What is causing COTA’s “dangerous” surface problems for MotoGP?

MotoGP’s return to America for the first time since 2019 has hardly been the positive affair it would have hoped for, as safety concerns were raised by riders after Friday.

What is causing COTA’s “dangerous” surface problems for MotoGP?

The Circuit of the Americas in Texas has notoriously been a bumpy circuit, with numerous riders making calls the track to be totally resurfaced after a partial job in 2019 failed to solve the issues they’d previously been facing.

COTA underwent another partial resurfacing ahead of the 2020 season, with Turn 1, Turn 9, the back straight and sections later in the lap being repaved.

While the back straight has improved, much of the track has worsened, with a number of riders making strong statements after Friday’s first two practice sessions.

Championship leader Fabio Quartararo likened the surface to a motocross track he would use to train on, branding it “a joke” and “dangerous”, with a number of riders echoing his comments.

His nearest title rival Francesco Bagnaia said the situation MotoGP was facing with COTA’s track surface was “worse” than at Silverstone in 2018, when a poorly resurfaced asphalt led to the race being cancelled over safety concerns in wet conditions.

Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro went as far as to say he doesn’t think it’s safe enough to race at COTA this Sunday, with these safety concerns raised in Friday evening’s rider safety commission.

But what exactly is causing these track issues?

Over the years the bumpy track surface has been blamed on the fact the circuit is built on top of clay, which tends to move and shift.

When the circuit was hit by an extreme flood in 2015, it damaged some pipes under the surface and this led to water seeping into the sub-base. Beforehand, the issue of bumps wasn’t a major concern since the venue first hosted the US Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2012.

Enea Bastianini, Esponsorama Racing

Enea Bastianini, Esponsorama Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Although the flooding had an impact, this isn’t actually the root cause of the current issues since contractors can account for the nature of the subsoil a track is laid on when putting down a new asphalt surface.

This was very much the case with Silverstone. The surface that was laid in 2018 and ultimately led to the cancellation of that year’s MotoGP race due to drainage issues was also incredibly bumpy. That job was carried out by Aggregate Industries, where as in 2019 Tarmac was contracted to carry out the resurfacing with Dromo Circuit Design overseeing it.

“I cannot comment on the actual movement [of the surface at COTA], but you have to remember also Silverstone in the past was deemed to be bumpy and somebody was thinking that was because of the clay under the track,” Dromo’s owner and founder Jarno Zaffelli tells Autosport.

“And we proved this wrong, it was a misconception because when we paved over the concrete slabs that were from 1942, we found a very good contractor and we managed the construction in the right way.

“And now it’s not bumpy any more. It’s [the surface] still a reference. So, it is possible to make it better.”

Dromo has worked with various local contractors for some of its biggest recent projects, such as the revival of Zandvoort for F1’s Dutch GP return earlier this year and the current remodelling works being carried out at Abu Dhabi.

Zaffelli says a specialist company working in conjunction with a local contractor is crucial in the success of a job because the latter is able to properly direct a surface should be laid, while also being able to quickly identify and rectify any issues which may arise at a later date.

When the new asphalt patches were laid at COTA, it’s possible the contractor came up against issues with the subsoil – but Zaffelli notes that these problems would have manifested during the process and not afterwards.

Johann Zarco, Pramac Racing

Johann Zarco, Pramac Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“I’m just making considerations – if you have a problem with the subsoil you don’t have a problem as soon as you finish, you have it in the time,” he added.

“If you have a problem as soon as you finish, it’s because of how you paved. Simple as that.”

It is understood COTA’s latest surface works were not carried out in conjunction with a specialist company, and back in January 2020 many World Endurance Championship drivers complained about the track’s bumps.

And on Friday, a number of riders noted that they were crossing three different types of asphalt which offered very different grip levels. During the wet FP1, this was visible in a number of places – most notably up at Turn 1, where the joins in asphalt patches could be seen.

Therefore, the real cause of the current MotoGP safety woes at COTA cannot simply be blamed only on the ground on which the track sits.

“Absolutely, it’s exactly what we did at Silverstone,” Zaffelli said when asked if a moveable surface such as the clay at COTA can be accounted for when a new surface is put down. “So, the proof is there and you can see it now. We have a monitoring with Silverstone every six months, we do a full scan of the track with local contractors.

“The fact is we are doing monitoring every six months in Silverstone and nothing is moving. If something is moving some millimetres, we go head on and try to understand with the Silverstone guys how we maintain it immediately, because we see the differences. But the bumps we saw in Austin are not millimetres, they are centimetres.”

Understandably, MotoGP riders feel that a return to COTA in 2022 must come with the stipulation that the circuit is fully resurfaced.

Miguel Oliveira, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Miguel Oliveira, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

This is, of course, a costly undertaking. COTA has had its financial problems in the past and will be feeling the effects – like most circuits around the world – of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is understood over the years the circuit has had major cash injection – to the tune of $100million - and spent very little on track repairs.

America is a key market for MotoGP and keeping the Grand Prix of the Americas on the calendar will be something Dorna Sports will push hard for.

But it has also put pressure on tracks before to make necessary safety improvements. Brno – one of the crown jewels of the MotoGP calendar – was struck from the 2021 schedule after resurfacing works could not be carried out following safety concerns from last year’s Czech GP. A cash-strapped Silverstone was forced to carry out a full resurface again in 2019 following the 2018 debacle to keep its race, while Catalunya had to do the same for 2018. So, there is a precedent in place.

And given the recent tragedies in motorcycle racing, following the death of three teenagers in junior category events at world and European level, any safety issue with a circuit simply cannot be ignored.

In recent years, F1’s governing body the FIA has been working with MotoGP’s governing body the FIM on circuit design to ensure the safety demands for both two and four wheels are met.

Often, bumpy tracks are welcomed by F1 while MotoGP riders are more wary of surface changes. Bikes are stiffer and the contact patch is much smaller than with an F1 car, so this is understandable. However, Zaffelli believes F1’s switch to 18-inch tyres in 2022 will see driver and rider views on bumpy tracks become more similar.

This is an interesting prospect when you consider F1 cars are largely blamed for rippling tracks for MotoGP. But the reality is, these issues can be minimised if a surface is laid correctly, as has been proven with Silverstone.

So, it’s likely a total COTA resurfacing will be vital to both MotoGP and F1 going forward. Whether the circuit can do this is one point, but whether it will actually learn from its past mistakes will be far more important…

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