If 2015 in MotoAmerica was the year of Yamaha domination, 2016 so far has been a season of disappointment edging toward disaster with a bit of redemption.
When I wrote the MotoAmerica season preview, one of the three key questions I raised was whether someone other than Yamaha could win a race. Yoshimura Suzuki answered that question immediately and emphatically, with fill-in rider Toni Elias and Roger Hayden going 1-2 in the first two races at Circuit of the Americas.
Defending champion Cameron Beaubier began the work of restoring his season this weekend at Road Atlanta with pole position and he took the early lead in race one, closely pursued by his teammate, Josh Hayes, with the two Suzukis forming a four-rider breakaway. Then, disaster on lap 13. Hayes touched Beaubier's rear tire, causing both to crash. They had a long conversation in the gravel trap while Elias and Hayden went off to contest the win.
"In T1 I am struggling a lot all weekend," Elias said, referring to the first section of the track. "I could catch in T2 and T3, especially in the last secton. I had arm pump. My fingers were sleeping a little bit."
Despite that, Elias was able to get past Hayden in the final laps and take the lead for the first time. Hayden challenged on the last lap, but said he was thwarted by a lack of top speed on the long back straight at Road Atlanta.
After several split-second second-place finishes last year, and three to start this season, Hayden looked very much like a man tired of finishing second. He drew laughs when he said in the post-race news conference, "For sure I want to win, but I'm not going to do anything dumb. I'm not that desperate... yet."
Hayes was unhurt but dejected after the race-one crash.
"I feel really bad for the situation," Hayes said. "It's not supposed to be the two blue bikes on the ground. It all happened pretty fast. It's a part of the race track that's hard to get right and consistent every time.
"You couldn't have two more contrasting riding styles and unfortunately we found ourselves in the same place at the same time on the race track and I just ran over him. The end result is just terrible. There's no excuse. It'd be one thing if I was trying to pull off a last-lap move for the win, but it was nothing like that."
Superbike race two
In the second Superbike race, Beaubier and Hayes finally found a little redemption. After two DNFs and a fourth in the first three races, Beaubier took the win less than half a second ahead of Hayes, with Hayden right behind in a podium that looked like 2015. And where was Elias? An early mistake sent him through the grass, separating him from Hayes, Beaubier and Hayden by three seconds. Elias mounted a furious charge that turned out to be a bit too furious and he crashed spectacularly in turn six when he had almost closed the gap to Hayden.
Meanwhile, anyone who thought Hayes and Beaubier would be cautious after the race-one disaster was mistaken. The two Yamaha riders swapped the lead several times in the second half of the race, always with Hayden sitting just behind. In the end, Beaubier held off Hayes for the win.
"I was really happy to just get back on the podium and get a win after the disaster weekend we had at COTA and then the first race. All in all, I felt good. I was an awesome race, dicing back and forth with Josh," Beaubier said.
The third-place finish for Hayden actually put him in the points lead, one ahead of Elias.
"I wanted to start the season out really strong and be up there every race and I've done that," Hayden said. "I feel a lot better than I left here last year. Last year I didn't finish either race. I almost thought I'd quit after that.
"I just want to win a race and everything else will fall into place."
New winners in Superstock 1000
The Yamaha monopoly ended not just in Superbike, but also in the other 1000 cc class, Superstock. Claudio Corti, the other high-profile international newcomer to the series this year, along with Elias, won the first race on his Aprilia HSBK Racing RSV4 RF, to follow the win by Latus Motors Racing's Bobby Fong at COTA on a Kawasaki ZX-10R. Josh Herrin finally gave Yamaha a win in the class in the second race at Road Atlanta.
Gerloff and Yamaha control Supersport
Yamaha's control may have been broken in the 1000 cc classes, but it's alive and well in Supersport. Garrett Gerloff remains undefeated, following up his win at COTA by taking both victories at Road Atlanta by more than 10 seconds on his Yamaha YZF-R6. Valentin Debise of France and defending champ J.D. Beach finished second and third in both races.
Despite his dominant start, Gerloff said he's not taking anything for granted.
"Last year, J.D. was kicking all our butts the same way," Gerloff said. "It's never easy and it's never something that's going to last. It's feeling good right now. I'm just trying not to think too much and just twist the throttle."
The MotoAmerica series moves to New Jersey Motorsports Park in two weeks.