Dovizioso has been solid but plagued with misfortune this season. So par for the course.

Anyway, props to Messrs. Zarco, Miller, Baz, Redding and Folger. And who wants to explain to me how Jorge Lorenzo is not a Tranche 4 rider right now?

Tito Rabat Thrown Under the Bus

Marc van der Straten is the deep-pocketed team owner of the Marc VDS Racing (Honda) MotoGP team, currently featuring Australian Jack Miller and Spaniard Tito Rabat in the saddle. He was quoted elsewhere stating that, in essence, if Franco Morbidelli, also on the VDS payroll, wins the Moto2 title this year he can have Rabat’s seat next season. Talking about what a giant step up it would be to have Morbidelli over Rabat, who, admittedly, has failed his MotoGP audition and would be better off at WSBK or going back to Moto2. Van der Straten is awaiting clarification on the status of Jack Miller – will Honda continue to employ him directly? – hoping to end up with one very fast Italian and one mostly free Australian. He should take some of his money and learn to give a press conference that doesn’t gut one of his riders.

Franco Morbidelli is three-for-three in Moto2 this season and a candidate for promotion to MotoGP next season.

Here I thought Marc VDS had had enough bad juju in MotoGP and was prepared to fold their tent and make way for a satellite Suzuki team. Morbidelli, who is suddenly a calm, contained, undefeated King of the Hill in Moto2 at age 23, may be Alien material. He also may NOT want to ride a Honda for the next few seasons. Perhaps Marc VDS Suzuki Racing is in the cards; not sure Franco would be thrilled with that, either. What becomes of the team probably depends on what Honda does with Jackass.

Your Weekend Forecast

Weather is not expected to be a factor on Saturday or Sunday. Jerez is one of the fans’ and riders’ favorite tracks; the weather and the crowd should be grand. The facility itself, well-groomed and lush when I was there in 2010, has fallen on hard times and is now mostly dandelions and buttercups.

But they don’t call it The Spanish Grand Prix for nothing. The race goes off at 8 am EST in the U.S. We’ll have our usual instant results and analysis for you once the editorial staff, lawyers and corporate censors have had a chance to discuss them during their customary post-race drinks and dinner.

In 2010, before many of you were reading this stuff, I took my wife, daughter, and S-I-L to southern Spain for a vacation and to attend the MotoGP round at Jerez de la Frontera. Which happened to be a great race. MO helped with expenses; Dorna was no help, denying credentials to the only American journalist anywhere near the place. I prepared an extra article, “The Road to Jerez,” along with my usual race summary. I wrote two of my all-time favorite MO articles that weekend, both of which were, in no small part, courtesy of some decent Spanish table wine. Although these articles are long gone from the MO website, here are links to my MotoGP blog, where I’ve re-posted them:

Getting to the Spanish Grand Prix is Half the Fun

2010: Lorenzo enjoys a late lunch at Jerez