It has been a fascinating day of thrilling action at the Red Bull Ring. Records have been broken, riders have pushed the limits of their bikes, and the fans – back in full force at last – have added some of the atmosphere that has been missing during the long Covid-19 pandemic. There was elation and heartbreak, a sensational pole in MotoGP, and above all, glorious Austrian summer weather.
Yet it all lacked a sense that it stood outside reality, had no bearing on the actual racing, nothing to do with MotoGP. Perhaps that is the illusion of a return to racing after such a long summer break, the longest in recent history. But more likely, it is because while the fans lapped up the action under the sunshine, we all knew that whatever happened on Saturday is likely to be undone by the weather gods on Sunday. If it rains tomorrow – and it almost certainly will, though the question of when, how heavily, and for how long is completely uncertain – then what happened on track today will be forgotten. On Sunday, it all starts from scratch again.
That made it impossible to approach Sunday's race with any kind of plan, Fabio Quartararo told the qualifying press conference. "Considering the weather, I think the best plan is having no plan," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "You can say, if it’s dry we’ll do this, and if it’s wet we can try that, but every time you make the first corner the plan is totally changing. Just choose the correct tires and enjoy the race. There is no plan."
Before turning to tomorrow, first a look at today. The data from Saturday may not turn out to be particularly predictive if it rains, or rains on and off, or if there is a flag-to-flag race (which seems the safest bet at the moment). What we learned from FP4 – the only session that provides any meaningful data in terms of race pace – is that the Yamahas are in excellent shape in Spielberg. Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales finished first and third, Quartararo's pace looking particularly fearsome. Joan Mir, now with the rear holeshot device – more on that later – was fourth fastest, and impressive, while Marc Marquez ended FP4 fifth.
Even more impressive, perhaps, was Dani Pedrosa. The KTM test rider ended FP4 as sixth fastest, best of the KTMs, and just over a tenth of a second slower than his former teammate. But for Pedrosa, this the first time he has taken part in an FP4 session since Valencia 2018, two years and nine months ago. Being up to speed that quickly is impressive.
Valentino Rossi, who had spent time riding with Pedrosa, was full of praise for the KTM test rider. "I think that Dani make an impressive comeback," Rossi said. "He was always very fast and competitive. Especially during practice and in FP4 he is P6. I follow him and he followed me in the practice and I see the classic Dani Pedrosa style, very clean and hard braking but always very smooth. After three years away it is quite impressive so I congratulate Dani."
There had been talk that KTM wanted Pedrosa to race because they feared he had lost some sharpness and some speed, and need to the experience of racing to provide some motivation and inspiration. Now that looks like a misconception of KTM's intent with Pedrosa. The Spaniard is on track to understand the subtleties of how racing has changed since he retired at the end of 2018 – the biggest change being the ubiquity of holeshot and ride height devices – but see if there are any new lessons for him to learn.
Pedrosa hinted he had spotted something worth discussing with KTM's R&D department in pursuit of further speed, though he kept tight-lipped about exactly what it was. "I still have the race to go but I already felt and saw what I wanted to see. I already get more or less the big picture of what I was missing when I was not racing. It is already clear for me what the next step is to do. Actually, what I saw was a bit of a surprise. I am not so sure if I can tell you now, I still need to make some analysis with the team to make sure I am right with what I am thinking. More further I can give you more info but at the moment I don’t want to make a mistake."
The Yamahas may have been fast in FP4, but converting that into a race result is something else altogether. When asked whether Spielberg was still a Ducati track, Jack Miller pointed out that practice and the race were two different things. "I think all the Ducati riders are riding well, but for sure, having power here definitely helps," the factory Ducati rider told us. "Especially when it comes to racing. Lap times are lap times, but in terms of when you are in a race, in a group, you cannot always ride exactly how you would like to ride. So having the power definitely helps to overtake."
Miller's Ducati Lenovo teammate looks to have the best of both worlds. Pecco Bagnaia was impressive in FP4, and impressive in qualifying, ending up in second place on the grid. His punishing training schedule over the summer break had paid off in terms of performance, and the Italian looked the part on Saturdsay.
"Today we did another improvement compared to yesterday, because yesterday I was struggling a bit with my bike," Bagnaia explained. "Then the FP4 was the moment of the most demonstrate this improvement. I’m very happy. For sure this track for us is better than Assen. We can manage better to be strong on the braking and to use our acceleration. Also looking in the classification, we can see clearly that we are the fourth Ducati in the top six, so our bike is very suited for this track."
Most impressive of all on Saturday, however, was Jorge Martin. The Pramac Ducati rookie took his second pole position of the season, after scoring a sensational pole in Qatar, in just his second ever MotoGP race. Martin was a joy to watch, exploiting every centimeter (and sometimes even more) of the track, and pushing the Ducati Desmosedici to its very limits. His third flying lap was particularly spectacular, Martin sliding both the front and the rear of the bike in search of speed, just drifting to the outside of Turn 9 to have his lap canceled. It didn't matter, as he was even faster in this second run, becoming the first rider to crack the 1'22 barrier at the Red Bull Ring, taking pole with a time of 1'22.994.
All that is well and good, however, but the rain tomorrow is likely to change everything. Much will hinge on when and how much it rains, and whether the race will need to be halted, delayed, rescheduled, or allowed to continue. It had been a subject of discussion in the Safety Commission, Jack Miller explained.
"For sure, here is one of the tracks that you've got to keep an eye on this, and I think we voiced our concern last night in the Safety Commission," the Australian said. "Because especially here with how much elevation change there is, the big uphills, they essentially turn into rivers, and aquaplaning is not too much fun on these things. There's a big problem here, and the grip level's not that great anyway."
The representatives from Dorna and Race Direction were open to the riders' concerns. "I think they got the message, they're going to be monitoring exactly how much water is on the ground, and if need be, red flag or whatever. If it's like yesterday, shouldn't be an issue. Yes, it was slippery, but it wasn't too bad."
Wet or dry?
Miller himself didn't really mind what the weather does on Sunday. "I feel ready for all conditions," the Australian told us. "If it's dry, it's good, if it's wet, it's good. If it's half and half, it's even better. So it should be OK."
Johann Zarco, starting from sixth on the grid, had a much clearer preference. Though he had some speed in the dry, he knows that over race distance he is no match for Fabio Quartararo. "With new and used tires there is a big difference," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "If the race in dry, there could be good times at the beginning but hard to finish well the race. This will be important to control it. It’s always a long race here."
Zarco had hoped that Spielberg would be a good opportunity to claw points back from fellow countryman Fabio Quartararo, but now he had his hopes set on a wet race. Currently second in the championship and trailing Quartararo by 34 points, he needs the rain to come to his aid. "I think the wet can make the difference against Fabio," the Pramac Ducati rider said. ""In the dry he is quite constant and fast. With very used tires it’s difficult to say how he will feel. I think the wet conditions can give us, to Ducati - also there is Jack, me I can also manage well - the chance to take more points from Fabio."
Spielberg could also be the start of a comeback for Joan Mir. Suzuki have brought their rear ride-height device at last, and Mir reaped the benefits straight away. The reigning champion qualified on the second row using the ride-height device on Saturday, for the first time this year. Last year, he qualified on the second row four times, and three times converted that into a podium, and at Valencia, a win.
The big gain was in acceleration, Mir said. "With and without is a huge difference: with the device the bike wheelies a lot less, I have less of a physical struggle to keep the front down and I feel more push in the acceleration. This will probably allow us to play more with the electronics too. Considering it’s just the first prototype I feel that Suzuki already did a very good job."
The ride-height device will take a little getting used to, Mir said. "At the beginning, like everything when you try for the first time, it’s difficult because there’s one more lever that you have to push in different corners. It’s difficult to make it automatic in your mind. The first exit in FP3, it was strange, but straight away you feel that with this device, you have more acceleration. Of course, it's the first evolution and there’s different areas that you can improve."
Riding with the device on the GSX-RR added an extra layer of complexity to riding, one more button to push and the need to figure out how to get the best out of it. "Yeah, we have one button more. Always more. We never remove any buttons," Joan Mir joked.
Being the last factory to use a rear ride-height device did mean that Suzuki's riders could study how riders from the other manufacturers were using it, and use that as a baseline. "Yes, of course, when you see the other rivals using it, you can see. You can have an idea the correct place that you have to use it," Mir said.
But a lot of it was just common sense. "At the end, even if you don’t see from the others, it’s a bit logical. In acceleration parts, it's always the part that you need acceleration from first gear, second gear, it helps there more than on the fast corners, where we don’t use it," Mir explained. "So, it’s important also to look where the others are using it to have an idea, but I don't know if the other use it in different corners than me. I think that we all use in the same place now."
In the end, it came down to understanding the feeling and finding exactly the right moment to deploy the ride-height device to extract the maximum benefit. "This is the difficult thing to understand, the correct place to use the device," Mir explained. "Also, you have to understand how much time the bike needs to lower completely the rear to use this device, to use the complete stroke. So it’s important in the first practice to understand this to know. But I feel quite well today with this device. I’m happy."
Pitch and attitude
Suzuki Ecstar teammate Alex Rins noted another area where the new device took some getting used to. Deploying the device at the start of the straight meant that the rear of the bike was lower than normal, and that meant that the bike was behaving differently once you reached the braking zone. Having the back of the bike lower changed the attitude of the bike, and that meant that it pitched into the corner differently when you jammed on the brakes.
That made it more difficult to figure out how to use it, Rins told us. "Especially this track, I think it's not the best track to try this, because you have two or three hard brakes, and with the rear device, when you need to brake, you feel a little bit the rear going up. It's normal," the Spaniard said. "But if you lose the braking point or the braking point reference, it's easy to go out, to be wide at that corner, and you lose all the time in all the lap. So it's not easy to understand and to learn how to use it. But opening the throttle, I'm using it in a good way."
With or without a ride-height device, braking is a problem at the Red Bull Ring. With long straights and heavy braking, it was easy to miss a brake point and then run wide. That has led to a spate of canceled laps in every class, including what would have been another record-breaking lap for Fabio Quartararo.
Marc Marquez explained that keeping inside the track became even more difficult when you were following other riders, or riding in a group. "What makes it especially more difficult is for example the braking point alone is one reference and behind the others it's completely different," Marquez said. "You need to brake much earlier because of the slipstream. And it's easy to make a mistake, and go in too fast." It was easy to get sucked into entering a corner too fast and finding the exit closer than you expected. "Then the track is narrow and for example in turn 1 it's so easy to use the green part and be over track limits."
Get it right, and it was a rewarding circuit, however. "But it's true that it's a track that if you ride in a good way, you enjoy and then you are able to think on the bike," Marquez said. Struggle, though, and it was easy to get it wrong. "If for reason you are struggling with the bike, like yesterday, I was struggling a lot and then I was not able to concentrate and then it was stressful. Because it's a short track, many laps."
For Dani Pedrosa, that made putting a flawless lap together extraordinarily challenging. "It is also quite tight and one mistake in one corner you are off, so it is not simple to make a perfect lap," the KTM test rider said. "I could see that before qualifying. Even though I tried for the best lap possible it was hard for me to make the lap all together. I was not able to put everything in one lap, braking and entry."
Fabio Quartararo, who had lost out to pole because of track limits, accepted that as a natural result of pushing so hard chasing pole position. "The track is the same for everyone," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "Normally when you feel more on the limit is where you make kind of a little bit more mistakes. I did it on qualifying, but we need to be careful on the race because it’s a lot of laps and I think it’s a track that you can be on the green more often. Like I said before, if it’s dry I think the pace will be a little bit slower. If it’s rain, I think nobody really go on the green. So, I don’t feel it’s like an advantage."
One of the more peculiar moments of the day came during FP4. After KTM racing boss Pit Beirer had told MotoGP.com pit lane commentator Simon Crafar on Friday that KTM would be waiting to evaluate who to put on the second Tech3 KTM bike for 2022 in the week between the two races in Austria, on Saturday, KTM issued a press release stating that Raul Fernandez would be moving up to Tech3 next year alongside his current Moto2 teammate Remy Gardner.
The timing was peculiar. Normally, announcements are made directly before or directly after a race weekend, to try to ensure maximum publicity. Making an announcement on a Saturday afternoon is pretty much guaranteed to see the news drowned out by qualifying and then Sunday's race. Paddock rumor has the decision being made at the very top of the company, a response to persistent rumors linking Raul Fernandez to Yamaha.
The announcement rubbed Tech3 KTM boss Hervé Poncharal up the wrong way, despite the Frenchman knowing that the decision had been made. It also irritated Tech3 rider Danilo Petrucci, even though he also understood all too well that Fernandez would be taking his seat.
"I was absolutely not surprised about the news because I think I was the only one to let's say know that news," Petrucci said. "I mean we expect it, because as I told you many times, when someone doesn't answer the phone, I mean you are for sure not renewing the contract."
Petrucci was not impressed by the way it had been handled. "At least answering the phone is a matter of, let's say, education," the Italian said. "As they did today, they maybe could wait some hours or something like that. But … I'm not even surprised. Because this world, even if I'm here since when I was following my father when I was three years old, I'm always surprised. And I think this world will always surprise me. For sure as I told you it's not a surprise for me, for sure I'm more surprised about the behavior of some people. And I'm not going to say names."
Petrucci had already far exceeded his own expectations, he told us. "With my weight and my size I achieved more than I expected in my career," the gentle Italian explained. "For sure my childhood dream was to win the world championship and I start to understand that it's not possible anymore. I arrived quite close to the top, especially in 2019 I was third for a lot of the season, but the deepest thing I was is to ride motorbikes. And especially in the last season I was having more fun riding the dirt bikes with my friends than coming to the races, even if I tried my everything. So I think it's time to think about it."
There is even reason to believe that Raul Fernandez himself is less than delighted with the way the decision was handled. In an interview with Izaskun Ruiz of the Spanish broadcaster DAZN, when asked whether he would be where he wanted to be in 2022, Fernandez gave a surprise response. "No," the Spaniard replied. "And let's leave it there." There may be trouble brewing ahead in KTM's impressively stacked talent factory.
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