The weather is looking up at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, and that is a good thing. First of all, it provided a fascinating day of practice and qualifying, with more than a few surprises and plenty of data to chew over. But secondly, and far more importantly, it meant that riders were out on track riding, and returning to the pits safely after doing so. If the weather had turned, and rain had fallen, that might not have been the case.
The reason for that is simple. The Red Bull Ring is not safe in the wet. That was the consensus of the riders at Friday night's Safety Commission. It is not particularly safe in the dry either, but in the wet, it is so bad that everyone said they would not ride if it rained. "Everybody yesterday in the Safety Commission said they would not ride in the wet," Aleix Espargaro said.
It was a point which Cal Crutchlow had made on Thursday, even before practice began. He reiterated it on Saturday. "If it rains I ain’t riding," he told the media. I have no interest, because there are barriers everywhere. As you saw, everyone was crashing in a complete straight line and they were going to the left at a right hand corner. It was just ridiculous. Until they move the barriers back, I have no interest to ride here in the wet."
The barrier method
The concern is a lack of grip in the wet, but the danger comes from the barriers which are so close to the track. "We arrive at more than 300 km/h on the brakes, so if we lock the front, the bike will go completely to the barrier," Espargaro said. "I don't care about the bike, but we will also arrive at the barrier. And as we saw for example with the Salom crash, when the bike hit the barrier and comes back is when the bike killed him."
Where does the lack of grip come from? The official line is that it is due to the rubber laid down by the Formula One cars which where here a month ago. With so many heavy braking areas, the fat F1 tires are leaving a good layer of rubber on the track. That is certainly plausible, but Danilo Petrucci had a slightly different explanation. "I think for the ice in the winter, so the ice doesn't break the asphalt, it's very smooth," he said.
It was a theory endorsed by renowned track designer Jarno Zafelli of Studio Dromo. The asphalt is very smooth, Zafelli explained to me in an email. The track also has a lot of sloping elevation changes, including uphill and downhill braking sections. When it rains, the water doesn't run off into the drainage channels at the side of the track, but instead, it runs either up or down the hill. Running water on a track surface combined with heavy braking is a recipe for aquaplaning. And that is a sure fire recipe for strange crashes with the bikes braking in a straight line, just as we saw in Moto2 FP1 on Friday.
Snakes and ladders
The track may be dangerous in the wet, but it is a long way from safe in the dry either. Wet conditions merely emphasize the circuit's other dangers. Barriers are too close to the track all around the circuit, but especially along the long, fast straights. "It's really dangerous," Jonas Folger told us. "You have many braking points where you have a right corner, but you turn left at the same time, because it's a snaking straight. And when you crash there, it's really getting dangerous."
The problem wasn't limited to the straights, Folger said. There are also other sections where the barriers are too close. "[It's] not just about locking the front tire, but also about corner four, to increase the runoff area. Because you make a small mistake, you think everything is fine, you go straight, but then at the end you are on the gravel, and you cannot brake, you cannot slow down, and the wall is really close there. Especially with a MotoGP bike."
Danilo Petrucci did not mince words in describing the Red Bull Ring. "This is the most dangerous track of the season," he said. His opinion was the rule, rather than the exception. Every rider I spoke to acknowledged the danger at the track. Some were more emphatic than others, but none thought the circuit particularly safe.
The biggest issue was the proximity of barriers, an issue which came up again and again. It was an issue that had been raised last year, yet nothing had been done about it. In Friday's Safety Commission, the riders raised the problem again. "We already asked for this to be changed for next year," Petrucci said. But Crutchlow as not optimistic. "We’ve asked but the problem is they’re going to move barriers," the LCR Honda rider said. "There’s many. But the ones that are critical probably won’t get moved."
If the track is so dangerous, what is it doing on the calendar? There are a lot of answers to this question, but there is a good chance one of them can be found in the official name of the circuit. Red Bull pours a lot of money into racing: not just into the circuit which bears its name, but the energy drink brand also sponsors two Grand Prix, at Austin and Jerez, at a cost of several million euros.
They are a significant backer of the Repsol Honda team, and title sponsor of the KTM factory MotoGP team, as well as Aki Ajo's KTM Moto3 and Moto2 teams. They sponsor dozens of riders in the paddock, as well as providing the financial backing for the Red Bull Rookies, one of the main feeder classes for talent coming into MotoGP.
With so much money at stake, Dorna is likely to look favorably on requests from Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, taking his word that problems will be fixed. I think the riders would appreciate it if Dorna pushed for the problems to be addressed sooner, rather than later. The riders race in MotoGP taking a calculated risk. But Grand Prix racing abandoned the idea of racing on dangerous, armco-lined circuits a long time ago, because that swung the calculation too far towards serious injury, or worse. Nostalgia may be experiencing an upswing in popularity, but the reality of weekly funerals is not something that needs to be revived.
Masterclass from the magician
All this talk of danger overshadowed what was a fascinating day of qualifying. Marc Márquez put on another other-worldly display to seize pole position, bringing his career total to 70. Johann Zarco summed up just how the reigning world champion can ride as he does. "He’s controlling perfectly the bike," Zarco said.
"Really, I think, the way he’s playing with the front tire and the front of the bike gives him the possibility to then have a very good exit and use very well the engine. That’s where he’s making the difference. He’s able to try things that even if he can crash, he will not. Like, another rider if he tried the same thing, he would crash. Marquez is able to catch this crash. That’s why he has one more step, one more option to do things." Among those options is to ride so much faster than anyone else on the grid.
It's not just a single fast lap either. In both FP3 and FP4, Márquez laid down a searing pace. In the morning, only Johann Zarco and Valentino Rossi could get anywhere near the mid 1'24s Márquez was cranking out. In FP4, the only rider anywhere near him was his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa. In all conditions, Márquez was simply the better rider on Saturday.
Progress is a good thing
Márquez' performance is in stark contrast with 2016, when fifth was the best he could do. Valentino Rossi offered a concise analysis of the progress made by Honda, and of his own Movistar Yamaha team. "For me the situation is very similar to last year, but we are closer to the Ducati, because last year they had more advantage," he said. "But the biggest step is from the Honda. Honda was in trouble last year. This year they are very strong." There was more to it than just that, though. "Also last year Honda didn't make the test before the race, and Marquez also had an injury in practice."
Rossi was very positive about the way the day had gone, after a difficult start on Friday. His 'flu symptoms were mostly gone, and using the new fairing tested at Brno had made a big difference. "Yesterday we had a lot of wheelie issues, so we decide to test because it helps for the wheelie," Rossi said. "It's good to ride, it gives me help and also is beautiful so I think that we will use." Rossi had been afraid of losing out on top speed, but the gains in acceleration more than balanced out any loss in speed.
The Ducatis are still competitive at Austria, though they no longer dominate in the way they did last year. That Andrea Dovizioso should be fast comes as no surprise, but the progress which Jorge Lorenzo claimed to have made at Brno is starting to look real. "If you are working well and you are feeling better sooner or later you are fast," the Spaniard said. "That’s what we confirmed in Brno weekend, but especially on Monday test we make a clearly step forward. Here has not been easy because on Friday morning we were already far, but little by little we improved the bike. I improved my riding."
Downs and ups
While Valentino Rossi was happy, his Movistar Yamaha teammate was extremely curt. Maverick Viñales took just a couple of questions from the English-speaking press, answered with inanities and a scowl, clearly not happy with his pace. The Spaniard was a little more forthcoming in Spanish, saying that he and his team still had plenty of work to do. The biggest problem had been with acceleration, something the new fairing had helped with but not solved.
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the timesheets was the positive performance of Andrea Iannone. The Suzuki rider may have only qualified in tenth, but he was consistently quick through both sessions of free practice. He benefited from a tow from Marc Márquez in FP4, but still, he matched the pace of the Repsol Honda for six full laps. If Iannone can latch on to one of the front runners on Sunday, he should be able to score a decent result. That would be an enormous boost, both to Iannone's morale, and to the morale of the Ecstar Suzuki team.
As usual, tire choice will be crucial at the Red Bull Ring. But that doesn't mean that there is a single tire which is the right one for the race. In a sign that Michelin's tire selection is on the right track, it looks like all three rears and at least two fronts can be raced. Johann Zarco focused on making the soft rear last, with great success. Marc Márquez, by contrast, was one of just a few riders who was quick on the hard rear. For most, the medium rear will be ideal, but there should be a good mix.
Moto3 madness continues
While Mattia Pasini's career continues its surprising late upward surge, the Italian taking pole in Moto2, Moto3 degenerated into a bizarre non-spectacle. The riders were on track for the first 25 minutes or so, before everyone pulled in to wait for the right moment to go out. One fellow journalist mentioned he thought that qualifying had been red flagged, such was the silence around the circuit.
It was no red flag, but rather the indecisiveness of the Moto3 riders. When they finally went out in the final five minutes or so, there were bizarre scenes of riders parked up at pit lane exit, waiting for someone to lead the way and give them a tow. But no one wanted to go first.
So though Gabriel Rodrigo once again scored an outstanding pole – a boon at their home race to KTM, who have slowly been improving over the summer – whether the grid will withstand the onslaught of penalties which are sure to be dished out by Race Direction on Sunday morning remains to be seen. One report talked of 30 riders being penalized for dangerous riding and waiting on the racing line.
That number itself raises the question of just how effective recent penalties have been. If 30 of the 33 riders on the grid are punished with dropping 12 slots on the grid, almost everyone will end up back where they started. The towing problem in Moto3 is real. But so far, the solutions have had no effect.
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 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.