In the last few years, the MotoGP season has shown remarkable stability. New tracks have been added from time to time, but the calendar has been very similar from one year to the next. Even though you get to go to some of the most amazing tracks in the world, the travel becomes routine, humdrum almost. You get to know the road from the hotel to the track, the circuit itself, the idiosyncrasies of each paddock, each media center, like the back of your hand. It becomes almost like a daily commute to an office. Almost, but not quite.
So new circuits have something a little special. They bring fresh faces, new ideas. There are new routes to learn to the circuit, a new paddock layout, figuring the most efficient path through the paddock. As a journalist, each media center has its own secrets. The best place to sit to get a view of the TV screens, whether the setting sun in the evening will end up shining on your laptop making it impossible to work, where to sit to avoid being whacked on the head by cameras as photographers try to squeeze past. You make note of which media center has good coffee, and which has none (Italy, surprisingly). You scout the paddock for food, if you do not wish to wear out your welcome at the hospitality units of various teams.
The Red Bull Ring in Austria has something special too. The track is different, in both good and bad ways, both simpler and at the same time more complicated. The media center, too, is different. It is quite simply the most luxurious media center I have ever been in. Fast WiFi (and more importantly, free, instead of the €30 to €50 which most tracks charge), plenty of big HD screens, a very airy and roomy space. Most amazing of all, the media center also has its own buffet, serving a wide selection of food throughout lunch time. At some tracks, such as Austin, we get a free lunch; at others, we get free bread rolls with meat and cheese. But I have never seen a media center with such an expansive spread of food. All those young people buying overpriced caffeinated sugar water are helping to ensure a bunch of old men are very well fed.
The revelation of elevation
As nice as the media center is, we are here to see motorcycle racing, and racing happens out on track. On paper, the layout looks simplistic: three long straights connected by tight corners, followed by a sweeping omega leading onto the last couple of corners. As Bradley Smith put it, "there are only really eight corners around this race track, and the rest of them are straights."
Yet walk around the track, as I did this afternoon for the first time, and you see something very different. From photos, TV coverage of Formula One, and even from onboard video laps recorded at the MotoGP test in July, it is hard to get a real sense of just how dramatic the elevation changes are around the track. Turn 1 is steep uphill, and blind. The track levels off a little after the first corner, before continuing uphill towards Turns 2 and 3. Turn 3 is steep uphill, taking the track off to the right along the hillside, sloping slightly downhill until it reaches a dip, and dives downhill to Turn 4. From there, the track flows down the hill through the stadium section, leveling a little again after Turn 7, then plunging downhill at Turn 9 down to Turn 10, and back onto the front straight.
How the turns are numbered is, shall we say, a little esoteric. The two major straights, from Turn 1 to Turn 3, and Turn 3 to Turn 4, are barely worthy of the name. Like the Veenslang at Assen, they snake from side to side, the bikes heeled hard over rather than upright. Turn 3 to Turn 4 is just as sinuous as Turn 1 to Turn 3, yet the kink before Turn 3 has been designated as Turn 2, while the double kink before Turn 4 does not merit a mention.
Winding straights, close walls
Those kinks, the straights which are not straights, are the real problem with the Red Bull Ring circuit. "Corner 2, the walls are really really close," Pol Espargaro told us. "On all the straights the walls are close. You never crash on the straights, but in case it happens... and the problem is that the straights are not really straight."
Cal Crutchlow pointed out the danger at Turn 2. "People just think it's a right hand corner, and you're going to brake on the right," the LCR Honda rider said. "We brake on the left, if you brake until second gear on the left hand side, and if you lock, you'll just go straight to the wall."
Both Bradley Smith and Cal Crutchlow compared Turn 2 to Motegi. "It's no more dangerous than Motegi I would say, it's closer than Motegi but it's slower," Crutchlow said. The bigger concern for him was the front wheel landing after wheelying out of the corner. "On the acceleration we have these wheelies, and then the handlebar lands, and the bike starts to veer off."
The saving grace is that there is a lot of Type A barrier around the circuit. Type A is a flat, hard, very mildly absorbent surface placed in front of armco and tire walls. It is used where collisions are expected to be glancing, such as in locations along straights or in fast kinks. Air fence in such situations is useless, riders hitting it at too oblique an angle for it to be absorbent, and more likely to slide underneath it and become trapped or possibly suffocate. Though impact with Type A is still significant, the aim is to deflect a fallen rider and allow them to slide further, scrubbing speed off further.
For Valentino Rossi, the problem was in Turn 8. "The exit of Turn 8 remains very dangerous, because in a normal lap, you go full quite easy, but it's a very very high speed, and the wall is very close. So I think that this for me is the most dangerous point that we have to improve for the next years."
Crutchlow was philosophical, though. "We race motorcycles. Unfortunately, it's dangerous," he said. "At the end of the day, I'm a big supporter of the TT, so I can't sit here and say this is dangerous, that's dangerous."
In general, the consensus was that the riders were perfectly happy to ride at the Red Bull Ring, though there was still plenty of room for improvement. "Already what I've seen is acceptable, but can be improved," Bradley Smith said. "I think it's a B+. In terms of the trajectory and lines and let's say danger areas, we have other tracks that are worse. So I still would give it a B+." Friday's meeting of the Safety Commission is likely to be well attended, and rather lengthy.
Location, location, location
The riders also praised the unique characteristics of the track. "The track is amazing, the track is beautiful," Pol Espargaro gushed. "It's a fantastic location, it's different, but it's a shame the walls are so close." Espargaro has not ridden the track yet, the only MotoGP rider not to have done so, the Tech 3 team skipping the July test, though Bradley Smith rode Yamaha R1 endurance bike at the circuit a week after the MotoGP test.
Smith also praised the circuit. "I really liked it," the Englishman said. "Everything was kind of fast and flowing, there was no corner that you went, why the hell is that there? It all seems to flow nicely. I would say surprisingly technical. There are a lot of corners with radiuses that can be taken with two or maybe three lines. It's not just a straightforward, that's just the line everyone will follow. There are different ways of doing it, depending on which bike you have, whether you can carry the corner speed through, depending if you go in hard on the front and sacrifice the exit or go in soft on the front and then drive. So it was surprisingly technical."
Will Ducati dominate?
What to expect from Friday? Ducati are expected to dominate at the track, after such a strong showing during the test. "I said in January that here is where Ducati would get their first win when I saw the layout for the first time," Smith said. He is not alone in that expectation.
The real wildcard is Marc Márquez on the Repsol Honda. The Repsol team skipped the Austria test in July, officially, because they were saving their test days up to test the 2017 bike later in the season. Unofficially, paddock gossip has it that Ducati barred the Repsol team from attending the test, which they had organized, in a fit of pique over the banning of wings. With Márquez, you never know what he is capable of, even at a track where the Honda is losing more in acceleration than they can make up for on the brakes.
Another irony from the July test is that the two riders signed to race the KTM in 2017 were both absent from the test where the RC16 made its first appearance among the other MotoGP bikes, giving some real data for comparison. Both Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro were impressed by the pace of the bike. "I was really really surprised," Espargaro said. "OK, this track is their playground, and for sure it's the idea you have to take. They were only 1 second behind the Yamahas, 1.7 behind Ducati, and this is unbelievable. This is really really good, but the championship is not just one track, and we have to see KTM in for example Phillip Island, which is track which is demanding of the motorbike, on the chassis and electronics. "
Smith was optimistic, though tempered by the realization that the Red Bull Ring is not a particularly complex layout. "The test lap times were definitely ahead of where I thought they were going to be," he told us. "My expectation is that if I got on the bike in Valencia and was anywhere near the back of the grid in terms of lap time, I'd be happy. If you're two seconds from the last position, that would be worrying, but anywhere near the back, I'd be pleased. So to see them there, both Mika [Kallio] and Tom [Luthi] doing a great job, that sounds promising." Smith was also impressed by the sheer horsepower of the KTM. "I heard some of the numbers through the speed guns, and stuff like that, so they seem to have done their homework. At the end of the day, that's what I signed up to."
Silly Season winds down
After the summer break, the last few loose ends of the MotoGP Silly Season are starting to be tied up. The Aspar and Avintia Ducatis are all still to be confirmed, though Hector Barbera is set to continue at Avintia and Alvaro Bautista is close to finalizing his deal with Aspar. Eugene Laverty still has a chance to stay with Aspar, but is believed to be waiting for confirmation of the set up for Aprilia in World Superbikes before making a decision. Loris Baz will continue with Avintia, a source with knowledge of the situation told me.
Part of the puzzle for those Ducati seats was the distribution of machinery of various specs. If Stefan Bradl had elected to join Avintia, the team would have had two GP16s, but as it is, they will have one GP15 and one GP16. That will also be the case at Aspar. Barbera and Bautista are the winners of the GP16 lottery, with Baz and whoever takes the second Aspar seat running Desmosedici GP15s.
One big name returning to Ducati is Cristian Gabarrini. Though Ducati have yet to confirm his transfer from Honda, to work as Jorge Lorenzo's crew chief, a source close to Honda confirmed that the Italian crew chief had informed HRC he would be leaving. It is a logical move for Gabarrini: the Italian has a wealth of experience with the Bologna factory, and spent four years as Casey Stoner's crew chief at Ducati, before moving to Honda with the Australian.
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