So much for Ducati domination. Sure, the two factory Ducatis are on the front row, Andrea Iannone on pole, Andrea Dovizioso in third, but they did not destroy the competition in qualifying the way they did so in practice on Friday. Austria is still Ducati's best chance of a win since Casey Stoner left for Honda at the end of the 2010 season, but it is no longer the sure thing it seemed on Friday.
What happened? A lot of things, but most of all, the weather improved dramatically. That certainly helped Jorge Lorenzo find some confidence, and put him back into contention after a couple of tough races. Valentino Rossi found some acceleration, and improved his pace. Marc Márquez worked on making up on the brakes what he is losing in acceleration. That puts the Ducatis, the Yamahas and Márquez all within a tenth or two of each other in race pace. We really are going to have to wait for the fat lady to start singing on this one.
Taking a tumble
The day started very badly for Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider crashed heavily while trying to avoid his teammate. Márquez put it all on himself. "First of all it was completely my mistake," Márquez said. He had been following Pedrosa at a distance, but Pedrosa missed his braking point going into Turn 3. He turned back onto the line a little wider, just as Márquez also missed his braking point in the same corner and was going wide.
That put him on a collision course with Pedrosa, and Márquez had to take evasive action. Márquez crashed, but if he hadn't managed to avoid Pedrosa, the resulting crash would have been very ugly. "It would have been a big crash," Márquez said. Given some of the crashes Márquez has had in the past, a very big crash indeed.
It was a pretty rough crash physically for Márquez. He dislocated his left shoulder (technically, a subluxation, meaning a very minor dislocation of the shoulder joint), just as he had done in warm up at Silverstone in 2013. He popped it back in again himself ("When I was on the scooter it was still out. But then when I was on the scooter it just go in,") then went back to the pits. He could have gone straight back out again, but was advised to go to a local hospital for a check up.
'T is but a scratch
Márquez came away relatively unhurt. The left shoulder wasn't even his real worry, it was his right shoulder which was more painful, but which had not been dislocated in the crash. After some physiotherapy and a good dollop of ice, Márquez came back to the circuit and took part in FP4, then went on to take fifth spot on the grid. Not that surprising, given that the last time he dislocated his shoulder at Silverstone, he went on to nearly win the race, losing out to Jorge Lorenzo in the final couple of corners.
His left shoulder will still be a concern, however. "If it happens again and again it will be a problem," Márquez said. The more it happens, the more likely it is that he will need to have surgery on the shoulder. Márquez hoped he could avoid that, having seen that his brother Alex had also had an operation to fix a similar problem. "At the moment it’s only the third time. Touch wood and I will try to keep working with the massages. I think it won’t be a big problem but, of course, with that crash the minimum was this."
The crash barely slowed Márquez down. The time that put him in fifth on the grid was just a third of a second off the pace of Iannone, and under two tenths off the lap set by Valentino Rossi to take second. The final couple of minutes of qualifying were electric: Andrea Dovizioso had set a time that looked good enough for pole, but there were a lot of riders who strongly disagreed. The first to take a shot was Jorge Lorenzo, who took over the top slot with a couple of minutes to go. Dovizioso took back provisional pole after the flag had already fallen, but even his position was not face. He was usurped first by Valentino Rossi, and then by Ducati teammate Andrea Iannone. It was a breathtaking finale to a far more competitive session than anyone expected.
Testicular fortitude as a PED
Jorge Lorenzo was the real surprise of the day. The Movistar Yamaha rider is coming off two absolutely awful races, in Holland and Germany, and badly needs a strong result. He put his qualifying performance down to three things: "a little bit of setting, a little bit of balls in the qualifying, and the temperature was perfect today."
With temperatures up, Lorenzo has feeling with the tires again, putting him right back into contention. It also meant he could focus on trying to get the soft rear to work, which had not been possible in Friday's chill. "Yesterday the soft tire was destroyed in a few laps," Lorenzo said. "We need to analyze this afternoon if it could be possible to use the softer tire that gives you some quite big advantage at the beginning of the race, but we don't know how it's going to react at the end of the race, because nobody made a long run or a lot of laps with it."
It looked like the Ducati riders did do exactly that. In the morning, Andrea Dovizioso spent the entire session on an old tire from the day before. In the afternoon, it was the turn of Iannone to try a long run on soft tires. Both men were confident they could make the tire last, but feared a drop off towards the end of the race. "It will be the key for the race - the second half of the race," Dovizioso told the press conference. The tires drop off after 16 to 18 laps, leaving 10 more laps still to go the flag. If the Ducatis can pull a gap big enough, then they will hope to defend it for the rest of the race. Riders on the hard rear, such as Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, will start slower but will hope to reel the Ducatis in.
Hotter not always better
The one rider to suffer with the rising temperatures was Maverick Viñales. "It's the same story," he said after qualifying. When temperatures rise, the rear grip drops, and Viñales can't get the rear wheel to hook up and provide drive. When asked about the possibility of a shower on Sunday, Viñales reaction was "I hope it's cold!" Nobody wants it to rain at the Red Bull Ring – the track is manageable in the dry, but the long run off with no gravel becomes a lot more dangerous when the track is wet – but Viñales would settle for a lot of cloud and a good drop in temperature. He is unlikely to get his way.
What kind of a race will we see on Sunday? A lot closer race than we had been expecting after Friday. Strategy and tire choice is going to be important, whether riders plump for the soft and try to make a break early, or go with the hard and try to close the gap in the second half of the race. The difference between the two tires is not significant, but it could mean the difference between winning and losing. There are too many factors to be able to predict what will be the right choice.
What will be crucial will be to get away off the line quickly, and avoid the early chaos of Turn 1 and Turn 3. Too many riders through too narrow a line is a recipe for disaster, so there will be plenty of elbows flying in the early stages. A good start becomes even more important given the run up the hill into the first corner. A strong start means you hit the hill with more speed, Bradley Smith explained, and can carry that momentum all the way to the corner. Hit the hill a little slower, and the slope will slow you down even further. You either need a fast start, or a boatload of horsepower.
Horsepower = Fuel / laps
Just how that horsepower will affect the full length of the race remains to be seen. The Red Bull Ring is a very heavy track for fuel, with full throttle for 50% of the circuit, and a lot of acceleration from low speed. That will cut into the horsepower advantage of the Ducatis, if they are to make it all the way to the line. Another reason to hope it will be cold, to make the Ducatis more fuel hungry. But it was something the Ducatis were all too aware of. "For sure the consumption will make a difference in the race, but already in FP3 and FP4 we had the power we can use in the race. So what we did in that practice is the reality," Dovizioso said.
Behind the front runners, there was one rider who threw up a real surprise. Eugene Laverty was the fastest rider in Q1, then grabbed eleventh place in Q2 with a very strong burst of pace. The Aspar Ducati rider had been stung into action by his clash with Iannone on Friday – asked what annoyed him most about it, Laverty said "I hate people with bad manners" – and was the rider who improved the most from Friday to Saturday (much to the chagrin of Bradley Smith, who took two seconds off his time on Saturday). Laverty put his speed at the Red Bull Ring down to the track layout. "There are no long corners here, and that's where we've been struggling," he said. The Ducati Desmosedici GP14.2 brakes well, has a lot of top end, and has excellent power delivery all through the rev range, Laverty explained. That puts him in a strong position for Sunday, alongside Hector Barbera, who is also having another strong weekend.
The situation is much clearer in Moto2 and Moto3. In Moto2, Johann Zarco is becoming unstoppable. The Frenchman was fast throughout practice, took pole in qualifying, and has exceptional race pace. After a tough start to the year, Zarco is back in the groove, and starting to dominate the class. He has been helped by the shortcomings of his rivals, Alex Rins being incredibly inconsistent, Sam Lowes being fast at some tracks, coming up just short at others.
Zarco starts from pole on Saturday, just ahead of Franco Morbidelli. The Italian made good use of Zarco as a target, but the Frenchman would not be denied. Morbidelli's Marc VDS teammate Alex Márquez appears also to have found his feet, starting from fifth on the grid. But it is probably Tom Luthi who is the biggest threat to Zarco's domination on Sunday, the Swiss rider fast at what is the closest thing to his home race.
In Moto3, Joan Mir took a superb pole position, the first of his career in his rookie year. But it is Brad Binder who is dominating in Austria, the championship leader fastest in almost every session, and starting from second on the grid. He has a big opportunity to pull out an even bigger lead in the championship, as Jorge Navarro, who trails in second with a deficit of 47 points, will start the race from eighteenth, after struggling all weekend.
The biggest news in Moto3 came from the Sky VR46 team, however. Romano Fenati, currently third in the championship and 66 points behind Binder, has been suspended by his team after a string of infractions of team discipline. Missing Austria will put him out of contention for the championship, but there are strong signs Fenati will be dropped by his team altogether.
What was Fenati's sin? It is rumored that Fenati has shown continuing disrespect to his team all year. His behavior is said to be immature, and disrespectful, and that has prompted the team to give up on the Italian. Team manager Pablo Nieto is a great believer in second chances – it was Nieto who gave Maverick Viñales a second chance, after the Spaniard abandoned his Moto3 team in Sepang in 2012 – but it appears that even Nieto has lost patience with the Italian.
Fenati's fall from grace is a salutary lesson for young riders everywhere. Fenati is obviously talented – his win in his rookie year in Jerez was proof of that – but again, his problem appears to be with directing and focusing his talent. Ego can be a great driver for athletes, pushing them to put all else aside in pursuit of success. But ego can also create massive friction with the people athletes need to help them, and push them into a downward spiral.
Fenati's career looks set on just such a downward spiral, unless the Italian can step in and salvage it himself. Other teams may pick Fenati up, but he has lost any earning power he may have had, and unless he can learn to control his temper inside the team, success will be hard to come by. One of Italy's brightest young stars has fallen to earth. Let us hope the shock waves do not cause too much damage.
Ready to race
Saturday at the Red Bull Ring also saw the KTM RC16 MotoGP bike presented for the first time. There will be much more on this in the coming week, including an interview with the bike's chief designer, but for now, it is worth noting that KTM are attempting to break the mold. The bike uses a steel tubular chassis and WP suspension, rather than the aluminum beam frame and industry standard Öhlins suspension.
Will it succeed? Given KTM's extensive experience with tubular chassis, there is no reason the frame cannot be made to work. The riders may need a slightly longer period to adapt to the feeling of the frame – "it takes a bit longer to understand," test rider Mika Kallio told us – but the advantages should end up outweighing the disadvantages. Likewise, the WP suspension will have full factory backing, with suspension units modified and adapted to the requirements of the riders, when they ask for it.
Success for KTM will be good for MotoGP, especially for its status as a prototype championship. Since Ducati dropped the carbon fiber subframe and switched to an aluminum beam frame, variety has disappeared from the series. It will be good if if KTM can help bring it back.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.