Styria MotoGP Preview: Danger And Opportunity In The Austrian Alps

If it's scenery you're after, the Red Bull Ring, or Spielberg, or Zeltweg – choose your favorite name for the Austrian circuit – is hard to beat. Mugello maybe? The Italian track sits in a valley, rather than being set up against the lower slopes of a mountain, but Spielberg wins on the mountain backdrop behind it.

Phillip Island, perhaps? The Bass Strait makes for a stunning setting, but is it more dramatic than the Austrian Alps which frame the Red Bull Ring? The weather will change just as quickly as both, storms brewing in the mountains as rapidly as they are blown in off the Southern Ocean at Phillip Island. One minute the sun is shining, the next the heavens have opened.

In Spielberg, that can be a problem. The track is dangerous at the best of times, but a downpour at the track makes braking into Turn 1 a lottery. In previous years, the rubber left by cars at the first corner turned it into an ice rink when it rained. The circuit has addressed that in recent years by scrubbing out the rubber left by the cars in the braking zone. But concerns remain.

Wet weather really just highlights the problems with the track. The fastest circuit on the calendar – Marc Marquez' pole record of 1'23.027 equates to 187.2 km/h – thanks to its relatively simple layout equates to a lot of places where speed becomes a problem with runoff. The circuit has just 10 corners, but at three of them, the riders have to scrub off over 200 km/h in speed in the braking zones.

No place to run

The two visits to the track in 2020 underlined that. Maverick Viñales had the brakes on his Yamaha M1 overheat and he ended up having to bail on his bike when they failed on the way into Turn 1. His bike smashed into the air fence and caused a red flag. And a week previously, Johann Zarco and Franco Morbidelli tangled on the run up between Turns 1 and 2, both bikes racing through the gravel at high speed and flying across the track just as the pack exited Turn 3, nearly decapitating Maverick Viñales and wiping out Valentino Rossi.

Those aren't the only places with problems: apart from a lack of run off at Turn 1, and the possibility for bikes crashing at Turn 2 to cross the track again at Turn 3, there's the closeness of the armco on the straight between Turns 3 and 4, a lack of runoff at Turn 4, and a lack of runoff at Turn 10. The track has tried to address some of those problems – after the Zarco/Morbidelli incident, the barrier on the inside of Turn 3 was extended with the aim of catching any bike which crashed at Turn 2, and the circuit has painted kerbs on the exit of the final corner to make it narrower and slow the bikes through there – but major issues remain. A bigger fix to Turn 2 is expected for 2022, much to the disappointment of the riders.

Despite the dangers, it is still a great track in places, and produces some glorious racing. The section up the hill to Turns 2 and 3 is one of the most challenging on the calendar, the riders having to wrestle the bike at over 300 km/h from full lean left through Turn 2 to start braking for the right hander of Turn 3. The mixture of three straights and an interior Omega section with long sweeping corners gives a semblance of balance between the bikes, and makes it hard to break away.

That, perhaps, is why we have seen some of the greatest race finishes at the track. The move Andrea Dovizioso made on Marc Marquez through Turns 9 and 10 to take victory in 2019 was one for the ages. The battle between Miguel Oliveira, Jack Miller, and Pol Espargaro at the second Austrian round last year was just as memorable. The fact that four riders on three different brands – Oliveira and Espargaro on KTMs, Miller on a Ducati, and fourth-placed Joan Mir on a Suzuki – finished within seven tenths of a second shows that the track suits very different types and styles of bikes.

Spielberg was long described as a Ducati track – the first five MotoGP races held there were won by Ducati riders, with multiple Ducatis on the podium a commonplace. But Miguel Oliveira broke Ducati's monopoly at the second round, the Styrian Grand Prix at Spielberg, in 2020, a KTM finally taking victory at the Austrian factory's home round. And the podium has seen visits from five of MotoGP's six manufacturers, Ducati, Honda, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha all having put bikes on the box there.

Faster than you think

The fact that Yamaha has had two podiums at the Red Bull Ring always comes as something of a surprise. The track is famed for its speed, and that has always been touted as Yamaha's biggest disadvantage at the track. But crunch the numbers, and things are not quite as bad as they look.

The difference in speed between the fastest Ducati (Jack Miller) at the first race last year and the fastest Yamaha (Maverick Viñales) was 6 km/h, based on average top speeds, 314.5 km/h by Miller to Viñales' 308.5 km/h. That is a difference of 1.9%. The difference between Miller and the slowest Yamaha – Valentino Rossi's 305.8 km/h – was 8.7 km/h, a difference of 2.8%.

Compare that with a track like Qatar. There, Jorge Martin had the highest top speed during the first race of 2021 on the Pramac Ducati, averaging 353.3 km/h. Fabio Quartararo was fastest Yamaha, with an average of 343.9 km/h, a difference of 9.4 km/h or 2.8%. Franco Morbidelli on the 2019-spec M1 clocked an average of 336.7 km/h, 16.6 km/h down on Martin, a differential of 4.7%. By any measure, the speed gap is bigger at Qatar. And yet a Yamaha won both races at Qatar in 2021.

Fabio Quartararo arrives at the Red Bull Ring leading the MotoGP championship by 34 points, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider having 156 points to Pramac Ducati's Johann Zarco's 122. With two races at Spielberg on back-to-back weekends, you might think that Quartararo has something to fear. Yet the changes made to the 2021 Yamaha M1 might just be enough to put the Frenchman closer to the podium fight.

Where this year's M1 is stronger is in acceleration. That negated their weakest point in previous years. Whereas before, the Ducatis could either keep up or leave the Yamahas for dead on corner exit, now the tables have been turned. Eventually, the Ducatis (and the KTMs, and the Hondas, and even the Suzukis) catch up, but those first fifty meters or so out of the corner give the Yamahas just enough of an edge to hold their own.

Drag king

The Yamahas do have the layout of those long straights against them. Slow corners onto high speed straights mean the Yamahas can't carry corner speed and use their extra drive. The point and squirt nature of the Red Bull Ring's straights give the Yamaha less time to use their additional drive before the Ducatis et al are on the fat part of the tire and hard on the gas. In a drag race, the Desmosedici can use the heady combination of massive horsepower, clever aerodynamics, and the ride height lowering device to maximize drive onto the fast straights.

But their advantage is not as clear cut as it once was. Now, all of the manufacturers have a rear holeshot device, allowing them to drop the rear of the bike on corner exit. Suzuki were the last of the holdouts, though reportedly, they will debut their device at the Red Bull Ring this weekend. The Suzuki GSX-RR had suffered this year, neither Alex Rins nor reigning champion Joan Mir as competitive as they had been in 2020. This could be the final part of the puzzle to add to Mir's growing competitiveness, and put him right back in the fight again.

The Ducatis still remain the bikes to beat in Austria, however. Jack Miller finished on the podium at both races last year, taking a third and a second place. It was quite a turnaround for the Australian, Miller having previously struggled just to finish, or even score points. He needs to repeat, or even improve on his results from last year, though. He trails championship leader Fabio Quartararo by 56 points, and two races at the Red Bull Ring are the ideal opportunity to claw back a big chunk of that deficit.

Second chance

Factory Ducati Lenovo teammate Pecco Bagnaia sits 9 points ahead of Miller in the standings, but missed both races in Austria last year after breaking his leg at the previous round in Brno. But the Italian has already tasted victory at the Red Bull Ring, having won here in 2018 in Moto2. His first visit on a MotoGP bike resulted in a seventh place, his best finish in the class at the time. Two years on, and having been much more competitive so far this year, he, like Miller, will be aiming to narrow the gap to Quartararo.

There will be much attention on Johann Zarco. The Pramac Ducati rider has been the most consistent challenger to fellow Frenchman Fabio Quartararo, though he is yet to win a race. Zarco has form in Austria, having had a pole and victory in Moto2 in 2016, and strong results in MotoGP. He was fastest Yamaha in 2017, and qualified in third at the second race last year, though he had to start from pit lane after the incident with Morbidelli the week before.

There is also Zarco's Pramac teammate Jorge Martin. The Spaniard was impressive at Qatar 2, grabbing pole and a podium in just his second MotoGP race, and has shown flashes of speed elsewhere as well. But he also managed to bang himself up very badly in a huge crash at Portimão, forcing him to sit out three rounds. Last year in Moto2, Martin crossed the line in first in both races at the Red Bull Ring, though he was demoted to second after being deemed to have exceeded track limits on the final lap. But that is proof that he has some speed at the circuit.

Miguel Oliveira won the second race at the Red Bull Ring last year, and has another victory under his belt at Barcelona this year, after his promotion to the factory Red Bull KTM team. At the team's home circuit, owned by the team's title sponsor, the Portuguese rider will be under a huge amount of pressure.

But Oliveira comes into the weekend with momentum. After a difficult start to the season, his last four races have been exemplary: second at Mugello, victory in Barcelona, second at the Sachsenring, and then an almost disappointing fifth place at Assen. Oliveira has 76 points from the last four races, exactly the same tally as championship leader Fabio Quartararo.

Then there are the Suzukis. Like Oliveira, Joan Mir has found some momentum in recent races. The world champion has two podiums and a fourth from the last four rounds, and is starting to mount a proper title defense. He still trails Quartararo by 55 points, but Spielberg could be a chance for him to recoup some of his deficit.

Mir is certainly strong in Austria. At the first round, he finished second, just over a second behind Andrea Dovizioso. At the second round, he had broken away and had a huge lead when the race was red flagged for Maverick Viñales' crash. With no new medium tires left, he was forced to take a used one, and even so finished fourth, just behind the podium. If Suzuki get the rear ride height device to use this weekend, Mir could well be a real factor.

Mixing it up

All this could well end up aiding Fabio Quartararo. With so many of his rivals capable of fighting for the podium, they are just as likely to take points from each other as from him. And the 2021 Yamaha M1 might give him just enough of an edge to insert himself into the battle. Quartararo is riding with confidence and calmness, two factors which give him a real edge in the championship. Things may still end up going his way.

The wildcard in all of this is Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda rider is much rejuvenated after the break – his first proper vacation in a couple of years, his previous breaks being filled with rehabilitation after surgery and injury – and has had time to work on the strength in his right shoulder, and more importantly on riding motorcycles. Marquez has been riding dirt track, and a CBR600RR on a circuit, and is even back to riding motocross. That was the edge he was missing after his return from the broken arm he suffered in the horrendous crash at Jerez, and then the botched recovery process after trying to come back too early.

At Assen, Marquez said that he felt that he was riding like normal at a right-hand track for the first time since his return. Spielberg is a track where he has form: from 2017 to 2019, he finished second to Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and then Dovizioso again, twice having taken the fight to the finish line. It is the only track apart from Portimão where he has yet to win, and unlike Portimão, he has had a number of chances. If he is as fit as we expect, then he will be the most determined rider on the grid. He has a number of points to prove at the Red Bull Ring, and that makes him a very dangerous man on Sunday.

Two veterans make their appearance at the Red Bull Ring this weekend, test riders Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow back for a brief return from test riding duties. Pedrosa is reported to be riding a 2022 prototype of the KTM RC16 as a wildcard at the Styrian Grand Prix, before returning to his test role. Cal Crutchlow, however, will be on the bike temporarily vacated by Franco Morbidelli as he recovers from surgery on his right knee. That will be tough in Austria, the 2019 Yamaha M1 of the Petronas team the slowest bike on the grid. But at least two races in Austria should be a good warm up for his home Grand Prix, and for the time being, last appearance for 2021, at Silverstone.

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