For the first time in four races at the Red Bull Ring, MotoGP managed to complete a race without being interrupted by a red flag. The riders did the warm up lap, lined up on the grid, took off once the lights went out, and completed 28 laps of the Spielberg circuit in one go. The last time that happened was in 2019.
Just because they went from lights to flag without interruption doesn't necessarily mean there was just one race, however. Where the two races in 2020 and last week's Styrian Grand Prix had been split by crashes, on Sunday it was the weather which divided the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix into effectively two separate events. Or perhaps even three.
There was a dry 21 laps, which saw three riders break away, Pecco Bagnaia leading Marc Marquez and Fabio Quartararo in a tense waiting game where it was obvious the outcome was to be decided in the closing stages, all three riders keeping something in reserve for the last couple of laps.
Then a brief period of a couple of laps where it started spitting with rain. The group at the front quickly closed up as adhesion dropped and the riders were left to guess at how much grip there might be in a particular corner, were running wide and starting to make mistakes. There were some spectacular overtakes here, riders leapfrogging five or six bikes at a time, then losing out again as they couldn't get the bike stopped and ran off track.
And finally, a properly bonkers last four laps as the rain came in earnest that would prove decisive. The leading group had swelled to six, Jorge Martin, Joan Mir, and Brad Binder having caught Bagnaia, Marquez, and Quartararo. A war of nerves ensued, as they each weighed their options of whether it would be worth pitting to swap on their bikes with wet tires. Those with their eyes on the title waited to see what their rivals would do, while those with nothing to lose could gamble on doing the opposite of what the group as a whole would do.
Double or quits
Marc Marquez would be the first to blink, leading the race and then leading the pack into the pits. Only Brad Binder would stay out to risk it, in the hope of staying on and being fast enough to stay ahead of the bikes which would be much faster once they had wet tires and could gain some grip again. The South African rolled the dice and came away with the jackpot.
In many ways, everyone rolled the dice in the rain at the Red Bull Ring. There were winners and losers, and luck played a significant part in the eventual outcome. Not the whole part though: Fabio Quartararo came away having extended his lead in the championship, last week's winner was on the podium, and both Jorge Martin and Pecco Bagnaia started from the front row and finished on the podium. The top four finishers had all been in the top six during the dry part of the race.
Flag-to-flag races are always something of a gamble, but there are always lessons to be learned. So in these subscriber notes, some thoughts on what we saw in all three phases of Sunday's race.
- The decision process for going in to switch tires
- What Brad Binder had to conquer to hold on to the win
- Where Fabio Quartararo is making the difference
- The new Marc Marquez is starting to look like the old Marc Marquez
The trick to winning a flag-to-flag race is getting the timing right. You need to find the perfect crossover point: the point at which the lap times of the tire you are on are about to decline below the lap times of the tire you are about to switch to. And you have to factor in the advantage you expect to gain per lap against the time lost in the pits swapping bikes.
Put concisely, you have to figure out the exact lap in which a change of tires will gain back the 35-50 seconds lost in pit lane swapping bikes in the shortest number of laps. As you can imagine, this is not easy. There are thousands of factors over which you have little to no control, and can change that calculation drastically. You only ever find out you made the right decision in hindsight, once the checkered flag has been waved. You need to get lucky, and there is only so much of your own luck that you can make.
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