The FIM today released the provisional entry lists for all three grand prix classes, which featured very few surprises. The biggest changes were among the riders who were forced to change numbers. Fabio Di Giannantonio switched from 21 (taken by Franco Morbidelli) to 49, while Marco Bezzecchi kept 72, Darryn Binder kept 40, and Raul Fernandez stuck with 25, the number abandoned by Maverick Viñales at the end of the 2018 season.
The most noteworthy, if not surprising, change came with the VR46 team. In previous lists of teams accepted to MotoGP and Moto2, the VR46 Racing Team were still using the name Aramco VR46, after the Saudi Arabian oil company. That deal has proved to be chimerical, and the team is now listed as VR46 Racing Team.
Provisional MotoGP line up for 2022:
You would almost think that the championship hadn't been wrapped up at Misano 2. Friday at Portimão saw Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia going head to head as if the title was still on the line. FP1? Fabio Quartararo beats Pecco Bagnaia, with the two separated by just 0.045. FP2? Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia swap fastest laps, with the Frenchman snatching the best time in the dying moments, Pecco Bagnaia coming up just short on his final lap.
Dig deeper into the times and it's clear just how far ahead the two riders who fought for the championship all this year are. Both are capable of banging out long sequences of 1'40.4s on new and used tires. The title may have been settled two weeks ago at Misano, but the battle of egos will not be done until the checkered flag drops at Valencia. The fierce but friendly rivalry continues to go down to the line.
We have been fortunate this year compared to 2020. Last year, we had repeat races at five circuits, making up ten of the fourteen MotoGP rounds held. In 2021, the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic has improved to the point that MotoGP managed to visit three different continents, needing to return to the same circuit only four times. Eight races out of eighteen is far from perfect, but much better than the situation in 2020.
Even the repeat races were better this year than last. 2020 saw all five of the repeat rounds at the same track held on consecutive weekends, as back-to-back rounds. 2021 started off that way, with the second round at Qatar held on the Sunday after the first race there. Austria followed suit in August. But the next repeat round wasn't until September and October, with Misano 2 taking place fully five weeks after Misano 1.
As the last of the double headers, Portimão is even more extreme. MotoGP has returned to the Portuguese circuit for the second time more nearly seven months after its first visit back in April. The reason for that massive gap is simple: the second round at Portimão was added in early July, after it became clear that Dorna would have to cancel the Australian round at Phillip Island.
It was inevitable that there would be a lot of talk at Austin of the events of a few days earlier, at Jerez. The death of Dean Berta Viñales in the first (and only) WorldSSP300 race at the Spanish track had once again raised the question of safety in motorcycle racing. Especially the safety in the support classes, where the technical rules had been set up to achieve as much parity as possible, creating very large groups on the race track. And especially in classes populated by sometimes very young riders.
How ironic, then, that some of such talk took place in the pre-event press conference in Austin, where a group of riders in the FIM MiniGP North America series were present. Kensei Matsudaira, age 10, Jesse Shedden, age 12, Jayden Fernandez, age 13, Kayla Yaakov, age 14, and Travis Horn, age 13, all got to sit and listen as the MotoGP riders were asked questions about how to prevent young kids from being killed in motorcycle races.
The FIM MiniGP series is one of the steps Dorna is putting in place in its Road to MotoGP initiative, aimed at stimulating racing talent at a regional and national level, before moving up on the path to World Championship level racing.
These past two pandemic-stricken season have been strange years for me as a journalist. Instead of heading to race tracks almost every weekend, I have been sat at home, staring at a computer screen to talk to riders. There have been ups and downs: on the plus side, we journalists get to talk to more riders than when we were at the track, because computers make it possible to switch from one rider to another with a couple of mouse clicks, rather than sprint through half the paddock from race truck to hospitality and back again. I no longer waste hours in trains, planes and cars, traveling from home to airport to hotel to race track. And it is easier to slip in a quick hour on the bicycle between FP1 and FP2, which has undoubtedly improved my fitness and prolonged my life.
But the downsides are major: it is no longer possible to knock on the door of a team manager to ask a quick question, or check some data with IRTA, or stop a crew chief or mechanic in passing to ask something technical. Casual conversations do not happen. I miss friends and colleagues, people I have worked with for years, through many ups and downs. And though I don't miss the travel, I do miss the scenery, and the locations.
It's only Friday, so the times don't mean all that much. You don't win MotoGP races on Friday. But you can certainly lose them, and even lose championships if you're not careful. Especially on a Friday.
That was the lesson of Silverstone, as both Marc Marquez and Fabio Quartararo found to their cost. Marc Marquez had a fairly simple lowside, but managed to do so at 274 km/h at one of the fastest parts of the circuit. Quartararo's crash was much, much slower – 75 km/h, rather than 274 – but could have been much more serious. The Frenchman lost the rear, then the bike tried to flick him up and over the highside, twisting his ankle in the process.
The Red Bull Ring has faced much criticism in the six years since MotoGP started going back there, mostly about the safety of the riders on track. But one thing that gets overlooked is the circuit's propensity for generating drama off track. In 2020, we had Andrea Dovizioso announcing he would not be racing with Ducati again in 2021. In 2019, we had the drama with Johann Zarco splitting with KTM, with additional drama around Jack Miller possibly losing a place to Jorge Lorenzo, who would return to Ducati to take Miller's place at Pramac.
The year before, Yamaha had held a press conference in which management and engineers officially apologized to factory riders Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales for building a dog-slow bike that left them 11th and 14th on the grid. Spielberg was the place where Romano Fenati got into an altercation with the Sky VR46 Moto2 team, and was sacked in 2016.
So much discord and division. Perhaps the circuit is built on a conjunction of ley lines, or perhaps the Spielberg track was built on an ancient cemetery where the contemporaries of Ötzi were buried. Or perhaps the middle of a MotoGP season is when tensions generally reach boiling point. The latter explanation is the most likely, perhaps, though a good deal less entertaining.
Bouncing off the limiter
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
If it's scenery you're after, the Red Bull Ring, or Spielberg, or Zeltweg – choose your favorite name for the Austrian circuit – is hard to beat. Mugello maybe? The Italian track sits in a valley, rather than being set up against the lower slopes of a mountain, but Spielberg wins on the mountain backdrop behind it.
Phillip Island, perhaps? The Bass Strait makes for a stunning setting, but is it more dramatic than the Austrian Alps which frame the Red Bull Ring? The weather will change just as quickly as both, storms brewing in the mountains as rapidly as they are blown in off the Southern Ocean at Phillip Island. One minute the sun is shining, the next the heavens have opened.
In Spielberg, that can be a problem. The track is dangerous at the best of times, but a downpour at the track makes braking into Turn 1 a lottery. In previous years, the rubber left by cars at the first corner turned it into an ice rink when it rained. The circuit has addressed that in recent years by scrubbing out the rubber left by the cars in the braking zone. But concerns remain.