There is a lot of money to be made by using clever marketing to sell caffeinated sugar water to the gullible. So much money, in fact, that you can afford your own air force and your own space program. That money can be further multiplied by staging your own sporting events in sports that suit your brand, such as freestyle mountain biking, or motocross, though it is best not to ask about competitor insurance. This should probably not come as a surprise, though, from a company owned by someone who threatened to shut down a TV station when the people who worked there wanted to convene a works council.
The peddling of sugar water generates enough revenue to fund not one, but two Formula One teams, a soccer team or four, as well as backing large numbers of racers and teams in all forms of two-wheeled competition. It may seem churlish to complain about energy drink companies, given the amount of money they pump into motorsports, but that money also creates a major risk.
The controversy surrounding the health effects of energy drinks (obesity, type II diabetes, caffeine poisoning) has seen persistent campaigns to ban or restrict the marketing of the drinks, especially to under eighteens. Given that most two-wheeled sport has a younger audience, any such ban would mean a massive loss of income, one which motorcycle racing is simply not prepared for. We have been here before, of course, with tobacco sponsorship. But MotoGP has not learned the lessons of that period, with teams jumping at the easy cash on offer from energy drink companies.
The value of sponsorship?
It may not even be lawmakers who end direct sponsorship of racing. All the major energy drink companies have met with huge success organizing their own events. For example, Felix Baumgartner's parachute jump from 39km, the Red Bull Stratos project, reputedly cost around €50 million. It received massive media attention, was broadcast live by several news channels, and covered by just about every news show on the planet. In the six months after the project finished, sales of Red Bull increased in the US by 7%, to $1.6 billion. The rise in the US alone basically doubled the investment Red Bull put in. Why bother sponsoring a team, or a race, if you can generate a much bigger return on your investment elsewhere?
The marketing hype surrounding the Red Bull Stratos project becomes apparent once you realize that Baumgartner's record stood for just two years. But when former Google executive Alan Eustace jumped from over 40km down to Earth, TV coverage was limited, as he did not have a massive marketing arm pushing the event. Felix Baumgartner's name is on everyone's lips. Only the dedicated few have heard of Alan Eustace.
Space programs, ex-military jets, sporting events, teams. Caffeinated sugar water pays for all this and more. It even produces enough income to be able to buy a racetrack or two (Red Bull owner Dieter Mateschitz owns the Red Bull Ring at Spielberg, and spent a lot of effort trying to buy the Salzburgring further north). And if you own a circuit, back some of the biggest names in MotoGP, as well as one of the major teams in the sport, then you obviously want to hold a race at your circuit. And so MotoGP is headed to Austria, to the Red Bull Ring at Spielberg.
A lack of character
What do we know about the track? In terms of MotoGP, very little. The circuit has been on the F1 calendar for a while, and its layout reflects that. A bunch of straights tied together with tight corners, with little character to the track. The track challenges machine more than rider, creating a lot of hard acceleration and high speed straights. The general expectation is that Spielberg will displace Phillip Island as the fastest track on the calendar, though the two circuits are very different beasts indeed.
At the private test held by most of the MotoGP field after the Sachsenring race, several teams produced onboard videos. The clearest of these is probably the one filmed from Andrea Iannone's factory Ducati, shown below:
What you can't see so well from the onboard video is the lack of gravel run off. The Red Bull Ring has been primarily configured for car racing, meaning that there is asphalt in most corners, to allow the cars to brake before the barrier and rejoin the race. Several riders voiced their concerns about the circuit after the test, complaining that the track needed gravel traps. But the track is to be run in the configuration used in the test. No extra safety measures beyond the normal provision of air fence are to be taken. It remains to be seen how the Safety Commission respond to the track when they meet after practice on Friday.
Will the Red Bull Ring produce great racing? On the basis of July's test, that looks improbable. The track revolves too much around horsepower, which in the case of MotoGP, means it is made for Ducati. That was the tale of the test, with four Ducatis at the top of the timesheets, Valentino Rossi the first non-Ducati, nearly a second off the pace of Andrea Iannone. Six of the top ten bikes were Ducatis, with bikes tending to be paired by teams. That backs up the hypothesis that this track is more about the bike than the rider.
That could be good news for Ducati. The objective of the Italian factory is to win at least one race this year, and try to challenge for the title in 2017. Austria is probably their best shot all season, given the horsepower advantage they enjoy.
Beating the boys from Bologna
At least, that was the tale from the test. But there were two major absentees at the track in July. The Repsol Honda team had not been invited, as the test had been organized by Ducati, and the Italian factory was still smarting from Honda's role in getting winglets banned. Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa have ridden the track, but only on the track version of Honda's RC213V-S street bike. That bike may be based on the 2013 MotoGP bike, but it is still a far cry from a real MotoGP machine.
Can Márquez find a way to stop the Ducatis? There have been suggestions that Spielberg bears some resemblance to Austin, because of its long straights and sharp corners. Márquez has never been beaten at Austin, and so should carry some confidence into Austria. He also carries a commanding lead in the championship, and arrives at a track which ill suits the Yamahas. Winning in Austria would be nice for Márquez. Finishing ahead of the Yamahas currently looks like his worst case scenario. Stopping the Ducatis may not even be necessary for Márquez.
What use agility?
What can the Yamahas do about this? Frankly, not very much at all. Though the Yamaha has outstanding acceleration, once the Ducatis get up to speed, the Yamahas do not stand a chance. Outbraked by the Hondas and out-accelerated by the Ducatis, there are few places the Yamahas can use their strengths of carrying corner speed and using that to effect a fast corner exit. For Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, all they can do is to focus on Márquez, and try to get ahead of him.
The Suzukis find themselves in a similar boat. The GSX-RR has gained plenty of power this year, but it is still ultimately lacking compared to the Ducati and the Honda. That could be down to a lack of drive grip, a perennial problem for the Suzuki. At a track with few corners, Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro have nowhere to exploit the exceptional agility of the Suzuki. For them, the Yamahas remain the goal.
Could the Red Bull Ring see another satellite upset, as we saw at Assen? If it rains, anything can happen, but at the moment, the rain currently falling is due to dissipate towards the end of the week. If it's dry, it is not beyond the realms of possibility for a satellite Ducati to shine. Scott Redding was quick on the first day of the test, Hector Barbera was fast on the second day. Though the horsepower advantage the factory Ducati enjoys should be enough for Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone to hold all-comers at bay, a rider on a satellite Ducati might just get lucky enough to steal the factory's thunder.
The unknown unknowns
The Red Bull Ring is also a relative unknown for Michelin. The French tire maker has brought three symmetric front tires and two compounds of asymmetric rears, based on data collected from the test. They should have a good idea of the demands placed on their tires by the circuit, but conditions and the rigors of racing have a way of ruining the best laid plans. There will be some nervous faces in the Michelin tent on Friday, as well as a lot of French technicians closely monitoring how the tires stand up to the abuse being handed out. Michelin have come a long way this year, but they face quite the challenge.
What effect will the Red Bull Ring have on the 2016 championship? The track is an aberration, so it is way too early to tell. It looks like it could be the site of the first Ducati win since Casey Stoner blew the opposition away at Phillip Island in 2010. That may turn out to the advantage of the Yamahas, helping limit the damage against championship leader Marc Márquez, while they wait for Brno and Silverstone, two tracks which are much better suited to the Yamaha M1. But if Márquez can find a way to beat the Ducatis, the championship may well be pretty much over.
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