2016 Austria MotoGP Preview - Into the Unknown, Powered by Sugar Water

There is a lot of money to be made by using clever marketing to sell caffeinated sugar water to the gullible. So much money, in fact, that you can afford your own air force and your own space program. That money can be further multiplied by staging your own sporting events in sports that suit your brand, such as freestyle mountain biking, or motocross, though it is best not to ask about competitor insurance. This should probably not come as a surprise, though, from a company owned by someone who threatened to shut down a TV station when the people who worked there wanted to convene a works council.

The peddling of sugar water generates enough revenue to fund not one, but two Formula One teams, a soccer team or four, as well as backing large numbers of racers and teams in all forms of two-wheeled competition. It may seem churlish to complain about energy drink companies, given the amount of money they pump into motorsports, but that money also creates a major risk.

The controversy surrounding the health effects of energy drinks (obesity, type II diabetes, caffeine poisoning) has seen persistent campaigns to ban or restrict the marketing of the drinks, especially to under eighteens. Given that most two-wheeled sport has a younger audience, any such ban would mean a massive loss of income, one which motorcycle racing is simply not prepared for. We have been here before, of course, with tobacco sponsorship. But MotoGP has not learned the lessons of that period, with teams jumping at the easy cash on offer from energy drink companies.

The value of sponsorship?

It may not even be lawmakers who end direct sponsorship of racing. All the major energy drink companies have met with huge success organizing their own events. For example, Felix Baumgartner's parachute jump from 39km, the Red Bull Stratos project, reputedly cost around €50 million. It received massive media attention, was broadcast live by several news channels, and covered by just about every news show on the planet. In the six months after the project finished, sales of Red Bull increased in the US by 7%, to $1.6 billion. The rise in the US alone basically doubled the investment Red Bull put in. Why bother sponsoring a team, or a race, if you can generate a much bigger return on your investment elsewhere?

The marketing hype surrounding the Red Bull Stratos project becomes apparent once you realize that Baumgartner's record stood for just two years. But when former Google executive Alan Eustace jumped from over 40km down to Earth, TV coverage was limited, as he did not have a massive marketing arm pushing the event. Felix Baumgartner's name is on everyone's lips. Only the dedicated few have heard of Alan Eustace.

Space programs, ex-military jets, sporting events, teams. Caffeinated sugar water pays for all this and more. It even produces enough income to be able to buy a racetrack or two (Red Bull owner Dieter Mateschitz owns the Red Bull Ring at Spielberg, and spent a lot of effort trying to buy the Salzburgring further north). And if you own a circuit, back some of the biggest names in MotoGP, as well as one of the major teams in the sport, then you obviously want to hold a race at your circuit. And so MotoGP is headed to Austria, to the Red Bull Ring at Spielberg.

A lack of character

What do we know about the track? In terms of MotoGP, very little. The circuit has been on the F1 calendar for a while, and its layout reflects that. A bunch of straights tied together with tight corners, with little character to the track. The track challenges machine more than rider, creating a lot of hard acceleration and high speed straights. The general expectation is that Spielberg will displace Phillip Island as the fastest track on the calendar, though the two circuits are very different beasts indeed.

At the private test held by most of the MotoGP field after the Sachsenring race, several teams produced onboard videos. The clearest of these is probably the one filmed from Andrea Iannone's factory Ducati, shown below:

Safety first?

What you can't see so well from the onboard video is the lack of gravel run off. The Red Bull Ring has been primarily configured for car racing, meaning that there is asphalt in most corners, to allow the cars to brake before the barrier and rejoin the race. Several riders voiced their concerns about the circuit after the test, complaining that the track needed gravel traps. But the track is to be run in the configuration used in the test. No extra safety measures beyond the normal provision of air fence are to be taken. It remains to be seen how the Safety Commission respond to the track when they meet after practice on Friday.

Will the Red Bull Ring produce great racing? On the basis of July's test, that looks improbable. The track revolves too much around horsepower, which in the case of MotoGP, means it is made for Ducati. That was the tale of the test, with four Ducatis at the top of the timesheets, Valentino Rossi the first non-Ducati, nearly a second off the pace of Andrea Iannone. Six of the top ten bikes were Ducatis, with bikes tending to be paired by teams. That backs up the hypothesis that this track is more about the bike than the rider.

That could be good news for Ducati. The objective of the Italian factory is to win at least one race this year, and try to challenge for the title in 2017. Austria is probably their best shot all season, given the horsepower advantage they enjoy.

Beating the boys from Bologna

At least, that was the tale from the test. But there were two major absentees at the track in July. The Repsol Honda team had not been invited, as the test had been organized by Ducati, and the Italian factory was still smarting from Honda's role in getting winglets banned. Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa have ridden the track, but only on the track version of Honda's RC213V-S street bike. That bike may be based on the 2013 MotoGP bike, but it is still a far cry from a real MotoGP machine.

Can Márquez find a way to stop the Ducatis? There have been suggestions that Spielberg bears some resemblance to Austin, because of its long straights and sharp corners. Márquez has never been beaten at Austin, and so should carry some confidence into Austria. He also carries a commanding lead in the championship, and arrives at a track which ill suits the Yamahas. Winning in Austria would be nice for Márquez. Finishing ahead of the Yamahas currently looks like his worst case scenario. Stopping the Ducatis may not even be necessary for Márquez.

What use agility?

What can the Yamahas do about this? Frankly, not very much at all. Though the Yamaha has outstanding acceleration, once the Ducatis get up to speed, the Yamahas do not stand a chance. Outbraked by the Hondas and out-accelerated by the Ducatis, there are few places the Yamahas can use their strengths of carrying corner speed and using that to effect a fast corner exit. For Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, all they can do is to focus on Márquez, and try to get ahead of him.

The Suzukis find themselves in a similar boat. The GSX-RR has gained plenty of power this year, but it is still ultimately lacking compared to the Ducati and the Honda. That could be down to a lack of drive grip, a perennial problem for the Suzuki. At a track with few corners, Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro have nowhere to exploit the exceptional agility of the Suzuki. For them, the Yamahas remain the goal.

Could the Red Bull Ring see another satellite upset, as we saw at Assen? If it rains, anything can happen, but at the moment, the rain currently falling is due to dissipate towards the end of the week. If it's dry, it is not beyond the realms of possibility for a satellite Ducati to shine. Scott Redding was quick on the first day of the test, Hector Barbera was fast on the second day. Though the horsepower advantage the factory Ducati enjoys should be enough for Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone to hold all-comers at bay, a rider on a satellite Ducati might just get lucky enough to steal the factory's thunder.

The unknown unknowns

The Red Bull Ring is also a relative unknown for Michelin. The French tire maker has brought three symmetric front tires and two compounds of asymmetric rears, based on data collected from the test. They should have a good idea of the demands placed on their tires by the circuit, but conditions and the rigors of racing have a way of ruining the best laid plans. There will be some nervous faces in the Michelin tent on Friday, as well as a lot of French technicians closely monitoring how the tires stand up to the abuse being handed out. Michelin have come a long way this year, but they face quite the challenge.

What effect will the Red Bull Ring have on the 2016 championship? The track is an aberration, so it is way too early to tell. It looks like it could be the site of the first Ducati win since Casey Stoner blew the opposition away at Phillip Island in 2010. That may turn out to the advantage of the Yamahas, helping limit the damage against championship leader Marc Márquez, while they wait for Brno and Silverstone, two tracks which are much better suited to the Yamaha M1. But if Márquez can find a way to beat the Ducatis, the championship may well be pretty much over.

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all those safety regulations and the track homogulation can just be overlooked? Have we learned nothing? I don't even like to reference how lack of run off... nevermind

... for the Ducati speed week in about 2004-ish (?), Bayliss was a MotoGP rider at the time IIRC.  A little while later I heard that the track had closed and had been torn up, was to all intents and purposes finished.  Some time later it pops up again now owned by Red Bull and "totally rebuilt".  EPIC FAIL, they seem to have rebuilt exactly the same lousy track!  It must be one of the most beautiful places for a racetrack, it has interesting topography and great surrounding scenery, it could be a superb track, but instead it's sort of a greener, longer, steeper Wakefield Park! (LOL).  With all of Red Bull's money you'd thnk they could have done better, such as reinstating something resembling the original layout between turns 1 and 2.

More importantly, just a few weeks ago a young rider lost his life and the tarmac runoff certainly played SOME part in the physics of the accident leading to the outcome.  Can anyone else NOT BELIEVE we are at a track with almost exclusively f1-style tarmac runoffs and it seems like the powers that be just have their head in the sand about it?  How many riders have to die before they at least do some accident trajectory research, modification proposals etc?

On the bright side, how GLAD am I that the racing has resumed, the business end of the championship.

Bit too much bitter there, David. How many cups of coffee a day do you drink? And the rest of your generation and the ones before you? How old do you have to be to drink coffee? Exactly.

I would lay off the judgment of companies that are currently trying hard to sell our beautiful sport to people who have less and less interest in sitting on the stands with old men paying top money to drink beer and act like little kids when their favourite rider crashes. Or who don't care about television packages and would rather watch it on their phones.

MotoGP is held hostage (as are so many things) not by companies wanting to sell their product to young people but by old bitter men (and it is always men) trying to cling to a past that doesn't exist anymore. Your claim that two wheeled motorsport has a 'younger audience' is unsubstantiated at best, as is the implication that only young people drink energy drinks.

Anyway, the racing. Let's get back to that. Everybody has already decided that Ducati will win, it seems. We will see. Usually when people expect a runaway winner we end up with a good race. I think I'm going to put money on Lorenzo since everybody has also decided that he lost all his talent overnight.

Is that at some point in the future, probably sooner rather than later, there will be legislation to limit or ban marketing of them. At that point, the sport will be as financially exposed as it was after the tobacco ban. Because the teams and Dorna aren't doing the work to diversify their sponsor base, and spread the risk. It's easier to let the energy drink companies do the heavy lifting, and take the cash. That attitude is the biggest long term risk to the sport today.

I would agree that Dorna is useless in this regard. Years of Rossi doing their work for them has made them lazy. But to be fair, what else could they do? Diversify the sponsor base, how does one do that? Again, who wants to sponsor MotoGP?

If Red Bull was so sure about legislation as you are why would they still be doing all this stuff?

Popular consumer products like energy drinks are natural sponsors for motorsports and other extreme sports events. The products are low cost consumer items aimed at the masses living on the fringes of popular culture. A successful campaign directly influences sales. Oil companies that sell consumer products use their marketing dollars to keep their names in front of the public, but I doubt it drives sales. For them it's more brand recognition marketing. Same for tire companies and others that serve the automotive industry in some way. So where is Dorna to go? Cell phones? Clothing labels? It seems a lot easier for the consumer to pick up a Red Bull at the market on the way home from the event than buy an isurance policy. 

I would hope caffinated consumer products are not regulated like tobacco. That seems sort of an over-reach by law makers. Teens can make their own choices well enough. Parents still have influence over their children's behavior. Besides, energy drinks are probably not a serious threat to public health. 

On the other hand, I hate to see MotoGP racers pushing their envelope between ARMCO barriers like those that line that joint...

Just working from intuition here, but it seems like there's a lot less momentum behind the push to restrict energy drink marketing than there was the cigarette ad ban. And for good reason in my opinion, as the risks associated with use of the two products seem to be on an entirely different scale.

That's not meant as an endorsement of every business decision made by Red Bull (or any of the others, for that matter)...just my personal feeling that it's unlikely they'll be going away anytime soon.

The bigger long-term risk, in my opinion, is the seeming lack of interest in motorsports (indeed, in all forms of motorized transport) on the part of younger people. Hardly a new insight here, but it's a lot easier to be a fan if you can climb on your bike and imagine yourself as VR blasting down your local backroads. I think we see this already here in the US. Whether Europe will eventually go down the same path, I don't know...it seems less likely; but then, who ten years ago imagined what a huge part of life smartphones would become by 2016?

Meantime, I'm just enjoying the spectacle while it lasts, and hoping it lasts a long time. Oh, and planning a trip to Austin next year (and probably the IOM), because who knows? 

Enjoyed the article and comments, one of the reasons I like the site is because it does branch out into related issues in an interesting, intelligent way. Worth noting that when it does so, the quality of discussion is very high, with not a sight of the Willy waving and my riders better than yours so you're an idiot stuff.

Anyway - red bull. Me, I don't mind them marketing their sugar drinks, it was coke during my youth (of the liquid variety, which probably shows my age) and in my whole life I can only think of meeting two people who were addicted to this kind of stuff. Tobacco is in a different league altogether - ask any smoker or ex smoker. I suspect the reality is that anyone willing to underwrite a sport as expensive as this is going to be a little thin on the ethical side, but then again (as the misery-moo's tell me from time to time) motorsports are a pretty anti-social line of entertainment in any case. Not that it stops me enjoying watching.

It seems to me that a world championship benefits from a variety of circuits and the different challenges they provide for both riders and machines. This overview basically shows that there are a bunch of unknowns about the Red Bull Ring. Isn't that one of the reasons we watch sport? And if Marquez can or can not beat the Ducatis it's not the circuits responsibilty, the track is the same for all competitors. One point which I have reflected on is the Michelin methodology of continually modifying it's tires for each circuit. They are still in a learning curve in MotoGP but at some point shouldn't they widen the performance envelope of their offerings so that the riders can rely on a consistent and reliable tire performance?   

"The peddling of sugar water"

Really? You make it sound like they are pushing heroin. Nobody is forced to drink Red Bull. You can argue the marketing and safety of just about any product and the ethics of any company. Why not Coke or Pepsi? Poor Google did not get as much coverage from their space jump, boohoo. I could start a rant about Google, but I have never thought of Motomatters as the place for such behaviour.

The folks who run Moto Gp are no more in the business of producing great racing than the folks at Red Bull are in the business of producing a great drink. Both are in the business of producing money. They care not a whit for the product, only the profits. When the "watchmaker" no longer makes the watch, but merely markests it, this is what you get. Crappy racing at a crappy and unsafe racetrack, with the unquestioned justification being the profits incurred. Racing, safety, riders and fans be damned...If it makes money, it is good, if it does not, it has no merit and no place in the Corporatocracy we now live in. I will skip this watching this race, just as I skip drinking the nasty  and deadly bilge water whose label the track bears......As a side note, one can often see water being poured into the everpresent Logoed squeeze bottles of the various riders, who I assume cannot bear the massive crash from the caffeine sugar concoctions they are required to peddle....Tobacco and "Energy Drinks" may be the  deal with the devil that drives the sport we love, such overt crassness and greed on display at the "Austrian Gran Prix" takes the devil's deal to a whoile new level.....


While not wishing to comment on the rights or wrongs of Red Bull sponsorship, it should be noted that they have a plan in place to ressurect the original track. I am sadly old enough to remember the original circuit and while it needs upgrading to modern safety standards, recreating a layout similar to the original track could make this a thrilling venue.

You raise some interesting points, which raise some interesting thoughts....

I would not compare energy drinks to big tobacco, simply because big tobacco is essentially in an unhealthy category all their own, and thus was ripe for legislative action.  "Big Energy Drinks" is really no different than a thousand other products on the market, everything from pop/soda to iced tea is equally unhealthy.  While part of me longs for a health revolution against the massive amounts of sugar we intake, part of me loves the influx of money into racing that allows more people on the grid, better racing, and possibly more competitive racing.  Although I don't think action will be taken against "Big Energy Drinks" like it was against Big Tobacco, I hope someone still rings the warning bell and there is a push to find better money to support these dreams! If memory serves me well, didn't you have some thoughts on how Dorna could do this in an article a while back David?

Some bends have been altered since the test, from Speedweek: (apologies for the awful translation, blame Google's artificial stupidity algorithms)

"We have made the road at the exit of the final corner some cases up to 2 meters narrower, looking beautiful. At the narrowest point at the apex we won seven meters headroom. Drivers must now raise the machine much earlier and turn close a to the finish line, they no longer come so close to the wall. The fall of extra space is now painted over the curbs, we will be everywhere red-white-red. Safety Officer Franco Uncini left us after the talks with the MotoGP riders three weeks before an accurate drawing for the conversion to which we adhered exactly, "

It may not be everything the riders asked for but it is a start.


David I really enjoyed this piece. And I'm surprised by some of the comments, in my opinion they did not get some of its dry humour (or maybe it's me who got it wrong.... too many ristrettos : caffeine got to my brain)
To me the amazingly appalling thing is that most riders Stoner included voiced a real concern about safety and....NOTHING! I already wrote a post about it some time ago and watching the video Iannone on bard made me realize even more that we might end up with some drama. And I hate the thought of it. How is it possible that nothing is being done? And where are the younger riders who with a big self-righteousness accused Lorenzo and Rossi of not showing at the safety commission? JL and VR spoke but I did not see any change....
Yes it's nice to have different types of circuits but this one looks rather boring...and above all very unsafe.

It's about setting positive examples in society, and forming good grounds to expand it upon.
Hyping up drinks that are essentially engineered to make you crave them, without giving any thought to how they might affect people is morally wrong. It's also an unfortunate truth to our society, but is fundamentally wrong.
I remember the Red Bull promoters handing out cans for free in front of schools and colleges so that many would drink, and more would crave and go out to buy. I think the younger generation will remember the loads of sheep who blindly bought can after can because circa 2012 it was deemed the holy grail of the college experience and a definite proof of a lazy-savant who put an all-nighter and aced the test.
Seems funny, and relatively harmless, until you realize that we have known about the catastrophic health effects of smoking for I think over 40-50 years, and yet people just keep drowning their lungs in tar. Why? Well because Bob did it for 40 years and he's quite alright so why quit now, I've already done the damage, so I might as well make consistency the key here! 
See humans are social creatures, we pride ourselves on the intellectual thought process that sets us apart from animals, but the truth is that most of us learn from the examples of others - just as animals do. We disregard that which goes against us, and take accounts that confirm our biases, deductions and preferred actions as the right ones to heart. 
Some will tell you that sugar is all but the culprit of all evil, and that they're still not sure about who or what the culprit is, others will tell you that it's a-okay, and the truth, while neither, lies a lot more in the first camp, than in the second.
So what we are doing is promoting something that is fundamentally bad and setting a bad example. 
Is anyone forcing them to drink it? Well no, but the world isn't binary so that doesn't make it perfectly okay. 
It's mindless consumerism and trendist behavior in it's saddest form: one that puts profit ahead of health and wellbeing of others.
A long winded post, and maybe published on the wrong site, but my humble and honest opinion is that these small habits that we have, that we can perfectly justify as innocent, just add up in creating a society that is far from what it could be.


Shades of the 70s with railroad crossings, utility poles, etc. where these dangers were accepted (IIRC until K. Roberts appeared). While tracks are much safer now, I would hope that a recent fatal incident is still fresh in rider's minds and their opinions are closely considered.

Please lets have all the competitors come away from this weekend in one piece.

BTW, nice article David.

You might have touched a raw nerve there David. Some people seem to take their sugar water very seriously.

Nothing wrong with energy drinks whatsoever.  Having one Red Bull in the afternoon, or Monster, or whatever brand and flavor isn't going to be harmful to your body.  Like alcohol, or coffee, moderation is key.  If people are gonna hit 6 cans or cups of the stuff a day, not good.  If kids are drinking them instead of water all day, that's a parenting problem or lack of one.  If there is going to be legislation then fast food advertisements need to go to then, as well as any and all coffee and alcohol ads. 

The track layout is awful.  A bunch of straights connected with chinzy corners.  How this thing got on the calendar is pure corruption and corruption alone.  The run offs are not safe at all.  If this track was run in the rain, if I was a rider I'd skip it and sit in the garage.  Not worth your life. 

But they had to invent a turn between 2 and 3 so they could say the course has 10 turns, the minimum number allowed for a GP track. They make the rules for profit, they break their rules for profit. This track should never have been approved on numerous grounds, but i guarantee you there was a healthy fee paid that prompted Carmelo to wink wink, look the other way wink wink. The riders safety has been sold down the road for a payday. If they get through the weekend without tragedy, the riders need to make it clear that they will not race there next year without massive changes.

Well said, Mr. Emmett. Those who demur have yet to wake up and smell the formaldehyde. This circuit is a bush league injury factory which has no place on the calendar of a professional series. Formula One is no benchmark. Bernie sold out long ago. Keep up the good fight.