Austin FP2: View from the ground

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AUSTIN – As last year, I spent the majority of today’s second 90-minute free practice session at Circuit of the Americas perusing the grounds and scoping things out. My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith has the details on the latest Mercedes 1-2 practice sweep on-track. A few observations to follow, after the changes from last year:

THE SOUND CHANGE

I’m really torn after this session. When you’ve had a taste of the visceral, screaming, blow-your-eardrums-out V10s and V8s, it’s impossible not to feel a little bit disappointed after hearing the softer, quieter V6s. Yet at the same time, there are positives.

You can carry on a couple conversations while the session was ongoing. If you’re thinking of catering to families, particularly young children, the V6s are brilliant… because that noise is no longer something that is jarring and affects their ears at a young age. You’re also still aware there is mind-blowing technology currently in the new V6s, they’re in their first year of a several-year development process, and F1 remains on the cutting edge.

But a comment I heard from IMSA prototype veteran Guy Cosmo, here in Austin coaching in the Ferrari Challenge this weekend, I would tend more to agree with: “You want this to be a spectacle in every way, shape or form. The sound right now isn’t that.”

Hear hear, Guy… and of course I heard him so much better because the sound was that much quieter.

SPEED AND DIRECTION CHANGE

The noise change affects the visceral, on-the-ground perspective because even though the cars are faster than other series here, and appear faster, they oddly don’t feel faster.

Allow me to explain. A year ago, pairing the noise of the V8s with the intense, rapid-fire change of direction through the esses was just mind-blowing. It was surreal to witness.

And although the change of direction and speed was evident again this year, it didn’t feel as intense as it did some 12 months ago because you don’t hear the shrieks coming at you – you hear more of a whistle. It’s an intense, cool whistle more than a ground-pounding whistle, if that makes sense, of an Audi, Toyota or Porsche hybrid.

The speed of course is still there. Although the fastest lap in COTA history was recorded by Sebastian Vettel – with that pesky V8-powered Renault in the back of his Red Bull in 2012 at 1:35.657 – times are down thus far this year to the 1:39 range. Lewis Hamilton was fastest today at 1:39.085 in FP2, in the all-conquering Mercedes W05. That was on Pirelli’s medium and the times will go down once they get onto the softs.

By comparison, the WEC pole this year was a 1:48.993 from the Toyota TS040 Hybrid; the TUDOR Championship saw best times of 1:57.808 (P2-spec Ligier JS P2 Honda) and 1:58.643 (DP-spec Corvette DP) in qualifying.

CROWD GAUGE

I think there’s a good chance the Friday crowd numbers are down from last year’s announced total of 58,276, but I hope I’m wrong.

Judging from a walk through from the paddock across the bridge at Turn 3, up to Turn 11 and then back down to Turn 1, it was noticeably lighter on the grounds and definitely lighter in the grandstands. Notable here too is that at the west side of Turn 11, a grandstand has been removed and vendors in the area have been reduced.

The upside for COTA? If they can get more than 50,334, which was the announced total for the Lone Star Le Mans WEC/IMSA weekend in September, the Friday of the Grand Prix weekend will have outdrawn an entire sports car weekend for the second straight year.

Overall though, the passion and intense knowledge of the fans was there, and there were some great costumes given it was Halloween. One that stood out to me beyond the obvious was a young kid in a McDonald’s French fries suit, except instead of the McD’s “M” it had a Scuderia Ferrari Prancing Horse. Brilliant stuff.

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Eli Tomac, Ken Roczen’s two-man battle in Motocross provides surprises

Rich Shepherd, ProMotocross
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The 2019 Motocross season is one-third in the books and the title battle may have already come down to a two-man contest, while the pair of contenders might just be a little surprising in their own way.

Strictly by the numbers, no one can count Eli Tomac’s early season charge of first- and second-place finishes shocking, but threepeating in Motocross is such an incredibly difficult feat that no one would have been surprised to see him struggle out of the gates either. And in fact, that is precisely what happened.

Tomac came out of the gates slow in Round 1 and was seventh by the end of Lap 1 of Moto 1 – hardly the auspicious start he hoped for. He rebounded only as far as fourth and that ultimately cost him a chance to win the overall. Tomac won Moto 2 to claim second overall.

In Round 2, Tomac found his rhythm and won both Motos and grabbed the red plate. For the moment, he had the momentum with three consecutive Moto wins.

Tomac stumbled again in Round 3 – this time finishing only fifth in Moto 1 and earning only 16 points to dig a deep hole that eventually surrendered the red plate to Ken Roczen.

It was at Thunder Valley in Round 3 that a pattern emerged. Tomac would not make it easy on himself early in the day, but was more than capable of winning the second Motos to overcome his deficit.

That Roczen has won this season is also not a surprise in itself. Many believed his ascent to the top step of the podium was way overdue.

That he has run so well, however, was not entirely expected at the start of the season. Since injuring both arms in a pair of accidents, Roczen came tantalizingly close to snapping his winless streak a dozen times. He won heat races during the Supercross season and finished second at Anaheim I, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Seattle earlier this year.

He just couldn’t secure the overall win.

Roczen’s Moto 1 victory at Hangtown might have been the precursor to another disappointing weekend, but once Tomac got into the lead, Roczen zeroed in on the Kawasaki’s back tire and finished second in route to the overall victory.

Roczen lost the overall and the red plate to Tomac in Round 2 at Pala, but he stood on the podium in both Motos. Roczen podiumed twice again in Round 3 while taking that overall victory to regain the red plate in what has become a seesaw affair in the early part of the 2019 season.

Last week, Roczen looked more like Tomac with his desperate struggle in Moto 1 and sixth-place finish. That was the first (and so far only) time this season that he failed to stand on the podium.

Roczen’s Moto 2 win last week was just enough to put him second overall with barely enough points to force a tie at the top of the leaderboard with 176 points apiece.

Meanwhile, Tomac failed to win either Moto with a third in the first race and runner-up finish in the second.

The moral victory and advantage may shift to Roczen this week.

As they have swapped the victory in the first four rounds with Roczen winning the odd-numbered events, he sees this weekend’s Round 5 as an opportunity.

“I’m looking forward to next weekend’s race,” Roczen said in a team press release. “The track is sandy. It’s very similar—actually almost identical—to what I ride on a regular basis at home.”

Tomac and Roczen enter Round 5 with a 32-point advantage over two riders tied for third in the standings.

So far Zach Osborne and Jason Anderson have not been in the same league as the leaders, but it only takes one slip of the wheel to fall out of the points in in a race and allow these racers to close the gap.

Season passes can be purchased at NBC Sports Gold.

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