When the lights go out for the Grand Prix of the Americas, there’ll be one clear favorite picked out by his rivals to take victory at the Texan circuit: and for perhaps the first time since his debut season in 2013, it’s not COTA king Marc Marquez but rather satellite Ducati rider Enea Bastianini who many others are claiming has the best chance of standing on the top step of the podium at the end.
Coming as perhaps not too much of a surprise given the Gresini Racing rider’s pace during qualifying, he goes into the 20-lap scrap at the Circuit of the Americas with a new role on his shoulders despite already being a race winner this year, as even the fellow Ducati trio of Jorge Martin, Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia ahead of him on the front row believe that he’s a real threat to their 2022-spec machines.
“For sure Enea is always fantastic in the races,” second-place qualifier Jack Miller told The Race. “The amount of times I’ve been passed by him in the closing stages and been ridden away from means I know all too well he can look after a tyre. He’s riding well, he’s looking well and he’s one of the guys who’ll be there.”
It’s not just the Ducati riders who believe that, though, with disappointed reigning world champion Fabio Quartararto, potentially taken out of race win contention by a crash in qualifying that means he’ll start sixth, also tipping Bastianini as one of the two he sees as most likely to be at the front.
“There are many people with great pace,” he said, “and luckily the Aprilias stayed in Q1, because the pace they had was really strong.
“For me basically the favorites are Marc and Bastianini, because they have really strong pace.
“We were looking at the sector three of Bastianini with old tyres, and basically it was my time attacking sector three. We will struggle a lot on the back straight for sure.
“If you check Bastianini, he’s the one with the best pace, along with Marc. Then if you look at Martin, Bagnaia, [they have] a little bit less than them – they will have a great race. Let’s see how the tire degradation is, because we’re not the best but we’re not the worst, so let’s try to give our best and see what we can do.”
He’s not the only rider who seems certain that the best way to overcome the threat posed by Bastianini and his fellow Ducatis is to wait them out, either, with 2020 world champion Joan Mir also adamant that the best strategy for any chance of victory will be to rely on the tire management that both Yamaha and his Suzuki are naturally better at.
“On used tires with a couple of laps, they are very fast,” he said of the Ducatis. “If you watch the paper, in some races I’m the fastest on race pace and then in the race something happens, so I don’t want to say too much. I don’t have the best pace, but I don’t know who does. Bagnaia is fast, Zarco is sometimes fast, Fabio also, my team-mate [Rins] and Marc.
“There are a couple of riders who are able to be [fast], but let’s see if the Ducatis are able to be almost for all of the race. If they aren’t, there are five bikes less in front of us and we’re already on the podium! Let’s see what we can do.”
While many of Bastianini’s rivals might be piling the pressure onto the MotoGP sophomore’s shoulders with expectations of big things (something very much backed up by his race pace times), the former Moto2 world champion isn’t getting too worried about it so far at least , confident that he has the speed and perhaps more concerned about the physical demands of 20 long laps around the Texan track than anything else.
“I was almost in every session, and I’m happy about this but not too much about my qualifying,” he admitted. “I compromised it a little with the crash [in Q2], but it’s OK; the second row is OK. The race is too long, because this track is very physical, and I think it will depend a lot on the last 10 laps, to be on the front and to be fast.
“For the win, I don’t know, but for the podium I think we can try and do this. Fabio is really fast in the pace and for me it’s him who is the favourite, but we’ll see what happens. The strategy is always to save the tyre, but here it’s to save the body as well. You have to be more relaxed on the first part of the race.”
Those physical demands might well be able to deliver one final surprise, too, with world championship leader Aleix Espargaro Adamant, that despite a terrible qualifying performance that sees him starting in a distant 13th, he might not be completely out of the running just yet thanks to his own incredible physical stamina.
Arguably the fittest rider on the grid thanks to a cycling addiction and a training regime that’s more akin to that of a Tour de France rider than a MotoGP racer, he’s quietly confident that he might be able to pull off a surprise or two as the race stretches on.
“Things will not start in a good way,” he said of being so far back, “but I think, yes, I can still be a podium contender. The race will be very physically demanding, but the tire for me is incredible – in FP4 on a 12-lap-old [rear] tire I did almost the same time in FP4 as I did in qualifying. I’m very strong in the second part of the race and we have some advantage at the end because I feel super good. Starting 13th will be very difficult, but I will try.”