MotoGP will return to Argentina for the fist time since 1999 this weekend
World champion Marc Marquez has won the first two races of the 2014 season
The Spaniard won last year's title in his rookie season at the elite level
His 2013 rival Jorge Lorenzo has endured a miserable start to the new campaign
For a championship with a distinctly Iberian streak, it is no surprise that South America should be high on MotoGP’s list of territories to conquer. This weekend its hordes land in Argentina for the third round of the 2014 season.
This vast nation is not entirely unfamiliar with top-class motorcycle racing, but this is still very much the case of an old friend arriving unexpectedly from out of town.
The last time Argentinean fans heard the roar of grand prix bikes was in 1999, when current champion Marc Marquez was just six years old.
Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the sport in these parts is clear. Spectators will be traveling to the circuit in Santiago del Estero, many by motorcycle, from across the country.
Back in March, as Marquez and co. lined up on the grid for the season’s opening race in Qatar, 65,000 tickets had already been sold.
The grandstands around this redesigned and redeveloped circuit – crafted by Italian Jarno Zaffelli – are expected to be full.
“They have done a brilliant job,” Carmelo Ezpeleta, CEO of MotoGP’s commercial rightsholder Dorna, told CNN. “We felt a very warm welcome since the first time we started negotiating with them.”
After a protracted absence the Spaniard believes the time is right for the series to return to South America, with Argentina having met the required standards of motorcycling’s ruling body the FIM.
“There is interest in MotoGP in this country, and a circuit and track at the best level possible, with FIM homologation, and with the government of Santiago del Estero completely committed and involved in the project,” said Ezpeleta.
“Argentina is a country that deserves to have MotoGP.”
One thing that should make this weekend’s racing particularly intriguing is the fact that the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit is unfamiliar to all of the riders.
“This is a new circuit for everyone and we have to interpret it well,” said Yamaha’s seven-time world champion Valentino Rossi, who was second at the season-opener in Qatar.
“We’ll have to understand as soon as possible the ideal setup of the bike, and above all we’ll have to understand how the tires behave on this asphalt.”
Rossi’s teammate Jorge Lorenzo, among the favorites for the title after running Marquez to the wire last year, is anxious to repair the damage wrought by a nightmarish start to his campaign.
After crashing on the first lap in Qatar, the Spaniard compounded his misery with an extraordinary false start at the year’s second race in Austin, Texas.
Lined up on the grid, he had apparently been distracted by mosquitoes on his visor, and sped away before the lights turned green. It was a bizarre and costly error, which was punished with a ride-through penalty, and his 10th-place finish cast him adrift of the championship leaders after just two races.
“It’s not easy to swallow what happened at Austin but I always try to get the positive thing even if we are in trouble,” the 2010 and 2012 world champion said before traveling to Argentina. “Staying on track is the best way to forget and I think our championship is going to kick off over there.”
Lorenzo has spent the last fortnight resting and training in the Mexican resort of Cancun. “I will arrive with plenty of energy,” he said.
One rider who won’t be making the trip is Ducati’s Cal Crutchlow, who is recovering from a painful crash at his last outing. After dislocating and breaking a finger the Briton had a pin inserted in the bone and will stay home for treatment.
“I’m very sad to let the team down like this because I was really looking forward to racing,” he said. “Unfortunately I’m still feeling too much pain in my right hand.”
Across the Ducati garage, however, Andrea Dovizioso is still on a high after a surprise third-place finish in the U.S.
“When you are able to obtain these results, which seem almost impossible, it is truly a great feeling,” said the Italian, who is relishing the chance to maintain his momentum in Argentina. “I always like to race on new circuits and so I am very curious and motivated.”
Ezpeleta is delighted by the apparent buzz among the riders as they step into the unknown.
“The whole paddock is excited because it’s a new track,” he said. “Having a new track is motivation, and especially we want to see the feedback of the riders. The ones who were testing here in July were totally happy and satisfied with the circuit. I also want to see the response of the fans.”
Honda’s two riders, Marquez and Dani Pedrosa, are also feeling pretty satisfied with life. After finishing just behind his victorious teammate in Austin, Pedrosa has been studiously preparing for this weekend.
“I’ve tried to do some homework with maps and videos and find our as much as I could before arriving,” he said, “but it’s hard to say something not being on the bike.”
Marquez, whose dominant performances in the opening rounds were all the more remarkable given that he was recovering from a broken leg, is oozing confidence.
“We will be looking to continue the momentum from the first two races,” the 21-year-old said. Few would bet against him doing so.
In spite of Honda and Marquez’s apparent iron grip on the lead, Ezpeleta is satisfied with the start of this year’s championship, and believes the new Open Class rules have been a success so far.
“The regulations were created to reduce the costs and increase the spectacle, and I think we have accomplished these things,” he told CNN. “I’m sure in the future races this season we will have some spectacular battles on track.”
As far as the MotoGP circus itself is concerned, Ezpeleta indicated that the series may look to extend its reach into more new territories before too long.
“We would like to expand in South America, as well as Asia,” he said. “Brazil is interested in hosting a MotoGP.”
The MotoGP chief also hinted that an African grand prix may be a possibility. The last top-class race on the continent was held a decade ago, at South Africa’s Phakisa Freeway in 2004.
“I would like to have a grand prix in Africa, as we did in the past,” added Ezpeleta.
“I can’t predict the future, but I would like to have a race there and it’s always good to open new frontiers; but right now it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen in Africa.”
Fans and administrators alike will also be hoping for some unpredictability this weekend in Argentina; Honda’s challengers need to take advantage of this new frontier.