Weather in the mountains is always unpredictable. Usually when people say that, they mean it as a bad thing, but it isn't necessarily so. Unpredictability swings in all possible directions, and means that just because something is likely to happen, it doesn't mean that it will. It was supposed to rain all day on Sunday at the Red Bull Ring. It did, overnight, and in the morning. Then it dried out, and we had a drying Moto3 race followed by dry Moto2 and MotoGP races.
Two MotoGP races, in fact. A very short two-and-a-half lap race, interrupted by a fiery crash and long delay, and then a completely new race – if a race is interrupted before the leader crosses the line at the end of lap 3, the race is restarted as if the first attempt had never happened, with everyone allowed to race and the same grid as set by qualifying – which was shortened by one lap, from 28 to 27 laps.
The red flag shook up the field, creating winners and losers, some riders getting a chance to correct earlier mistakes, others finding themselves struggling in the second race. There is a small element of random chance in every MotoGP race – a good thing, or else the outcome would always be entirely predictable – and the cards fall a different way each time the lights go out.
We'll keep the red flag flying here
The race left us with a lot to talk about – a rookie winner, the real winners and losers from the race, how tires played a role, the root of mysterious electronics problems, and more – but the fact that the race was red flagged need to be addressed first. It was the third time in a row that a race had to be red flagged and restarted at the Red Bull Ring – or Red Flag Ring, as it was quickly dubbed on Social Media – and that raised questions. Freak events can happen everywhere. But when freak events happen three races in a row, they start to look a lot less like freak events.
Unlike last year, however, the red flag that came out on Sunday was not the result of something unique to the Red Bull Ring. Dani Pedrosa lowsided on the exit of Turn 3 in the middle of a large group, and his bike was struck by Lorenzo Savadori's Aprilia RS-GP, destroying both machines. The fuel tank of Pedrosa's KTM RC16 was ruptured as a result of taking a direct hit from the front wheel of Savadori's bike, and sprayed fuel over both bikes and the track, setting both bikes and the track ablaze.
Pedrosa was at a loss to explain exactly what happened. "A rough start in the first race because I don't know why I had this crash. I think it was third lap and maybe I touched the inside line, or maybe the tire was still too cold on the right side. I was using the hard compound on the front with these cold conditions today. I went in the turn when I was at maximum angle, and then I just tried to pick up the bike out of the turn and the bike didn’t pick up and I stayed on the floor. I spun in the middle of the track. Unfortunately, Savadori hit my bike and he’s hurt, so I’m sorry for him."
Pedrosa realized just how fortunate he had been not to be hit by another bike. Enea Bastianini missed Pedrosa by a matter of centimeters, the lightning reflexes of motorcycle racers Pedrosa's good fortune. "I was very lucky," Pedrosa said. "I don’t think I had this situation before in my career, so it was a little bit of a shock seeing all the bikes passing by, one side and the other. But fortunately, it was all good for me."
Despite the crash, Pedrosa didn't think twice about getting back on the bike. His only concern was the fact that his second bike was set up for wet weather. "No, I didn’t have any doubt of going out, but the bike was not ready," Pedrosa said after the race. "We didn’t know if they can make it from wet to dry in the time. Fortunately, the mess up I did there was big enough that they took time to clean the track, so we had time to prepare the bike."
With two bikes on fire and an unknown quantity of fuel, oil, and other unwanted contaminants on the track, it was amazing how quickly the race was able to restart. Within half an hour, the debris had been removed, the track surface scrubbed, the water used to remove the detergents mostly dried with the help of leaf blowers. "I said this was Austrian organization at its finest. They did a fantastic job," an impressed Jack Miller told us.
All that was left after the excellent clean up job done by the marshals and safety staff was a narrow strip where the grip was not quite the same as the rest of the track during the restarted race, Miller told us "I don’t know if it was wet or petrol. On the second lap I took my normal line which crossed where the fire was and my bike lit up." That prompted the Australian to take a different line through the exit of Turn 3 for the rest of the race. "I just went to the kerb every lap and just accelerated where the kerb was. If you accelerated where the fire was, it was quite slippery. I hit it once and the bike lit up. I was like, I’m not going there again."
Pedrosa's crash and its aftermath may have caused the third red flagged MotoGP race in a row at the Red Bull Ring, but this was the kind of crash which had little to do with the unique layout of the Austrian circuit. "I think sincerely that what happened today with Pedrosa and Savadori can happen everywhere," Valentino Rossi said.
That didn't mean that the circuit wasn't dangerous, however. The hard-braking nature of the circuit created several points where disaster loitered. "This track has three, four wild braking points, and the most dangerous place is Turn 3, because you brake from the edge," Rossi explained. "So, when you have a wild braking, it’s dangerous. Also it’s difficult for the brakes, for example the probably of Maverick last year. So, it’s not just one thing. It’s different factors together, but I don't know what we can do."
Those danger points were what had caused the red flags at the two races held at the Red Bull Ring in 2020. In the first race, Johann Zarco and Franco Morbidelli collided heading up to Turn 3, and their bikes shot straight across the track on the exit of Turn 3, narrowly missing Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales. In the second race, Viñales had his brakes fail on the entry to Turn 1, and was forced to bail at high speed, the bike smashing into the air fence in the corner and destroying it.
A repeat of the problems caused by Viñales' crash had been addressed in part by new uprated brakes brought by Brembo, and made mandatory by Race Direction. Those brakes are far more capable at dealing with the high stresses generated by the Red Bull Ring, though not everyone was happy with them. "Last year I remember that we were on the limit with the brakes, so Brembo gave us an evolution of the brakes from last year, but I don't know if we need to put more kilometers on the parts, but still it's not working good," Suzuki's Alex Rins said. "I think everybody was using the new brakes, it was mandatory."
Turn 3 is a far more thorny problem. The section up the hill, where riders heel the bike right over for the lightning fast kink of Turn 2 before hauling on the brakes at full lean while trying to flick the bike over to the right for the sharp right hander of Turn 3, is glorious and supremely challenging, but if it goes wrong, there is no room to escape. That automatically creates critically dangerous situations.
"There are some critical points but for sure corner three is critical, because normally it’s there where we always have any accident or they need to stop," Jorge Martin said in the post-race press conference. "It seems like in the future the layout will be different, so I think they will solve this problem. We arrive in a really high speed to that corner." There was also an issue on the exit of Turn 3, the Pramac Ducati rider added. "Also, there’s an uphill when you open the throttle and you cannot see. That’s why maybe Savadori crashed. I think in the future it will be okay but for the moment, we need to make another race like this."
Joan Mir concurred. "Like Jorge said, Turn 3 is critical. It’s really dangerous, especially in the wet." It wasn't the only hazard at the track, however. "What I see that is also really dangerous in this track is Turn 1 and Turn 3, because the exit of those corners there’s an uphill and then coming downhill." Those blind crests left riders unsighted if anyone crashes on the exit. "If something happens there, you don’t see it. For sure we saw in Moto2 last year that massive crash, and then today with Savadori nothing happened because that is the first gear corner and hopefully he’s okay. But this is critical, this turn here."
Though nothing has changed this year, the circuit has promised to make that point in the track safer for 2022. According to German magazine Motorsport Magazin, the plans are to insert a chicane in the track just ahead of Turn 2, making the current Turn 2 the exit of the chicane, slowing up speeds for entry of Turn 3 enormously. The chicane would only be used for MotoGP, F1 not having the same issues at that corner.
If that were to happen, it would be a tragedy, ruining one of the most challenging corners on the calendar. Other alternatives exist, though they would surely be more expensive. One idea is to make Turn 2 much more of a corner, and making Turn 3 rounder. That would also solve the problems at Turn 3, but would require a great deal more work to accomplish, and moving a significant amount of earth. The Red Bull Ring's setting is visually stunning, but there are disadvantages to building a racetrack against the side of a mountain. Mountains have slopes, topography dictating to a large degree where and how you can insert corners.
Taking the sting out of Turn 2 and Turn 3 will make a huge difference, but the Red Bull Ring will remain a dangerous place, Fabio Quartararo believes. "For me the start is critical," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told the press conference. "The start here is so critical because Turn 1 is a corner that you don’t really carry speed. You have a lot of tarmac outside."
All that extra run off, both at the end of the straight and the exit of the corner, allowed riders to run wide without losing much time, Quartararo explained. "We were saying coming here that many people don’t care where they brake in the first corner, because they know that in any case, they can go to the green, they can go outside. If you put grass or gravel there you don’t go, so you need to think about stopping."
That would be a change Quartararo would be keen to see. "I think this is something that for the safety it can be good. Turn 3, two of the red flags were in that corner. It’s quite dangerous, but it looks like for the future it will change," the Frenchman said. "1 and 3 are really critical points for us and also for Moto2. We are coming so fast, but last year was a big crash in Turn 1. So, we will have another one."
The crash may have halted proceedings, but it also gave everyone a second chance. That helped some riders, and hindered others, but the resulting race produced some fascinating stories. Below, for subscribers, some of the subjects to be dealt with:
- The nightmare of race restarts, and everything that can go wrong
- How restarts ruin tire management, and who suffers
- Miguel Oliveira's front tire woes
- Brad Binder – poor qualifying, great race explained
- Jorge Martin's remarkable win
- Why Moto2 prepares riders better for MotoGP now
- Suzuki's ride height device and Joan Mir's championship chances
- Fabio Quartararo and the power of podiums
- What went wrong with Maverick Viñales' electronics, and how MotoGP bikes know where they are on the track.
A race restart is also a race reset. Everyone starts from zero again, and gets a second chance, to rectify mistakes and use lessons learned in the first race start. It is, in every sense of the word, a second chance – there are some things the riders and teams have control of in a restarted race, and some things are just down to dumb luck.
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