There is a bittersweet irony to motorcycle racing. On the one hand, we want the racing to be as safe as it can possibly be. On the other, the element of risk, the thrill of watching a rider wrestle a motorcycle at very high speed on the edge of adhesion, teetering on the brink of disaster, is part of the appeal. Racing a motorcycle is difficult, and because the rider sits aboard the bike, in full view, it is obvious even to the most casual observer just how difficult it is.
Which brings me to the Red Bull Ring. The circuit at Spielberg is simple, and incredibly dangerous, because the bikes spend so much time either pulling hard in high gear, or braking hard into tight corners. To go fast, you have to be on the very limit with braking, and if you crash while braking at high speed, you either hit a wall, or get very close to it, or crash and take out other riders.
The elevation makes for a spectacular circuit, but it also means there are plenty of blind crests which can hide a fallen bike, giving those following no warning and no chance to avoid it. There have been plenty of examples in the past. Maverick Viñales overcooking his brakes and slamming into the air fence at Turn 1 in 2020. Dani Pedrosa crashing just over the crest at Turn 3, and Lorenzo Savadori smashing into it at high speed. And of course, the 2020 incident between Franco Morbidelli and Johann Zarco, where Morbidelli ran into the back of Zarco after Zarco braked earlier and changed his line on the run up the hill through Turn 2, taking both riders down, their bikes firing across the track, crossing directly in front of Valentino Rossi and nearly decapitating Maverick Viñales.
By rights, the Red Bull Ring has no business being on the MotoGP calendar. But Dieter Mateschitz has more money than God, and his energy drink business pours a vast amount of cash into the sport at all levels. Without Red Bull and the other energy drink sponsors, motorcycle racing is in a very different place. And so Red Bull gets its home grand prix, at the circuit the company owns, and we all gloss over the minor inconvenience of a dangerous circuit.
And yet the irony of motorcycle racing is that as dangerous as the Red Bull Ring is, it is also utterly glorious in parts. The run up the hill to Turn 3, braking from high speed and trying to turn the bike into the corner, before cresting the turn. From hard uphill braking at Turn 3 to hard downhill braking at Turn 4; from having to brake later than you think because the hill, then recalibrating to brake earlier than you think because the weight is already on the nose and the rear is trying to push you into the corner, and then the track drops away just as you want to enter the corner.
That section is particularly tough on riders, Jack Miller explained. "It's a hard one, and also when it drops down at Turn 4, it sort of unloads the bike and you generally lose the front there. I have been caught out there once and lost the front." The suspension unloading and then loading does strange things to a bike, he explained. "Because it sort of comes back to you afterwards, it drops away and then comes back, all the bike went away and then it came back at the last moment and highsided me. So I went from losing the front to highsiding somehow."
Getting the bike stopped for Turn 4 was the challenge. "But like I said, you're going so fast into that Turn 4 especially, you go in there and you've missed your braking marker and you just see that gravel coming closer and closer and closer. Because there's no margin really whatsoever there."
The real danger at the Red Bull Ring was with the entry to Turn 3. The bikes hammered up the hill at full speed, reaching over 315 km/h. And just as they reached their top speed, the riders had to haul hard on the brakes, lean the bike hard over for Turn 2, and start to prepare the entrance for Turn 3. It was both physically extremely demanding and visually arresting. That section really showed just how difficult racing a motorcycle can be.
That section has now been defanged. A new chicane – officially Turn 2a and Turn 2b, as the right and then left corners are called – is aimed at taking a lot of the speed, and consequently the danger out of the run up the hill. Though the fact the circuit had done something to address the danger was widely appreciated, there was also a tinge of regret at losing one of the most challenging and spectacular sections on the calendar.
"You miss it for sure. I mean, it's probably, along with Mugello the most let's say, the most ass-clenching moment of the championship," Jack Miller colorfully described it. "Because you come out of that corner, you hug the white line as much as you can going down the straight. And then you tip it left and the thing would start doing ‘this’ and you're doing like 340-350 km/h!"
It was a section you needed to work up to, Miller explained. "Especially the first couple of laps getting into the zone, and there's that wall on the inside that you were sort of aiming towards!" Losing it left him with mixed feelings. "You're going to miss that because it was cool, but you're not going miss it when you’re in a slipstream, absolutely out of control, tank slapper and trying to go brakes that aren't there anymore."
Is the new chicane an improvement? On Thursday morning, I walked that section of track with Peter Bom, to see it for myself. To our eyes, the section looked much more dangerous, or rather, it increased the risk of a crash, rather than decreasing it. It removed the danger at the top of the hill, where a freak accident could have extremely serious consequences, and replaced it with a greater chance of crashing at lower speed, but also a chance that a crashed bike could end up taking out another bike.
Our thoughts just highlighted the difference in perspective between the knowledgeable observer and professional racers, however. With no exceptions, the riders were convinced the new layout was a big improvement. "Speaking in terms of safety, for me it's better than the old layout," Maverick Viñales told the press conference. "I think in terms of pure safety it's much better than the previous corner, and in terms of speed, performance for us, I think it's also interesting," his teammate Aleix Espargaro said.
There were still risks, however. "I think that if you don't lose the front going into it on the right, I think it's going to be much better for the safety," Fabio Quartararo said, while both Aleix Espargaro and Pecco Bagnaia were a little worried about the wall on the left of the track. "I think like Aleix said, the wall on the left is a bit close, and in wet conditions it's maybe too close, but let's see tomorrow," Bagnaia said.
As the chicane was put in place because of the crash at Turn 3 initiated by Johann Zarco, the Frenchman joked that he was disappointed they had not named the new chicane after him. "I'm a bit sad that there is not my name on it!" he said in jest. The outpouring of criticism after the crash had left its mark, however. "With all the words that I had to put up with two years ago, it would be a nice signature to put my name on it!" Zarco said, half in jest.
What effect with the new chicane have? If anything, it may make it a little easier to overtake, Jack Miller believes. Not into the chicane itself, but into Turn 3, as the approach speed will be much lower, and the bikes less on the limit. "I think it'll make the racing better," the Australian told us. "Passing won't be happening as much there, but I think it'll open up that next corner, Turn 3, to be able to be more of a passing zone than before."
Brad Binder agreed. "I think it'll maybe make the racing a bit closer." Luca Marini felt much the same way. "On paper it looks just a little ugly, not really a lot of fun. But maybe it can be a good overtake hotspot. I try to look at the positive side."
Will the extra chicane rebalance the racing dynamics at the Red Bull Ring? Nobody really believes that. The track was a stop-and-go track, meaning what matters most is stability in braking and in acceleration, with only the long omega section from Turn 5 through Turn 8 where corner speed and agility matters. The chicane just adds another stop-and-go section to rest, another braking zone followed by another section where the bikes accelerate from low speed.
In theory, that should play into the hands of the Ducati, the bike which has dominated most of the races in Spielberg. But that doesn't mean that it is a given that the Ducati will win. In 2020, it looked like Joan Mir would walk away with victory at the circuit, until the race was red-flagged due to Maverick Viñales' crash, and Mir didn't have a new front tire. Miguel Oliveira pipped Jack Miller to the post in that restarted race, and Brad Binder took a famous victory in 2021, when he stayed out on slicks after it started to rain.
On paper, the circuit shouldn't suit the Yamaha, yet it is worth remembering just how good Fabio Quartararo was before the rain came in the race won by Binder. Quartararo was engaged in a tight battle with Pecco Bagnaia and Marc Marquez, and was easily outbraking them into Turn 3 and Turn 4, and able to carry more speed through the corners. If Quartararo can repeat that trick on Sunday, he may yet cause a surprise.
Then there's the Aprilia. The current iteration of the RS-GP is a clearly competitive package, which accelerates, brakes, and turns very well. There is every reason to think that Aleix Espargaro, or man-on-a-roll Maverick Viñales, will be a feature on Sunday.
Thursday also saw the temporary return of Marc Marquez, though he is only in Austria to visit, and to have discussions with his team and with Honda engineers. Marquez spoke to the press for 20 minutes or so, covering a number of topics, as well as the same topic multiple times. To summarize his response to the question of when he would return to racing, the answer to that was fairly simple: when he felt his arm was strong enough to support it, and above all, once he had been given the go-ahead by his doctors. Marquez knows this is his last chance, and if he rushes back to early and stresses the bone again, it would mean the end of his racing career.
Marquez has a meeting next week with the medical staff treating his arm, and a CAT scan to measure how well the bone is healing and reforming. But he was optimistic, as he was already able to do some exercises he hadn't been able to do since he broke his arm the first time. If the results of the CAT scan are positive, he can intensify the training, and start riding a bike again when he was ready. He wouldn't put a definitive date on a return, nor rule anything out. But the most likely scenario is that he will attempt to race at the end of the year, to be ready to take part in the one-day test at Valencia.
Finally, while the rider market has been dragging out for a long time, it looks like things are starting to draw to a close. Ai Ogura has reportedly decided to stay in Moto2 for another season, and so Takaaki Nakagami will remain at LCR Honda for another year, with an announcement likely at Misano. Joan Mir told us that he was "closer to a deal than yesterday", as talks with Repsol Honda (which Mir did not confirm, but also scrupulously avoided denying) continue. It seems like HRC and Mir are getting down to nailing down the final details on a contract for next year.
But Misano looks like being where the announcements will be made. Something is expected from KTM this weekend, though whether it is Pol Espargaro at Tech3, or an announcement that perhaps Tech3 will be competing under the guise of GasGas or another of KTM's subsidiary brands remains to be seen. At Misano, however, we are likely to get a decision from Ducati on the second factory seat, an announcement from LCR, and probably confirmation of Miguel Oliveira at RNF Aprilia. But until then, patience is needed.
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