It is but a short trip up the road from Spielberg to Brno, but it is a journey between two very different worlds. From the hyper-modern facility at the Red Bull Ring, to the frayed-around-the-edges buildings of Brno. From a track which has been missing from the calendar for the best part of twenty years to a circuit which has seen racing almost since its inception, where teams often come to test. From a track with a paucity of corners, all hard braking and acceleration, to one which flows from corner to corner, where bikes mostly exit in third gear when getting on the gas.
The starkest difference between the Red Bull Ring and Brno is the layout. Both tracks snake up and down hillsides, but where Austria is a track stuck up against a mountain, Brno is a winding road which threads its way through hills and vales. Where Spielberg is basically seven corners, three of which are almost hairpins, all fourteen of Brno's corners are long and flowing.
Ironically, Brno's flowing layout makes it someone more simple to set up a bike for it. All of the corners are similar, with no camber and needing the same approach. "The set up is more important than at other tracks because all the corners are similar," Danilo Petrucci explained to us on Thursday. "You have to be good on braking and especially the feeling of the front. Because for more than 50% of the track you are on the edge of the tire."
One set up to rule them all ...
What that means in practice is that once you have a set up which works in one corner, it works in all of them. Few compromises are needed, because the corners are all so similar. You do not need to sacrifice braking in one corner to gain acceleration in another. One you have found a balance between braking stability and acceleration, between turning and straight line stability, the bike will lead itself around the track.
The problem with this is that set up has to be nigh on perfect. There is little to be gained by seeking compromises, and the more refined the bike is, the better it works. "You have long corners," Petrucci explained. "Not so tight and especially you have to be good on braking and on stability. But not like Red Bull Ring where you have to stop the bike. Here the track is more flowing. Many riders say it is similar to Mugello, but that is not true. Mugello all the corners are quite different and especially the inclination of the corners are all different."
Does this mean that the advantage Ducati had in Austria is gone at Brno? Certainly the huge advantage which the Ducatis took into the Spielberg race from the test does not exist in the Czech Republic. Traction out of corners is important at every circuit, but the gains from third gear corners are less than when accelerating from first gear down a long straight. Carrying speed from the corner onto the straight negates the need for raw traction, drawing the teeth of the raw Ducati horsepower. "You need a lot of power here," Alvaro Bautista said, "especially in the last sector of the track with the uphill climb. But here it's not 100% about the engine, you have to have a bike which handles, with high corner speed."
Ducati vs Honda vs Yamaha vs Suzuki
Who to put your money on? On paper, Brno is a Yamaha track, but it is a Yamaha track at which Honda wins a lot. In the past eight years, Honda and Yamaha have split the victories, with four wins a piece. Before that, Ducati won twice, with Loris Capirossi and Casey Stoner taking the honors. The ability to carry corner speed favors the Yamaha. The hard braking and high corner exit speed helps the Honda. The drag up the hill and high speed down the back straight helps the Ducati. The long corners help the Suzuki to be competitive. If the Aprilia had fifteen more horsepower, even they would enter into the equation.
Though it is hard to see past Jorge Lorenzo – especially if he can carry his form on from Austria – the Hondas can be a real threat as well. The biggest weakness of the RC213V is still acceleration, the bike either wanting to wheelie, or wanting to spin up the rear. That is a lot less of an issue when you start from third gear rather than first, higher gearing helping to tame the wildness of the Honda. Before Lorenzo's victory last year – helped perhaps in part by Dani Pedrosa being beaten up after a big crash in free practice – Honda had won four times in a row at the circuit.
If the Ducatis are competitive, then things get complicated for both the Yamahas and the Hondas. Marc Márquez may have a comfortable 43-point lead in the championship over Jorge Lorenzo, and 57 points over Valentino Rossi, but points differences can change in a hurry if the Ducatis can intervene. They can become even more complicated if Maverick Viñales can mix things up on the Suzuki, with maybe a Pramac Ducati, Tech 3 Yamaha or LCR Honda thrown in for good measure. Márquez can be unlucky and finish fourth behind a couple of Yamahas and a Ducati, and hand 12 points to Jorge Lorenzo. Or he can be lucky and finish fifth, behind two Ducatis and the two Yamahas, giving up just a couple of points to Lorenzo and five points to Rossi. Or he can be really lucky and win at Brno, while the Yamahas finish fourth and fifth.
Márquez sees his path to the MotoGP title as going through the top step of the podium. The Repsol Honda rider told the pre-event press conference he felt he needed two more victories to be certain of winning the championship. Given the mixed-up state of MotoGP right now, that is entirely possible. The two upcoming races, at Brno and Silverstone, represent perhaps his best chance until Phillip Island.
A glut of fuel
The one advantage the MotoGP teams have at Brno is that they have a lot of experience here. What the Austrian round of MotoGP exposed is just how much the teams are struggling to precisely calculate fuel use. Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider Bradley Smith finished with over 10% of his fuel left in Austria – with all MotoGP bikes now having a maximum tank capacity of 22 liters, that would mean that Smith finished with two and half liters left in the tank. Smith wasn't the only one, however: Danilo Petrucci finished the race with 1.5 liters of fuel in the tank, and Scott Redding said he had more fuel left at the end of the race than he expected.
What is happening? The combination of new software and new tires means that everyone is struggling to figure out how much fuel will be needed to finish a race. In the past, the factories' proprietary software would adjust itself during the race, figuring out how much fuel was left and modifying fuel maps appropriately. Now, that work has to be done ahead of time, with teams figuring out the best balance between fuel consumption and power, then handing the fuel maps to the rider, who has to manually switch between maps when the system says the bike is falling outside the fuel target window. More is in the hands of the riders: both in the right hand (throttle), and left hand (fuel selection maps).
Fuel mappings explained
Scott Redding expanded on the choices the rider has. "We have basically six maps," the Pramac Ducati rider explained. "We have three maps which are fuel maps, which are quite big, then we have the power maps. So we can change to have smoother power at the bottom to try to use less fuel. But the thing with the fuel map is it just leans it off, so it starves it of fuel which is less power. So really, it's about also finding the strategy. So maybe the first half is using more fuel, but if you use too much, then you can't put fuel back in the tank. So it's trying to find the balance. Maybe use more in the beginning, then save it. But if you save too much here, and you're trying to save and you're not saving enough, and you're trying to finish the race, you have to go the lowest map, and then you're just going round to finish."
How much was the difference between the lean, power-saving map and the full power map? "Somewhere like Spielberg, it's probably about three tenths a lap. That's not a lot, but when you calculate 0.3 over 28 laps it's a lot."
It can be nerve-racking trying to figure out if you have enough fuel to finish the race. "Basically, the first five laps are blind so [the bike] doesn't give any signal [on the dashboard]," Redding said. "So there you have to trust yourself, the system, the strategy you discussed with the guys. But then if you use too much then the lights come up on the dashboard. Then go to map B. Map B should do the race if you ride smooth. If you come up with map C, you can still manage, but when it's map C and the light comes up, that's it. End of story."
The difficulty is that tracks and situations can drastically change fuel use. If a rider finds themselves in a battle, then fuel use can go up. If the rear tire starts to spin a lot, that can use more fuel. Every rider wants as much power as possible for the full race, but that just isn't possible. It is a complex task figuring out how much fuel there is available, and providing the rider with maps which will make the full race. "[The team] always want to be conservative, but as a rider, you don't want to be conservative. You want to have the best performance for the whole race," Redding said.
How to figure out the best fuel use? Data, data, and more data. That has been tough for riders how have not finished every race. "With the races I didn't finish, we lost data from that. So now, I've had a couple of races where I've finished, and we're a little bit better. But we've also had the wet and dry races. So really, we've lost a lot of time to find the best way with the fuel map," Redding told us.
Experience was key here, both in terms of the rider and in terms of the team. "When you see the likes of Dovi, for example, I can see the data with him, he knows what he's doing. He doesn't really need to save fuel with his riding style. Again, he has a different size, different riding style. When you see him or Valentino out doing ten lap runs, they're not working on lap time, there out for the race. It's something that I've seen and I'm learning, but I'm learning the bike, I'm learning the tires, it's never ending to find the things that are most important for the race. "
That experience pays dividends all throughout the weekend, Redding explained. What he was still seeking was the optimum balance between practice and qualifying, and the race. "I've got a race style and a practice style," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "My practice style is like, I'm not thinking on fuel, I just hold it on. Whereas if when I do the FP4, you'll see I'm a lot more smooth, braking, throttle, speed. Lap time a little bit slower, but that's normal. In the race, the lap times are not the same. I've got two styles, but I've got to try and make the practice style the same speed as it is, but with a smoother FP4 style."
Common sense and Moto3
One rider who will be absent from the grid at Brno is Jack Miller. The Australian crashed heavily in Austria, fracturing a vertebra and a wrist. He was passed fit this morning, but after meeting with his Marc VDS Racing team, his manager Aki Ajo, and representatives from Honda, they mutually agreed to stop Miller from racing. The Australian was keen to get on with it, but those around him felt he would be risking a lot for the sake of very little reward. With seven races in the next eleven weeks, Miller would do better to concentrate on getting fit again, rather than risking another injury.
Before the teams arrived at Brno, the Aspar team announced they had signed Alvaro Bautista for 2017. Bautista's signing means the grid is nearly complete, with only the second seat at Aspar left to fill. Eugene Laverty has first refusal at that seat, but he is not yet ready to make a decision. The Irishman is caught between the Aspar seat and an Aprilia ride with Milwaukee for 2017. The choice hinges on factory support: just how much support Aprilia are prepared to offer remains to be seen.
Though MotoGP's Silly Season may be over, the rider market in Moto2 and Moto3 is in full swing. On Friday, the Sky VR46 team is due to unveil their plans, with a two-rider team in Moto3, and probably a two-rider team in Moto2. Current riders Andrea Migno and Nicolo Bulega will continue in Moto3, while Pecco Bagnaia is due to move to Moto2 in the Sky VR46 team. Who the second rider will be is intriguing, though it will certainly be an Italian rider.
One of those riders was due to be Romano Fenati, but the fiery Italian was sacked after a string of misdemeanors. There is talk of Fenati ending up with either Ongetta or Ajo for 2017, though it is far from a given. Fenati is definitely spoiled goods at the moment, with HRC said not to be keen on the Italian joining their ranks. Ajo, meanwhile, is denying any link to Fenati at the moment.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.