Another track, another day of Marc Márquez dominance. He was only second in the Friday morning session, 0.185 seconds behind Andrea Dovizioso, but he had a formidable pace from the start. 22 laps all on the same tires, ending with a lap of 1'24.566, which was faster than Alex Rins in seventh, who had set a quick lap on a new soft rear tire.
In the afternoon, Márquez stepped up the pace, this time keeping a soft rear for the full session instead of the medium he had used in the morning. This time, at the end of his 23 laps on the same soft rear, he posted a lap of 1'24.708. 23 laps is just five shy of race distance. If Marc Márquez is going that fast that late in the race, he will be a hard man to beat.
The Repsol Honda garage was busy, too. In the afternoon, Márquez finally debuted the updated aero package he had tested at Brno, consisting of larger upper wings, and slightly broader lower wings. Fitting the fairing meant hiding the bikes behind screens to protect their naked form from prying eyes, or rather, prying cameras. But the fairings, they cannot hide. Nor the carbon frames neither.
That last lap by Márquez was set on the combination of carbon frame and new aero, though his fastest lap was set on his first run in FP2, on the old frame with the old wings. Though he was coy once again about talking too much about the new frame and the new aero, he did offer hints at what the new frame did.
"Of course I will not say in detail, but it looks like we are trying to find this extra confidence in the front, we are trying to find some more grip on the rear," Márquez said. "Of course when you gain some things you lose some other things and normally when you gain grip you lose stability. In Brno for example, I was not sure and for that reason I came back to the standard chassis but in this track the new one has good potential. Now we need to analyze all the things to see which one we choose for tomorrow because tomorrow I want to have the same bike."
At a guess, that means Márquez will try to run the carbon chassis on Saturday, along with the new aero. With an advantage in the championship, and strong pace on the new chassis, he can afford to take a gamble.
Márquez also gave away just how much of an advantage he has at the moment. "Apart from that [testing the chassis and aero -DE], we worked in the same way, used tires, keep the tire for all the session and try to find the best setup," Márquez said. The fact that he used just two rear tires on Friday, and didn't bother trying to go out on fresh rubber with an empty tank is a sign of just how confident he is of going straight through to Q2 on Saturday. He barely even bothers with chasing a single lap. His race pace is as good as almost everyone else's qualifying pace.
Shiny side up
If you wanted another sign of Márquez' pace, just look at his crash stats. This time last year, Márquez had 11 crashes. In 2019, after the first day in Austria, Márquez has nearly halved that, crashing just 6 times. He has gone from being one of the most prolific crashers to being bang on the median crash rate. It is hard to call Marc Márquez average, but in terms of crashing, that is exactly what he is in 2019.
"At the moment, when do you see Márquez crash a bike?" Cal Crutchlow asked rhetorically. "He's riding very, very well. And I think that is down to his feeling with the bike." The change to the 2019 Honda RC213V had robbed both Crutchlow and Márquez of feeling with the front of the bike, but Márquez had got his head around the different feeling very quickly. But despite not being comfortable with the 2019 Honda, Crutchlow was crashing less than last year too, 6 crashes to 11 in 2018.
"Ironically, I feel I don't turn, but last year I felt I turned better, but I crashed more, because I was able to push the front more than I am now," is how Crutchlow explained the paradox. "Our engine is stronger, but I don't feel good in certain areas."
If there is anyone who can match Marc Márquez – at least based on the timesheets from Friday, a risky proposition indeed – it is Andrea Dovizioso. Though the factory Ducati rider wasn't posting the kind of devastating rhythm which Márquez showed, his times on used tires were impressive. On a soft rear tire with 23 laps on it, Dovizioso posted a 1'24.411, three tenths faster than Márquez' time on a tire of similar vintage. Of course, it is hard to compare when the way the two riders structured practice varied so much, but it is a hopeful sign for anyone hoping for a close race on Sunday.
"We are very, very close to Marc and I'm happy about that," Dovizioso said on Friday afternoon. "I think in this moment we are the two riders that have a better pace for the victory. But like always it's Friday so let's see tomorrow how much we can improve because I think in the middle of the corners we have to be better."
Ducati had already made steps forward in braking, the Italian said. "We changed the setup for the afternoon and we improved quite a lot on the braking," he told the media. "I'm really happy about that and it's what we wanted to improve at this track. It's the reason why on the second run with the used tire from the morning the speed was good."
Being closer on the pace is vital if Dovizioso is to try to stop Márquez. The Ducati rider explained just how Márquez' riding had changed this year. "The biggest change is the speed of Marc improved," Dovizioso said. "He is in front from the first lap and he makes his pace and is a bit faster than everybody, and everybody has to use energy, risk and tires to try to be there. It's normal to use and finish the tire earlier than last year."
Márquez' dominance was not down to the change of tires, which have more grip and better duration, Dovizioso believed. "It's only him," the Ducati rider pointed out. "So I don’t know how much is the tire. It's impossible to know exactly what they have done during the winter, the situation of Marc. I can only the details of my situation. So we have more points than last year so we are in a good situation but Marc even more."
Trying to stop Márquez by getting in front would not be enough, Dovizioso said. "If you are in front you need the speed to stay there. I mean it's not just about being in front. If I was first into the first corner it wouldn't change anything. So it's not just about that, but the speed to stay there until the last lap and we are working a lot on that."
Why is Márquez so quick around Austria? In part because of the nature of the circuit. Though the Repsol Honda rider looks like he is always on the edge of control, he is both extremely accurate and extremely consistent. The key to going fast at the Red Bull Ring is to be precise, and not make mistakes. "If you make a mistake, the problem is that you lose half a second. To get half a second back here is really difficult," Cal Crutchlow explained.
A mistake into any of the tight corners at the end of the three straights were costly both on corner entry and on corner exit, the LCR Honda rider said. "If you run wide, if it's a normal corner, say you run wide in Turn 6, you lose two tenths. If you run wide in Turn 3, you lose two tenths in, two tenths on the exit, and one tenth on the straight. It's so critical. Turn 4 is quite similar, if you blow there, you blow the exit. It's a difficult track here. Really difficult."
Yamaha show up
Surprisingly, the Yamahas looked relatively strong after the first day. Maverick Viñales was second quickest, Fabio Quartararo was fifth fastest, and Valentino Rossi just missed out on the top ten. Last year at the Red Bull Ring, the Yamahas had had a miserable time, miles off the pace and unable to compete. This year, things were looking a lot better.
The improvement was more down to the bike than the excellent grip of the track, Valentino Rossi explained. "For me it's more an improvement from the Yamaha," he said. "This morning the conditions were very good, very good temperature, but this afternoon the asphalt was hot and it was a bit more difficult. But this track is difficult because you have the long straight but also have a very severe acceleration on the edge and this is hard work for the rear tire. So in the last years we suffer not just in the top speed but also because we stress a bit too much the rear tire. Looks like this year the electronic system works a bit better and also with the used tire we can keep more constant."
Maverick Viñales saw improvements in other areas as well. "I think we improved quite a lot the braking, we improved corner speed, which is always important for our bike but still is not enough," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told the media. "Our top competitors are 2-3 tenths faster around the track so we need to keep working and understanding the way to go faster in this track."
"Actually, traction area is a little bit better than last year, improved a little bit on brakes, improved a little bit on speed corner and traction," Viñales continued. "In my best lap I didn’t give my best in the time attack but in rhythm I am 0.7 faster than last year so it means that somehow we improved quite a lot the bike through all the sectors, especially sector 2 and 3, it's where I feel the most improvement. But we need to keep working, as I say, it’s not enough we have to keep working in the same way and see if tomorrow we can make another improvement."
Fabio Quartararo was second fastest Yamaha in fifth, exceeding his own expectations on the first day in Austria. "Well, our goal was to be in the top ten, and we are in the top five, so better than we expected," the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider said. Top ten seemed to be setting the bar rather low, Quartararo acknowledged. "Of course it's difficult to say that we need to be in the top ten, when in the last races we have been achieving really good results in free practice. So I feel that this is a tough track for us. I'm giving my 100% to try to be really good, try to be really precise on acceleration, but it's really not easy. Also the first time here with the MotoGP."
They were trying to make up for a lack of acceleration by being much stronger on the brakes, the Frenchman explained. "We are working really hard with the team to find the best setting and to have the best stability in braking, because we are struggling in the first and second sector. It's true that it's mainly three straights. But there are three strong braking sections, so we will try to find the best package of braking point and turning for the bike."
Trendy designer material
The Frenchman had also switched to the carbon forks he had tested at Brno. The differences between the two were hard to discern with so little time to try them, but he would persevere with the new forks, Quartararo explained. "It's difficult to say, because I'm using it in just two tracks," he said. "It's only my second day, so I feel it's a little bit more light. I felt that in Brno, because there are many changes of direction there. But here, it's difficult to explain. I only did two times 40 minutes here, so maybe at the end of the weekend, I can feel the positives and explain a little bit better."
It was also worth noting that there were two KTMs in the top ten at the end of the first day, with Miguel Oliveira posting an extremely respectable sixth-fastest time. The nature of the track meant that he had got up to speed quite quickly, the Tech 3 KTM rider said. "This track, for me, is like a rhythm track. Once you get into it and where your braking marks are, then it is quite easy to be constant. At the same time the line between [this] and making a mistake is very thin. The set-up of the bike is obviously related a little bit to that. We have many uphill corners where we ‘bottom’ and then many where we don't brake a lot, so it is that strange compromise where we want to avoid bottoming but at the same time have a bike that turns in the corners where you brake less."
Austria was the second round in a row where he had started the weekend being fast, and that was a boost for his confidence, the Portuguese rider explained. "Obviously I am more confident if I finish 7th than say P20," Oliveira said. "It is a huge boost for how you believe in yourself and how you approach everything. You actually start to believe you can do it and it’s like a snowball but we need to control it. I am not the guy who gets over-excited about the result. I always like to keep my feet on the ground and work in the same way. Tomorrow nothing is guaranteed so if FP3 is dry again then we need to be faster so we can have a good starting position for Sunday."
While the action on track centered round Marc Márquez, off the track, all the talk was of Jack Miller, or rather of Jorge Lorenzo potentially taking Miller's place with Pramac Ducati. Miller had answered in the best way possible, by being quick both in the morning and in the afternoon, finishing fourth in FP1 and fifth in FP2. "It’s nice but I actually wanted to go top of the timesheets because that would’ve been funnier," Miller quipped. "But the soft didn’t really give me what I wanted but we were close enough. I felt good."
The news that Ducati were looking at putting Lorenzo in his place had been tough to bear, Miller said, visibly shaken. "It hit me like a ton of bricks," Miller said. "I found out yesterday. Some other people found out earlier. I didn’t need to know last weekend, obviously." Pramac Ducati owner Paolo Campinoti was on his way to the Red Bull Ring, to try to force some clarity in the situation, Miller said. "Paolo is on his way here on Sunday. I don’t think he’ll allow Jorge in this box. That makes me happy."
If Lorenzo does take the place of Jack Miller, the Australian would not be out of a job for very long, Miller told the media. "After the press conference yesterday I was getting messages and calls. There are other options, that’s for sure."
Whether Lorenzo will end up at Pramac is another question altogether, however. Lorenzo seems to have put his feelers out everywhere, and Ducati is simply one option. There are already reports liking Lorenzo to the Petronas Yamaha SRT team, for example, though that move could only come in 2021. The Miller saga is set to run for a while, at least until Jorge Lorenzo knows what he is doing in 2020, and whether Ducati can snag him for next year.
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