The rain finally come at 7:30pm, just as we were leaving the track. From Saturday night, the threat of rain at 2pm on Sunday – race time, local time – had hung over the Red Bull Ring in Austria, scaring riders at the prospect at racing on the circuit in the wet. Though everyone feared the effect of the rain on excessive asphalt run off, some were more worried than others. After two dismal results in the wet, Jorge Lorenzo had to get his championship back on track. In the cold and the wet, Lorenzo struggled. In the sun, Lorenzo could shine. Even against the Ducatis.
He got his wish, as did the reported 95,000 crowd which had flocked to the Austrian circuit for their first taste of Grand Prix motorcycle racing in the country for the best part of twenty years. And what a taste it was. A brutal, thrilling opener of a Moto3 race, competitive to the line, with a new and popular winner. A fierce fight in Moto2 which took two-thirds of the race to settle. And a scintillating and intense MotoGP race which had the crowd holding their breath. The Spielberg track may not be a classic motorcycle track, but it produced some fantastic racing from the Grand Prix bikes.
All three races had a big impact on the championship, serving to cement the position of the men leading the three title chases. In the Moto3 race, a rock solid Brad Binder consolidated his lead after Jorge Navarro crashed out, despite putting in a superb ride until that moment. Romano Fenati had already taken himself out of contention, thanks to some appalling behavior towards his crew, which saw the Sky VR46 team suspend him.
In Moto2, Johann Zarco further extended his stranglehold on the class, after an indomitable display of riding. Mind you, it took him two thirds of the race until he seized it by the scruff of the neck, turning a tight defensive battle into a romp. And in MotoGP, Marc Márquez finished behind both Movistar Yamahas, yet gave up only five points to Jorge Lorenzo. Márquez came away from the worst track of the season for the Repsol Hondas, and still has a firm grip on the 2016 title. With eight races to go, second place will do from now to the end of the season.
Six of the best
What made the Austrian round of MotoGP so remarkable was not the championship, but the racing and the results. As Valentino Rossi predicted on Saturday, the six best riders in the world did battle, and none gave any quarter. They finished in line with their relative strengths, and the strengths of their machines. Yet for nearly three quarters of the race, the result still lay open. A four-way battle pitting the factory Ducatis against the Movistar Yamahas was only decided late. Fears that the Ducatis would disappear into the distance from the start proved unfounded.
That, it turned out, was all part of the plan. Ducati had recognized that fuel and tire life would be critical at the fastest track of the season, where the throttle is against the stop for almost half of each lap. And so they came up with a strategy to cope with this. Knowing their superior acceleration would keep them in contention for the first half of the race, they could save fuel until the end. When they let rip, they soon dropped the Movistar Yamahas. This was a day of Ducati domination after all. But they dominated through strategy, not raw horsepower.
All in the strategy
When we asked a very contented looking Gigi Dall'Igna if it had been part of Ducati's strategy to go easy from the start to conserve fuel, his answer was brief, but complete. "Yes." Race winner Andrea Iannone was a little more forthcoming. "I manage the fuel and I use less fuel for half race, and after I switch the map and the bike push a little bit more," a delighted Italian told the press conference. "I try to manage the race the best, and I don't want to push a lot. I start with the soft tire, and for me it’s very important to manage the tires, not use at 100%. Not spin a lot, not slide. I think this strategy is fantastic."
Not just fantastic, but historic. Iannone's victory is Ducati's first win in MotoGP since Casey Stoner won Phillip Island in 2010, nearly six years ago. With Andrea Dovizioso finish second, it is the first Ducati 1-2 since Stoner finished ahead of Loris Capirossi at Phillip Island 2007, nearly nine years ago. And it helps to destroy a long streak of consistent winners. Five riders had won the 89 races between Mugello in 2011 and Barcelona in 2016: Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, and Casey Stoner. The last three races have been won by Jack Miller, Marc Márquez and Andrea Iannone.
When he does it, he does it
The manner of Iannone's victory was even more impressive. He and teammate Dovizioso had swapped places with Lorenzo in the early laps, before Dovizioso seized control of the race. The Italian led from his teammate, while Lorenzo held Rossi at bay. It looked like Dovizioso had victory in the bag, especially as Iannone's injured ribs must at some point come into play. But the scent of victory is balm to any pain, and Iannone saw opportunity lurking. He pounced on lap 21, a peerless move on the edge of control up the inside of Dovizioso out of Turn 9 and into Turn 10. He then turned up the wick, and held Dovizioso off to the end of the race. His margin of victory was narrow. The manner of victory was exceptional.
It is ironic that Ducati's first victory in since Casey Stoner should come from the rider who Ducati have decided to drop, rather than the one they will be keeping alongside Jorge Lorenzo for 2017. Yet Iannone's brilliance is another example of why Borgo Panigale went with his teammate. When Iannone rides like he did on Sunday, he is second to none. But all too often, Iannone doesn't ride as he did on Sunday. Instead, he rides wildly, carelessly, thoughtlessly, taking out teammates (Argentina) and rivals (Barcelona). Andrea Iannone has the potential to consistently challenge for the MotoGP title, if only he could stay focused and calm. But he can't, so he doesn't.
As for Andrea Dovizioso, his second place exemplifies his entire career. Dovizioso is the opposite of Iannone: careful, thoughtful, considered. He too has more than enough talent to win races and challenge for championships, but instead, it is his intelligence and thoughtfulness which stands in the way. A slightly wilder aspect, a willingness to take risks when victory heaves into view, this would put Dovizioso into the championship lane. But Dovi is stuck thinking, rather than doing.
All about the bike. At least in part ...
If ever there were a chance for Dovizioso to get his second win, it was at Spielberg. The Ducati was flawless at the track, which suited its nature down to the ground. (A factor that was acknowledged graciously by Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali in a press statement issued on Sunday evening). But Dovizioso was cautious, choosing the safer hard rear, where Iannone gambled on the medium rear and won.
"In the braking I was better than Iannone," Dovizioso told the press conference. "So it was important, the key for the end of the race. I think both we did a really good strategy. We didn’t want to take a risk about the fuel consumption and the tire consumption, so we didn’t push at the beginning. We used a different map. We didn’t use the maximum speed we have, but just for the safety, we wait, because you never know in the race. But the point was the risk Iannone take [with tires] in the grid it was right. We push 100% just the last six laps I think. On the right I didn’t have the same grip and I struggled because I couldn’t stay close to him to try to overtake him. Very disappointed but disappointed about me, because the decision was our decision."
He who dares, wins ...
That element of risk management is what left Valentino Rossi off the podium. The Italian had strong pace all weekend, and strong pace in the race. But his pace was not better than Lorenzo's, and so to try to pass him was courting disaster. "I want to try to make some overtake and try to fight for the podium, but unfortunately the condition in the race was difficult for everybody," Rossi told us after the race. "Difficult to stop in braking and also on the exit of the corners. So the situation was not for me personally 100% under control. I had to risk too much if I want to try to overtake. Every time I tried to go closer I did some mistakes and at the end I arrive just fourth." A podium may have been possible, but it would have meant risking too much to obtain it.
Jorge Lorenzo managed the race much more smartly. He was still smarting from two awful races in the wet, and had something to prove. "I was in crisis five or six times in my career," Lorenzo said. "I always came back the same or stronger. It was a question of time. It was a question of keep working. If it were circumstances or a good opportunity to show up again I did it today."
This was no crisis. This was Jorge Lorenzo back at what he does best, managing speed and pounding out fast lap after fast lap, putting up a pace which is hard to match. From whence came the transformation? It was all about the temperature. The temperature window of the Michelins is much narrower than it was with the Bridgestones. Inside that window, the Michelins supply the grip which Lorenzo needs. Outside of it, the French rubber may still work, but not the way Lorenzo needs it to. When it's too cold, he is lost. A tough challenge for the reigning world champion.
"With Bridgestone there was no problem," Lorenzo told us after the press conference. "If it was really cold the range of temperature was huge. I was competitive in the cold, hot and all conditions. With the Michelins it is more difficult for me. I need to understand in these occasions how to get a little bit better. But I knew inside of me that when the normal circumstances came back I would be competitive. I demonstrated that I could fight for the win. Maybe today it was almost impossible. Something very strange had to happen to the Ducatis. It didn’t happen and the realistic position was third." With Brno, Silverstone, and Misano coming up, and the prospect of good weather at two of those at least, Lorenzo's season should be well back on track before the flyaways.
A remarkable moment came at the end of Valentino Rossi's press debrief. When asked about tires, Rossi insisted that everyone started on the same rear tire. When corrected by the media – Andrea Iannone won using the medium rear tire, the only rider to do so – Rossi once again affirmed that Iannone had not, but had raced on the hard. Confused, we double-checked with Michelin, who insisted that no, Iannone really had raced on the medium, the softer of the two rear tires.
Iannone had made his choice late, only switching rears as he sat on the grid. Asked if Iannone's choice had been the right one, Gigi Dall'Igna confirmed that it was. Up until morning warm up, Dall'Igna told us, they had been convinced that the medium would be the race tire, rather than the hard. "Yesterday I was convinced that this is the best choice for us," the Ducati supremo told us. "Yesterday I would like to push both riders to use the soft tire. But we took the decision to make the warm up with the hard solution and I saw that also with this tire we were quite competitive. So I leave the rider free to make their own choice. But yesterday I would like to push both riders to use the soft tire."
The sensible youngster
If the Ducatis and Yamahas took first, what about championship leader Marc Márquez? The Repsol Honda rider extracted all he could from the RC213V, but at the halfway mark, understood there was no point trying to keep up. "We struggled a lot during the race," Márquez told us, pointing to a lack of acceleration as the main culprit. "I was there at the front in the beginning, fighting and being really aggressive, but I saw that it was 50-50 to finish the race or crash. So then I slow down a little bit."
Márquez' result is yet another confirmation of a different kind of Márquez we have seen this year, biting his tongue and accepting a relatively poor position, instead of risking it all to grab a podium or a potential win. Fifth was his worst dry finish since Qatar 2015, and that was the race where the massive problems with the RC213V became apparent. Yet Márquez seized it gladly, knowing he would concede just two points to Rossi and five points to Lorenzo. No rear grip meant he knew he couldn't be competitive, but the Ducatis helped save the day.
A lack of rear grip was exactly what ailed Maverick Viñales. It is a familiar problem with the Suzuki GSX-RR, the bike always losing rear drive grip when temperatures start to rise. Viñales was phlegmatic. It is not the first time the issue has raised its head, nor will it be the last time. But in eight races time, the Spaniard will leave the Suzuki behind, and not have to worry about it being fixed. Until then, he can continue to display his ability, and that he deserves to be considered amongst the four MotoGP Aliens. Next year, on a competitive Yamaha, he will have to prove it.
The MotoGP race got off on the wrong foot, with a slew of riders all getting false starts. Cal Crutchlow, Hector Barbera, Alvaro Bautista, Stefan Bradl, and Yonny Hernandez all jumped the start, though Crutchlow felt he had been harshly treated, having lost out from his false start, rather than gained. Of the five riders punished with a false start, two made severe mistakes when it came to their ride through penalties. Barbera did not come in at all, but stayed out until he was black flagged. Bradl came in and stopped in front of his pit box, which, by a quirk of the rules, negated his ride through and meant he had to come in for a second time, riding through without stopping.
The common theme behind the mistakes by Bradl and Barbera were the electronic messages on the dashboard. Due to a misconfiguration of the dashboard in the two teams, the messages were incomprehensible to the riders. Barbera ignored the message entirely, Bradl came in thinking there was a problem with his engine, with lights blinking and the bottom half of his dashboard going blank. They both ignored the messages displayed by Race Direction at the start of the pit straight, and were focused on their dashboards.
Be careful what you wish for
"From the official point of view, the official signal for a jump start or for a black flag or for anything else for that matter, is the side board," Race Director Mike Webb told us. "The dashboard signals are a handy extra to help, but it’s only that. It’s not the official signal. If you get sent that signal, that’s an official signal. If a rider reacts to that signal, that’s fine. But the definitive we have given you a penalty is a pit board at the end of pit lane."
Issues with the dashboards were down to the way the dashboards had been configured, rather than the messages sent. "This is the first time it’s happened, and it’s actually good experience," Mike Webb said. "Our sending the signal, and what we do, the signal is sent and then as he passes the timing loop we get our feedback from the transponder saying that the signal has been received. So we’re like, all right, he’s received it. The breakdown is between the bike to the dashboard, which is their department, not ours. So it’s actually kind of good to know that it can happen, that you can’t rely on it 100%, and it is only a backup signal. There is possibly a malfunction in the dashboard, and that’s what happened today." Race Direction and the Technical Director Danny Aldridge had already talked to Avintia and Aprilia, and offered them help to configure the dashboard correctly.
The problem was a salutary lesson in light of the proposal to allow the teams to send signals to the dashboard using the same transponder system as the black flag and ride through penalty messages. If it goes wrong, it creates confusion and can even cause concerns about safety. The more complex the messages and the systems, the more chances of errors and misconfigurations, with results similar or worse to what happened to Barbera and Bradl in Austria. The hoped for gains from added communication from team to rider can easily turn into a huge negative. It is a warning for all concerned.
More than support
Though the MotoGP race was the main event, there was much to appreciate in the Moto2 and Moto3 races. In Moto2, Johann Zarco showed why he will likely become the first rider to successfully defend the Moto2 championship. The Frenchman rode an incredibly calm and considered race, taking over the lead towards the end after battling in a group of five riders. Once he was past, it was clear his victory had never been in doubt. Another 25 points puts him in a comfortable lead in the title chase. Alex Rins did well to come through from ninth on the grid to take third, but that is not enough to stop Zarco. Sam Lowes crashed out for the second race in a row, losing the front and putting himself 55 points down on the Frenchman.
The Moto3 race provided the usual sheer adrenaline. Brad Binder looked as if he had the race under control, despite being forced to do battle with Joan Mir, Fabio Quartararo, Enea Bastianini and Philipp Oettl. A throttle problem made it hard to get off the corner cleanly, and in the end, Joan Mir got the better of the championship leader. Mir won a brilliant victory in his rookie year, adding a win to the pole in Austria. Mir's comments after the race were telling, saying he had spent the summer break working on his motivation, finding the switch from the CEV, where he regularly won, to the GP paddock, where he was eighteenth more often than not, extremely taxing. New motivation helped him prepare for the battle at the front, and it paid off immediately with a win.
The paddock was close to packed up by the time we left it, just as a hailstorm rolled into the circuit. The MotoGP teams head up to Brno on Monday, while some of the Moto3 and Moto2 team stay on in Austria for another test. But with Brno less than a week away, the riders have an early chance to atone for any errors they may have made this year.
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