Every Friday of a MotoGP weekend, we say the same: it's only Friday, so you can't read much into the times. That is doubly so on a day like Friday at the Red Bull Ring, when the morning starts wet, dries out during FP1, and the riders and teams have a new chicane to learn to deal with. MotoGP basically had one dry practice session in which to try to figure out gearing for the new chicane, check how the setup needs to be modified to deal with the chicane without losing out at the rest of the track, and try to post a time quick enough to get through to Q2, because of the risk of rain again on Saturday morning. Checking the timesheets is not much better than reading tealeaves on days like these.
So the fact that Ducatis dominate the FP2 timesheets should be taken with a pinch of salt. Johann Zarco was fastest, with Ducatis taking the top three spots, and seven of the top eight provisional places in Q2. Fabio Quartararo is the only interloper in the top eight, while Maverick Viñales put the Aprilia RS-GP into ninth, and Brad Binder spared KTM's with the tenth fastest time.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. Fabio Quartararo is faster than he looks on paper. He was the only rider to do two 1'29 laps with a soft tire, and his pace with a medium tire is a couple of tenths better than pretty much everyone. Pecco Bagnaia, whose pace was strong in FP2, saw Quartararo as the biggest threat right now. "Fabio still is two or three tenths faster at this moment," the Ducati Lenovo rider said. "Today the pace was incredible and everyone was pushing because tomorrow maybe we have rain so it was easier to stay in the top ten."
Quartararo was pleased with his pace, but acutely aware of the Yamaha's weakness at the Red Bull Ring, and indeed, everywhere. "Well, the pace looks good, but we know that alone we always have good pace, but in the race it's changing all the time," the Frenchman told us. "The good thing is that at least we know that we have the speed. Rins was also going super fast. Strange that with the soft tire he couldn't improve, but yeah, I think our pace is great."
Quartararo brings up another point flying under the radar: the Suzukis are looking pretty quick. Alex Rins put his best time in on a medium tire in a race run, while Joan Mir had a lap canceled which would have put him into seventh place, and his race pace is right there with Pecco Bagnaia's. There is a lot going on that still needs to be shaken out.
There was, for example, a lot of coyness going on with respect to gearing for the new chicane. Riders are caught between first and second, with some more honest about it than others. Brad Binder didn't hesitate when asked which gear he was using. "First," the KTM rider said, before adding, "I need to use both, actually, to see which is better." Franco Morbidelli was a great deal more circumspect: "Some riders use first, some riders use second," the Monster Energy Yamaha said in an attempt to remain enigmatic.
The reason both first and second can work is because the gearing at the Red Bull Ring is very low. The bikes were not quite hitting 320 km/h on the old layout, where the speed trap was just before the old Turn 2. On the new layout, where top speeds are measured at the end of the front straight, they are not quite hitting 310 km/h. The bikes are geared low because they never rev out in sixth gear, and acceleration is more important than top speed.
2A and 2B get the thumbs up
Overall, the riders gave the new chicane a relatively positive reception. It was a big improvement in safety, though they were less enamored of the layout. Not so Jack Miller. "The new chicane is a nice addition to the track," the Australian said. "It’s completely blind heading in there, the braking zone. As you saw in FP1 a lot of guys running wide because it comes up on you really quickly. But now understanding and getting the feeling for it, it’s a lot of fun."
Brad Binder agreed. "Pretty cool," the Red Bull KTM rider said. "I think it adds an interesting new element to the track. It mixes it up a little bit, it makes the drive from Turn 1 to Turn 3 a lot more fun. It gives us something extra to do. I think it should be a fun race there."
Others, like Takaaki Nakagami, disliked the new chicane because it was so tight. There were a few concerns over the closeness of the wall at the left of the track, but overall, the improvement in safety was much appreciated. "The most important thing is to make the track safer," Luca Marini told us. "This is a good way. It’s not so fun. But we’ll have time to forget the old layout and go with this. In this situation it’s much more safe. That's the most important thing."
The new layout was not without its risks, however. Would it improve the racing, Marini was asked? "We’ll see Sunday," the Mooney VR46 rider told us. "It can be, not dangerous, but more risky for the riders. It's a very good overtaking hotspot. If you look for contact, maybe not voluntarily, but try to release the brake, the other rider can lose a lot of time, go on the gravel and maybe his race is a disaster after that. I’m worried about this, if a crazy guy behind wants to make an aggressive overtake, this can make a big disadvantage to another rider. Apart from this it’s good."
Sprinting into the future?
There was a great deal less unanimity on the proposal to introduce sprint races. According to Uri Puigdemont of the Motorsport Network (story reproduced across the many outlets that sprawling network owns), MotoGP wants to introduce sprint races, roughly half-distance races, probably to be run on Saturdays, on every grand prix weekend. The proposal was to be discussed at Friday's Grand Prix Commission meeting, but the leaking of the news has forced Dorna to call a press conference for Saturday morning.
The biggest surprise is that Dorna did not first consult the teams or the riders. After discussing it with the factories, they intended to submit the idea to the GPC for approval, bypassing the riders altogether.
This was what rankled most with the MotoGP riders. "It’s still not official," Pol Espargaro said, summing up how a lot of riders felt. "The riders, we don’t know. We haven’t talked about that in the Safety Commission. I thought they’d tell us in the Safety Commission. The Safety Commission is where we talk about these things. Maybe they’ll tell us without asking. I’d like to hear this before we realize from the press that we’re going to race twice next year. It wouldn’t be bad if they asked us."
The riders were split on whether the concept of a sprint race, either on Saturday or on Sunday, was a good idea or not. There were those who were open to try a sprint race. "Massive fan of it," Jack Miller joked. "Another chance for a bonus!"
More seriously, the Australian could see no objections to the idea. "Why not try? They’ve tried everything else. Why not try to switch it up?" Sprint races would allow the riders to go all out, and not have to worry about fuel or tires, Miller said. "I think a Sprint race will throw a good element into it where it's all or nothing. Half points. I mean it makes you want to risk more I guess as a rider. Not have to worry about tires don't have to worry about fuel or anything like that or even physical condition. Because a lot of these races you're kind of limiting yourself, you can't push to your absolute max the whole time."
Joan Mir was another rider who was mostly positive. "Well, at the end, I think for the show it will be better, this is a fact," the Suzuki rider said. "More races means that on Saturday there's also some entertainment, more than the qualifying. At the end, I enjoy racing, I enjoy making overtakes and everything, more than free practice. So for me, there's not a big problem with this. Just we have to try to understand if it's good or not."
Making it through the year
For Pecco Bagnaia, his main concern was the physical demands being placed on the riders. At some tracks, a second race of half distance was not much to worry about, but at a track like the Circuit of The Americas, it would be very tough indeed. "In a place like Austin, the normal race is already so demanding mentally and physically. Two races there will be so long and difficult," the Ducati rider said.
Bagnaia was one of the riders to point out that the MotoGP schedule was already much more demanding than the WorldSBK calendar, where they already have three races on a weekend. In 2022, WorldSBK will have 39 races in total, 3 races on every on of the 13 weekends. If MotoGP were to have a sprint race at every grand prix in 2022, they would have 40 races.
"Every year adding more and more races is mentally and physically more difficult," Bagnaia pointed out. "Maybe it is too much. Maybe we can ask to reduce. It is a bit strange to start from zero with another schedule, for me."
There was also a sizable contingent of riders who were dead set against sprint races. "I think it's stupid," said reigning world champion Fabio Quartararo. "I don't know why we do something on Saturday."
Pol Espargaro was equally vehement. "The idea is we take double risk doing the same job with the same money," the Repsol Honda rider said. "We race twice per weekend and racing means more risk because you’re closer to the guys. you want to overtake the guy in front. This is more risky. I know Superbike is doing that but these bikes are heavier, faster and for sure it’s more dangerous to race with these bikes. If you asked me if I like, I’d say no. If it’s better for the show, we’ll see if we do. It’s double work and double risk."
Aleix Espargaro raised another issue. "Full respect to Superbike but this is not Superbike. MotoGP has a lot of electronics, a lot of aerodynamics, a lot of things, a lot of engineers. To arrive to a good setting is very difficult," the Aprilia rider said. "Now with the system – FP1, 2 and 3, then it is already a qualifying and is very difficult sometimes if it rains – like here – to have a good setting. If they now reduce our time and we have to race on Saturday I think it is difficult."
I spoke to veteran crew chief Ramon Forcada to get the perspective of a crew chief. He told me that it depended on the format of the rest of the weekend, as the teams already have so little time for setup. The riders have to spend time chasing a spot in Q2 during Free Practice sessions, 1 through 3, and FP4 is the only time they have to actually work on setup. If MotoGP were to lose FP4, then there would be almost no time to set up the bike. Converting one or two of the practices to sessions which don't count toward Q2 might help alleviate that problem.
Calling the shots
Two questions arise from the news of sprint races. Firstly, why weren't the riders consulted ahead of time? The answer to that is perhaps rather simple: for the same reason that Dorna doesn't consult with riders before signing a contract to go race at a new circuit. The format of the weekend is part of the sporting regulations, which is agreed in the Grand Prix Commission between Dorna, the FIM, the teams joined in IRTA, and the MSMA representing the factories.
Dorna make decisions for the format of the weekend based on commercial considerations, then try to persuade IRTA, the FIM, and the MSMA to go along with it. The riders have simply to choose whether to go along with the new format, or to seek employment elsewhere. Dorna are the organ grinders in this scenario, the riders the performing monkeys. The riders only option is to appeal to the crowds, and ask whether they are not entertained.
The bigger question is whether sprint races actually solve the problem at hand. It feels like a little bit of a knee-jerk response to falling attendance numbers at some tracks, and declining TV figures in certain markets. After two years of working around the constraints imposed by the pandemic, Dorna are looking to recoup some of the losses they made.
Fans want stories
Will sprint races on Saturday help address that? The ever thoughtful Luca Marini had a useful perspective on that. "For the show, there is more show. If they want to do this it’s OK." The real solution was by focusing more on the riders, and helping to raise their profiles, and give fans someone to care about, Marini said. "For me it’s also important to give a good window to the riders, bring back the good characters of the riders, to speak more with them. There are many riders with really strong personality and this make the best show, like in the past. We need duels, two, three riders with different manufacturers fighting for the title and every race – not one more race."
The show element was an essential part of every sport, Marini pointed out. "Every sport is like this. Everyone looks for more fans, more money. We need work and if the grandstands are empty everyone goes home."
But what was needed was a battle between distinct characters, Marini insisted. "We need to invent something new to bring this sport back to the golden years like when Vale [Rossi], Jorge [Lorenzo], [Marc] Marquez, [Casey] Stoner… in that period MotoGP was a good show. Because of these big personalities."
The problem MotoGP faced in its present moment is that the sport is right in the middle of a generational shift, with the old guard gone and the new riders still so young that they had yet to have made an impression on the consciousness of fans. "They were maybe the best riders in the history, but we are good riders and some of us will be some of the best in history, but most of us are really young."
Marini pointed to the example of World Superbikes as a formula where a clash of bikes, of characters, of personalities, was leading to a huge growth in popularity. " This year I think Superbike is really interesting because there are three manufacturers with really strong riders fighting for the victory every race," Marini said.
It wasn't the race weekend format that mattered, but the riders involved. "It's not just because they make Race 1, the Superpole race and Race 2. It's not interesting because of this. It’s interesting because there are those riders. It’s a story. If you want to be part of Ducati fans, or Kawasaki fans or Yamaha fans you have your idol and can keep pushing every race."
Marini also pointed out that though there was plenty of media buzz around WorldSBK, but race attendance was still relatively poor. "In Superbike the grandstands are empty which is a pity because for me this year it’s very interesting."
There are a lot of reasons why MotoGP has seemed to have lost its way, but Marini is right to point to the role characters play. The loss of Valentino Rossi to retirement and Marc Marquez for the best part of two years to an arm injury has been a massive blow. Those who are left are relative unknowns, though Fabio Quartararo is chipping away at megastardom. That is where Dorna could really make a difference, by finding a way to present personalities, to give the fans a reason to care, a rider to root for, and a rider to root against.
If it was easy, of course, they would have done it already. All I can say is that I am glad I am not in charge.
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