Austria MotoGP Saturday Round Up: On Sprint Races, Marquez Dumping Alzamora, And Whether Ducatis Will Dominate

To start off Saturday's notes from the Red Bull Ring, some housekeeping. Yesterday, the news leaked that MotoGP would be introducing sprint races from 2023, and we asked a lot of riders what they thought of the idea, without knowing exactly what the format would be. Because the news leaked, a press conference was held today, with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, current FIM president Jorge Viegas, and IRTA President Hervé Poncharal. That cleared up a lot of the details of the weekend.

The Cliff notes version is that a sprint race over half the full race distance is to be held at 3pm on the Saturday at every grand prix event in 2023. To accommodate the race, FP1 and FP2 will be the only practices that count for entry into Q2, FP3 on Saturday morning becomes what FP4 is now, a practice that is for bike setup only, and Q1 and Q2 will continue to set the grid for both races. The winner of the sprint race will receive 12 points, second place finisher 9 points, third 7 points, and then 1 point less for each place down to ninth.

Tire and engine allocations are to remain the same, as the actual distance covered on a race weekend will be almost identical. The idea is to improve the show without raising costs, to give fans more bang for their buck, without the teams having to spend more to put on the show.

Tip of the iceberg

There is too much to discuss on the subject to do it justice in a few words on a Saturday night, so I will go into this in more depth later in the week, but two important points were raised in the press conference. Firstly, Hervé Poncharal said that introducing the sprint races is just "the tip of the iceberg" of the changes to come, which are aimed at making the sport as a whole more attractive to fans.

This makes sense, as merely adding a race on Saturday is not going to make a great deal of difference on its own. What is needed is a completely new approach to media, to promoting the sport, and Dorna seeing media not as competitors, but as partners. F1 grew massive after Liberty loosened the reins which Bernie Ecclestone had previously kept as taut as a piano wire.

The second was Carmelo Ezpeleta's somewhat exasperated response to the question of a riders' union. The Dorna CEO rightly pointed out that MotoGP riders have an unprecedented say in the running of the sport already, through their participation in the Safety Commission. This is undoubtedly accurate, as I can think of no other sport where the participants routinely meet each event to discuss the way the sport is run.

However, it is also worth pointing out that the Safety Commission also serves as a useful obstacle in the path of riders forming some kind of labor union. For a union to work, the riders have to broadly agree on a range of subjects, and the only subject the riders are likely to agree on is safety. Take that out of the equation, and achieving unanimity among the riders becomes almost impossible. And consequently, so does forming a union.

New manager please

Early on Saturday evening, something of a bombshell arrived. Spanish journalist Emilio Perez de Rozas broke the news that the Marquez brothers, Marc and Alex, had split from their long-time manager Emilio Alzamora. Alzamora had been absent at Silverstone, and was not present in Austria. The official explanation from Honda was that he was stuck at home with Covid. However, Emilio Perez de Rozas spoke to someone who claimed he had dinner at a restaurant where Alzamora was also present on the Sunday of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Breaking with Alzamora is a big step, given the long history of the Marquez brothers with the former 125cc champion. Alzamora has managed Marc for nearly two decades, discovering him as a youngster competing in the Catalan championship, and bringing him through the ranks to MotoGP.

Let down

But there were many who felt that Alzamora wasn't that great a manager for the Spaniard. Once Marquez entered Moto2, it became obvious that he was a very special talent, and once he won his first MotoGP title in his rookie season, the job consisted mostly of filling in numbers on blank checks. There are many in the paddock who believe that Marquez was not achieving his commercial potential, given his stature in the sport.

There were also rumors that Alzamora was disruptive and difficult to work with. But as he was managing the greatest talent in a generation or more, Alzamora was the price Honda paid for having Marc Marquez win championships for them.

It is unclear why Marquez decided to break with Alzamora now. The most likely explanation is that Marquez came to the conclusion that Alzamora had to go in the aftermath of his broken arm, and the long recovery period which followed. It appears that Marquez already has a new representative, someone formerly of Red Bull Spain, but there is as yet no official confirmation of this. No doubt we will learn more when we speak to Alex Marquez on Sunday.

Bologna bullets

But back to the race. On Saturday, Ducati asserted their dominance once again, with Enea Bastianini scoring his first pole in four years. The last time the Gresini Ducati rider started from the front row was at Qatar, the race he would go on to win.

There is good reason to think Bastianini might be on for a repeat. Looking at the pace in FP4 (a small pleasure we will have to forfeit to make way for the sprint race in 2023), Bastianini looks very strong on both the medium and soft rear tires. Both tires work, the determining factor being track temperature. If Sunday is cloudy, the soft is the preferred tire. If the sun is shining, the medium is the better option. "The difference between soft and medium is not harder and softer, it’s for higher temperature," Andrea Dovizioso explained to us. "Michelin are working in that way."

Who else is quick? Jack Miller had made a list, which obviously included himself, given that he had been quick in FP4 and qualified on the front row of the grid. "I feel like the pace is there," the Australian said. "It’s not only the Ducatis, there’s Fabio who’s going incredibly fast. Joan and Aleix have been running really well all weekend, and Maverick as well. So, it extends beyond the magnitude of Ducatis that are on the grid and are all going extremely fast. Tomorrow is going to be a pretty hectic race, I think, much as it was in Silverstone."

Big field

In terms of race pace, a lot of Ducatis are quick. Bastianini, Miller, but also Pecco Bagnaia, the Pramacs of Johann Zarco and Jorge Martin, and even Marco Bezzecchi, though he qualified down in 20th after a disastrous Q1. Fabio Quartararo is quick on a soft tire, though good deal less convincing on a medium rear. Joan Mir looks to have strong pace on the Suzuki, while Maverick Viñales is not far behind. Aleix Espargaro is missing rear grip, and is struggling a little.

Despite his problems, Espargaro is still remarkably calm. "I'm optimistic," he said. "Sincerely, I know in this world it’s difficult to be patient, but I learned a little bit during these last years to have this patience and I'm not really stressed. We are competitive, but there is some tracks where you have to… The level of the championship is very high and you have to limit the damage and take the maximum points possible."

Fabio Quartararo is similarly concerned. Starting from the second row is far from ideal for the Monster Energy Yamaha rider, but he was coming up short in qualifying trim. "In qualifying in every corner, I don't know if I'm going to turn or if I'm going to go in the gravel, so that's the most difficult thing. My front is moving so much, the bike is moving and at the end I have not 100% control in the qualifying," the Frenchman admitted.

Things were a lot worse in qualifying this year, he said. "On race pace, you can always be more or less good, but in qualifying I have no control. I'm just out of out of control. And this is the problem that in 2019 or even last year I was much more consistent and better. But this year is a nightmare for us. I'm not enjoying as before the qualifying."

You can't win every race

Nevertheless, Aleix Espargaro still considers him a favorite for Sunday's race. "I would not be worried if I was him, the Aprilia rider said of Quartararo. "You cannot win every race and here he's doing a great job sincerely. The Yamaha is not at the level of the Ducati and he's very close to them. He's the best rider of the grid right now. I'm sure if he had the best bike he will win the title with a lot of difference."

Quartararo was the rider Espargaro was keeping an eye on. "We will see how he manages the race tomorrow. I know he will try to win and that's good because that's what a champion has to do and we will see, because racing is racing. Last year here Binder won the race, everything can happen, o the Ducatis in front everybody will like to win tomorrow. So hopefully Fabio and I can join the party."

The chances of a Ducati victory are very high on Sunday. But this might not work out to be such a bad thing for defending champion Fabio Quartararo, given that there are so many Ducatis near the front and no rider clearly favored to clean up. Even if Quartararo finishes the race in fifth or sixth, he could end up losing just a handful of points to Pecco Bagnaia, one of his main title rivals. And he has a good chance of gaining a couple of points on his other main rival for the title, Aleix Espargaro.

But then again, the weather in the Austrian mountains is always unpredictable, and there is always a chance of rain. A shower before or during the race could unleash chaos on the race once again, at which point, it's anyone's race again. I am not sure we will learn a lot about the relative strength of the championship on Sunday. But at least we will have fun while watching the lessons.


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Source: 
year: 
2022
round_number: 
13

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Comments

I reckon Aliex should be penalised for squeezing Zarco in the way that he did. He even hung his arse off the RHS of his bike to squeeze him some more. It was completely unacceptable given that Zarco did everything in his power to stay out of the way.

As Zarco said - he checked twice when leaving pit lane. The first one is a bit blind so he accelerated some, then checked again - saw Aliex and moved over as far as he could.. Literally straddling the white line and Espargaro just couldn't resist being a prick about it.

Just when I warm to AE's title run he waves hands, carries on like a knob and then does something like this. What he did was way worse than what Zarco and certainly far more dangerous. Crafar said as much on the telecast as well. 

So MotoGP is admitting it, half the race is just dull, 10 laps of playing nice with the tires. Why not just have two sprint races on Sunday, put the moto2 race in between. Second race would line up in the order of the Finnish of the first race. Just never never do the reverse order thing. 

Call me jaded, but I think it's being done to prepare the fans for a future of E Bikes that can't go very far.