Styria MotoGP Friday Round Up: A Wasted Day, Yamaha's Problems In Mixed Conditions, And Filling Empty MotoGP Seats

In an ideal world, MotoGP teams can use practice to prepare for the race on Sunday. Test tires in FP1, make setup changes in FP2, finalize the setting in FP3 and FP4, then into qualifying to be ready for the race. In an ideal world, conditions are comparable enough through all practice sessions on Friday and Saturday to find the optimal setup choices for Sunday.

But we don't live in an ideal world, of course. Temperature differences and changing conditions leave a lot to a mixture of experience and guesswork. Even then, as long as you have dry weather, you can get pretty close.

That is not the case this weekend in Spielberg, however. FP1 saw excellent conditions: warm, dry sunny. Not too hot, and temperatures not far off optimum for the tires. But rain started in the afternoon, and FP2 was wet, with a drying line as the session went on. Data collected in the morning would be useful for a dry race. Data in the afternoon is contingent on the amount of rain that falls in the case of a wet race, which looks a racing certainty.

Ready for anything?

A wet race would render the data collected on Saturday pretty much irrelevant as well. Saturday in Spielberg looks set very fair, bright, sunny and warm. But the forecast for Sunday is the worst of all worlds: thunderstorms, with a chance of heavy rain.

Only a chance, mind. It might rain lightly throughout the day. There might be a deluge just before the race, or at the start of the day, or even while the race is underway. The track might be damp, fully wet, or awash with water, and streams running down the many elevation changes around the track plastered on the side of an Austrian mountain.

"Because on Sunday there is a chance of storms, the amount of water will be the biggest problem on this race track," Marc Marquez told us. "Because it has many uphills and downhills, it's easy to have some rivers in the middle of the track, and this becomes dangerous for the aquaplaning."

That is perhaps why there are some reports that the race could be moved to Monday. Normally, that would be a major headache for everyone, but as Styria is the first of two back-to-back races at the Red Bull Ring, the logistics are incredibly simple. Even the TV broadcasters – the real power behind the throne, as the people paying for most of the show – may not look amiss on a move to Monday, as Sunday already has a crammed schedule of sports, with the final day and closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. Though with everyone back at work on Monday, TV audiences would most likely be drastically down, despite not facing competition from the Olympics.

So the lessons learned today are unlikely to prove relevant to race conditions. We can't even draw conclusions from FP1, in the case of a fully dry race. The five riders at the top of the timesheets – Takaaki Nakagami, Joan Mir, Aleix Espargaro, Alex Rins, and Pol Espargaro – all put a new tire in at the end of the session to set a fast lap time. The riders in spots six to ten – Marc Marquez, Maverick Viñales, Fabio Quartararo, Johann Zarco, and Jack Miller – did not, completing their runs on a single set of tires.

That might explain why the first Ducati rider on the timesheets is Johann Zarco, down in ninth place. We had been expecting this to be a Ducati track, but the data from Friday were far too inconclusive to validate that. That doesn't mean that the Ducatis won't be strong in Austria, however, Zarco warned.

His team manager had pointed this out, the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "[Francesco] Guidotti was expecting this, that everyone was saying it's a Ducati track, but now it's been a few years that Marc was always fighting to the last corner against a Ducati, or even last year, the Suzuki was strong. And today, they began pretty well," Zarco said.

"So it's kind of mixed, but for me, it's still a track where we are feeling better than in Assen," the Frenchman told us. "So yes, it's better for us, but that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. It's better compared to Assen, but the others also have some very good points. And I think it was Rins this morning who had best sector 2, and this sector, if you watch it, it's braking and acceleration, so it means they are managing it pretty well too. But I think that if we do some improvements on the braking zone I think I will be very very competitive."

Wet and dry

The fact that the Yamahas were fast in FP1, and set a strong pace on used tires was promising, and ran counter to the narrative that this was a bad track for the M1. But far from being happy at being fast in the dry, championship leader Fabio Quartararo was extremely concerned about a wet race. In the wet, he is slow, he complained. And in the mixed conditions of a wet track and drying line, he is even worse.

"This morning was quite OK. We stayed with the same tire, we didn't change. And I think it was a great pace, much better than in 2020," Quartararo asserted. "But in the wet condition, still the same. I have no feeling. When it's totally wet, I am not good and we are not the best, but as soon as it's half and half, I have zero feeling on the bike, and I'm not enjoying at all."

What he found frustrating was that this was the opposite of 2019, when the bike was very good both in the wet and in the half-wet, half-dry conditions. "In 2019, I think I never finished outside of the top 10 in the wet, and we made Brno, Motegi, Phillip Island, tough tracks where we are struggling a lot now, and it was our strong point in 2019," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "So something I don't understand, because the wet is something that I don't like, but I've always been in the top 10 in the wet in 2019. And last year and this year it's been a really strange feeling."

The problems might even be specific to the Spielberg track, Quartararo opined. "I finished FP2, I had zero feeling. I didn't have fun, and when you don't have fun, it's not good," he said. "So we need to find a solution. Because I'm not that bad in the wet, like a podium in Le Mans. So something happens with this track that we are lost. Last year was the same. We need to find something honestly. Because it's not normal so far away from the top guys."

The issue that Quartararo complained of most was the fact that the rear of his Yamaha M1 was spinning up in a straight line, with no way of being able to control it. "Straight grip is really bad on the wet. I was with [Jorge] Martin and Pol [Espargaro], and let's say on the braking and turning, I was not bad. But just as soon as they open the throttle – it's not about power, it's just about the grip on the straight line."

Valentino Rossi shared Quartararo's concerns in the half-and-half conditions. "In FP1 which was full dry I was quite good, also because I didn’t change the tires at the end, but I felt quite comfortable with the bike. My pace was not too bad," the Italian said. "In the afternoon unfortunately with the wet at the beginning with the full wet I was not too bad but when it became dry the situation is very difficult for us because we suffer very much about the traction and in that condition I was quite slow. So for Sunday we hope for a dry race or full wet, not half and half."

Not enough rain was a problem for the Yamahas, Rossi said. "We suffer very much when we don’t have a lot of rain. For me if have a lot of rain we can go fast but when it becomes dry we suffer a lot with the traction and I think that it's a problem for more or less all the Yamahas. In this condition we suffer very much because we lose in acceleration."

A Yamaha thing

The grip problems do appear to be confined to the Yamahas (though Maverick Viñales, alone among Yamaha riders, declared he did not have a problem with wet grip). Others were perfectly happy with the grip in the wet. "It was not too bad. I was a bit surprised," Pol Espargaro said. "Just for me at least on the left corners – because everything is right corners here – the first left corner especially, I struggle a little bit to catch the grip."

Marc Marquez was a little more critical of the track in the rain. "The grip in the wet was OK, acceptable," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It's true that the amount of water on the track was not a lot. Of course, Turn 2 is one of the corners where you close the gas a little bit, especially in the free practice. But it was acceptable."

Johann Zarco told us the grip was improved in comparison with previous years. "It was better," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "In the really straight braking I was a bit worried, but it seems it was quite OK. The track was quite warm and this helps a lot for the tire to get some grip. Usually the track takes some time to get some grip on the wet, but here it was quicker than expected."

The combination of a dry line and relatively warm temperatures tempted Jack Miller to go out at the end of FP2 on slicks. The factory Ducati rider is always the first to switch away from wets, and he wanted to judge the conditions on slicks in case of rain on Sunday. "I thought it was an important point. If we do get rain on Sunday, we need to know what to understand," the Australian said.

Up to temperature

"It was one of those key moments," Miller told us. "I had a good pace in full wet conditions. Then I put the mediums in from this morning. They already had 21 laps on them. It’s always a bit touch and go with the Ms in those conditions, you’re struggling to put temperature in them. It took a little bit to get the rear working on the right hand side, it’s quite stiff the casing."

Once the tires were up to temperature, Miller felt he could start to push, he said. "After 2 laps it started working, it wasn’t too bad. After 1 or 2 more laps I’d have been able to put it on top again. I did a 1'35 on that first lap when I had any temperature. I think it was my third lap when I had temp on right hand side and I could actually put my knee on the ground. It was good, a bit of fun, get the heart rate going again and understand how the slicks are reacting over the wet spots. It wasn’t too bad."

While there was grip in the wet in acceleration, the real problem was in braking. "It’s dangerous, yes. Especially the first corner, really slippery," Joan Mir said. "Turn 3 is so dangerous. If you crash alone it’s not a problem. But in a group it’s really dangerous that part in the wet. I don’t know what we have to do but the safety is not enough in the wet."

Pol Espargaro agreed. "This track is for sure not one of the safest, just because these kind of corners are so, so close," the Repsol Honda rider said. "As it's corner 3, if someone crashes at high speed in the first part of the braking, which normally is where you have the locking, then the bike takes a super high speed on the ground, and especially on wet, and it can impact a guy turning on the other side. As it happened more or less last year with Johann [Zarco] and Franco [Morbidelli]."

That was a concern for Espargaro, even though he was not personally having a lot of problems. "So it worries me a little bit about safety, for sure, and it's not the best plan for sure that we are going to have a lot of rain on Sunday. At the end, I think today the grip was quite high, so for us, the locking was not so big, even if it can happen. For me, I had not so many problems."

Brother Aleix, over at Aprilia, is one of the hardest to please riders when it comes to safety, and he was adamant. "I don’t want to race in the wet in any case," the elder Espargaro said. "In the beginning of FP2 there was a little bit of water on track but not so much. But even like that on the straight with not a lot of water, there was spinning, a bit of aquaplaning."

For Aleix Espargaro, the fact that the walls are so close all around the circuit is the major concern. "If there is a lot of water on track and you make a mistake on the straight the walls are very close," he said. "I hope it’s not going to be heavy rain. Race Direction know how this track is. I hope they will be very careful with the amount of rain and this situation."

Too close for comfort

Even the normally carefree Jack Miller was concerned about the track in the wet. "The track in wet was rather slippery on the ideal line," the factory Ducati rider said. "Felt like you had to brake well on right side. Basically where the Formula 1 cars haven’t been driving. Seems a lot of rubber in the braking lines. In the wet it’s just like ice."

Though conditions weren't ideal for testing new parts, it wasn't the weather which prevented Joan Mir and Alex Rins from trying out the rear ride-height device, which has finally arrived in the Suzuki Ecstar garage. "It arrived 30 minutes before the start of FP2 so we couldn’t use it for today," Alex Rins said. "Tomorrow we will put it and we will try. We have work to do tomorrow. We have to go direct to Q2 tomorrow. So, let’s see if we can try it well."

The problem, Suzuki's MotoGP project leader Ken Kawauchi told the technical press conference at lunchtime on Friday, was that trying something on a race weekend was always difficult. With just three 45 minute sessions plus FP4, and a lot of work to do to prepare for the race, finding the time to properly test new parts was difficult.

"Honestly, new items always have some positive and some negative points," Kawauchi said. "We have to investigate if the positive point is better, so we can use it for the race, but we only have a short setup time. But if we have a chance, we will try."

Silly season redux

The announcement yesterday that Valentino Rossi is to retire at the end of 2021 opens up what will almost certainly be two seats at Petronas Yamaha. Franco Morbidelli is under contract at Petronas, but Wilco Zeelenberg acknowledged that Yamaha is talking to the team and Morbidelli about a possible move to the factory team.

Who will fill those seats is a difficult question. In recent days, news has filtered through that Petronas are looking at Marco Bezzecchi for one of the two seats, the VR46 rider fitting the profile which Petronas has set out in their role as a junior team: young, talented, and with potential to develop. But the second seat is a total mystery.

It is also curious that Bezzecchi, a rider from the VR46 Academy, will not be going to the VR46 team in MotoGP. At first glance, it would be the obvious step, moving up to from the Sky VR46 Racing team in Moto2 to the VR46 MotoGP outfit for 2022. But Bezzecchi and his management – the VR46 Academy – have apparently chosen to put the Italian into the Petronas team instead.

It is certainly easier for a rookie to get to grips with the Yamaha than the Ducati, but that leaves VR46 with a seat still to fill. What we do know is that the second rider alongside Luca Marini won't be Maverick Viñales, as Valentino Rossi himself explained to the Spanish and Italian press.

"I like Viñales a lot, because he is a top rider, a fast rider, and a rider who I always agreed with a lot when we were teammmates," Rossi said. "I have a lot of respect for him. The problem is that we are making this [VR46] team for the riders of the Academy. We want to have our riders in our team. That is our program."

Have you got enough time?

Rossi acknowledged that he had considered riding his own team, but rejected the idea, as switching bikes for just one year would not leave him enough time to become competitive. "Yesterday, I tried to explain that in the modern MotoGP if you want to change bike in general, not just the Ducati, you need a longer program that is a minimum of 2-3 years to try to understand and try to reach all the potential," Rossi explained. "In my case maybe I can race another year, but to change bike for just one season is difficult. Sincerely I don’t want to push very much on our team in MotoGP for me."

The VR46 team keeping it in the Academy leaves Maverick Viñales with only one choice. The Spaniard is now certain to join Aprilia, with an announcement expected next week. Though he did not address where he would be riding, he did give a little bit of insight into why he left Yamaha.

"This lack of confidence in the team made me take this decision," Viñales explained. "So I decided to stop for that reason. This inconsistency [in results] took a lot of confidence out of me. And for sure the Yamaha team is great, but right now, not for me. And we need to find something that makes me work well and give me the opportunity to give the maximum, because at the end, the only thing I desire and the only thing I want to do is to win races, and the way to do it right now is very hard."

To the Italian press, Valentino Rossi also addressed the reports that he was set to sell the VR46 Academy and VR46 Racing Apparel business to the Saudi prince behind Tanal Entertainment, the entity backing the team in 2022. "I can tell you that it's not true that we want to sell VR46 to the Saudis," Rossi said. "We never even thought about it, because it is our world, and we love it a lot."

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I wonder if some riders attitudes are less about ego, and more about 'how is that other rider getting through that section so much faster than me'?  In which case, having your rider coach observe, compare data, and show video, would be one hell of an advantage for a rider willing to take it.