The riders will have been off the bikes for about 80 hours before they take to the track again at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Back-to-back races are always tough, but doing back-to-backs with a test in between can be pretty brutal. At least everyone will be sharp when practice starts on Friday.
The Red Bull Ring is a unique track, though how you interpret the word "unique" is very much up to you. In one respect, the Spielberg circuit is just a few straights connected by sharp corners, with a replica of the Sachsenring's Omega curve thrown in for good measure.
On paper, it looks pretty dull, yet it is surprisingly popular among the riders. This is in part because of the stunning setting, and elevation changes that add charm to the circuit. But mostly, it's because it's a very, very fast circuit. And there is nothing that a motorcycle racer likes more than going very, very fast on a motorcycle. Oddly enough.
Going fast and being safe
But great speed can have great consequences. There are a number of points around the track where safety is questionable. "I think that in a track where the average and the top speed is very high, but especially is high during all the lap, unfortunately the runoff area is never enough, because it's very difficult," Valentino Rossi told the press conference.
Turn 1 is just such a spot. "In corner 1, the walls are super close," Aleix Espargaro said, "In the wet, at a track like this where you brake really straight and hard, you lose the front and everything is close. We have to try in the wet and see what's going on. It's just our second time here, so we need to see if it's dangerous or not. For sure Turn 1, but also especially Turn 3, because you brake with some angle, it can be dangerous."
Cal Crutchlow feels much the same way. "I don't really want to ride here in the rain, to be honest, but I'll have to do the same as everyone else," he said after the press conference. "Because into Turn 3, if you slap off in a straight line there, there's an armco barrier on your left. But there's nothing you can do. Your rivals will go out, so you're forced to go out, really."
These issues were raised in the Safety Commission last year, the riders already expressing their concerns. But so far, nothing has been done to address them. No more runoff has been added, the barriers have not been moved. "I don't really see why they can't move it," Crutchlow opined. "If one guy owns the lot, just move it. He's probably not governed by anything, just get the thing out of the way."
No doubt the same issues will be discussed in the Safety Commission on Friday – if they have enough time in between discussion the myriad ways of improving the safety of flag-to-flag races (F1-style lollipop holders – Márquez; alternate MotoGP and Moto2 garages to create space between teams – Dani Pedrosa; separate in and out lanes – Alvaro Bautista; and many, many more). The riders will have to hope that Red Bull owner Dieter Mateschitz decides to invest in the safety of his circuit. Though if his plans to upgrade the Salzburgring and make it safe for motorcycles come through, there will be little need.
Firing The Bologna Bullets
The reason there is all this discussion of safety is because the track is fast, and when you say fast, you say Ducati – in MotoGP at least. Last year, the factory Ducatis were unstoppable, Andrea Iannone finally pipping Andrea Dovizioso to the line, victory coming after Iannone chose the softer tire. The MotoGP paddock is treating another Ducati victory in Austria as inevitable, the only question being which of the two factory riders will win this year.
Before the summer break, the answer to that question would have been fairly simple: Andrea Dovizioso has been head and shoulders better than Ducati's big-money signing Jorge Lorenzo. While Lorenzo floundered – though, to be fair, he also occasionally showed flashes of brilliance – Dovizioso shone, winning two races and even leading the championship for a while. There is no doubt that Andrea Dovizioso is competitive, and if there is a track which favors the Ducati, then the Red Bull Ring is it.
That may have changed at Brno, however. After the summer break, Ducati brought a new (and outrageous) aerodynamic update which was a major step forward. Yes, it cut top speed by some 6 km/h. But it also generated the kind of pressure on the front wheel which Jorge Lorenzo needed to go fast. Lorenzo was quick in the wet, quick in the dry, and quick at the test on Monday. On Sunday night after the race, Lorenzo said he genuinely believed he could have won at Brno, if the weather had cooperated and stayed either full wet or full dry.
His performance at Brno gave him confidence coming into Austria. "I think we arrive in the best moment of the season, for sure," Lorenzo said. "My evolution and adaptation with the bike has been better but very slow. But in the last four days, putting together the weekend and the Monday test, the improvement has been huge because the bike changed quite a bit. At the Monday test I was very comfortable, very fast, very aggressive. I was very happy, very satisfied. We need to wait to see at other tracks what happens but I think from now on I will be, at least, much more comfortable on the bike."
The difference was all down to the new fairing. "For me, what I lose, the compensation is clear in another way. Maybe for another rider like Dovizioso or Petrucci, who have another kind of riding style, it’s not so clear for the moment. It can depend on the track. There are some tracks where the top speed is very important and the new fairing doesn’t compensate. In my case, I think it’s going to compensate on all the tracks because I really need to feel the front on the ground to be able to make my lines and to be able to feel really comfortable. But it’s not only about the fairing. It’s about other things that we made on the bike with the setting that creates much more confident and creates a huge advantage in my riding."
Confidence breeds success
Is Lorenzo's new-found confidence warranted? There is certainly cause to believe so. Ducati's new fairing creates a virtuous circle for Lorenzo: more downforce means more contact with the front end. More contact with the front end means more confidence for Lorenzo. More confidence for Lorenzo means he can ride more aggressively. A more aggressive Lorenzo will load the front tire more, as he no longer fears it breaking away without any warning. More load on the front tire means more heat in the front tire, and consequently more grip. More grip means more confidence in the front end for Lorenzo …
That is the theory, at least, a theory Lorenzo himself believes in. "Let’s say that my limit is further," the Spaniard said. "I am half a second faster in all the laps." The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, of course, but having faith will go a long way for Lorenzo. Sunday will show whether theory can become praxis.
Beware the boys in blue
We do at least know that Jorge Lorenzo is quick around the Red Bull Ring. Though the Ducatis were indomitable last year in Austria, the Yamahas kept them honest for much of the race. What made the Yamahas competitive at the Red Bull Ring in 2016 was the fact that there is more than one way to be fast around the race track. The Ducatis had decent drive, and excellent top speed. The Yamahas had outstanding drive, and decent top speed. The net result was that the Ducatis were only a little bit better than the Yamahas.
In 2016, Valentino Rossi finished fourth behind Lorenzo. Can he go one – or more – better in Austria this year? There is reason to believe that if anything, the gap between the two factories will be closer in 2017. First, the Ducatis have lost the advantage they had with the winglets, the new aerodynamic package costing them more top speed and not generating the same amount of downforce. Secondly, the Yamaha has improved, getting off the corner even better and gaining top speed.
So much top speed that both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi have decided not to use their new aerodynamic package in Austria. After the Brno test on Monday, Viñales had been keen to put it to use at the Red Bull Ring. But in the pre-event press conference, he told the media he had changed his mind. The problem is that though the new aerodynamic package – a mixture of the old side pods with internal vanes, and a fairing upper which seems based on KTM's wedge – improved acceleration, it also cut top speed. That was a sacrifice not worth making, said Valentino Rossi at the test. Viñales seems to have come round to Rossi's way of thinking in the three days between that test and the press conference.
Best of the rest?
While all eyes are on Ducati, and a few more on Yamaha, the Hondas should not be underestimated. "For sure Honda will be much stronger compared to last year," was Andrea Dovizioso's assessment. "Last year they suffer a lot in acceleration, and in this moment, they still suffer but not like last year." They had other strengths too. "They are always very quick to change direction, and the entry is really strong, seen from outside."
If the Ducatis are favorite to win, and the Yamahas favorite to run them close, the battle for fifth is expected to be fierce. Almost everyone we spoke to on Thursday seemed to think they would be in the running for fifth. Alvaro Bautista, riding the Ducati GP16 which was victorious last year, felt that without last year's winglets, he had a decent shot at fifth. Aleix Espargaro, buoyed by the upgrades he had received at Brno, felt that the Aprilia RS-GP was strong enough to fight for fifth. Johann Zarco believed that if he could get 100% out of himself, then fifth was more than possible. Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Jonas Folger believed that he could carry the strong pace he showed in the race in the Czech Republic over to Austria, and that fifth was a viable goal. It's going to be busy behind the leaders.
There were also a few tidbits of news filtering through in Austria. Jonas Folger told us that the Tech 3 team expected to receive an aerodynamic upgrade at Silverstone, Tech 3 receiving the first version of the fairing with the side cowling as tested by the Movistar Yamaha team in Sepang. Whether they will use it in Silverstone is another matter, however. The British circuit is a track where the added difficulty of throwing a bike from side to side would negate any benefits of the aero fairing.
On Thursday afternoon, Pramac Ducati finally announced they had signed Jack Miller, a move which had been expected for some time. With Miller taking Scott Redding's seat in the Italian team, the question was quickly raised of what would become of Redding. The answer, it turned out late on Thursday night, is that he will shift over to the Gresini Aprilia team, and take the place of Sam Lowes. Lowes has never really been accepted by Aprilia, so they are buying him off and putting Redding in his place.
That is not relevant until next year, though. First, there is a race to be held in Austria. It is an event at which the weather is sure to play a major role (as usual), with very heavy rain expected on Friday, and perhaps a few spots on Saturday too. At least race day should be dry, but if the teams get only warm up in the dry on Sunday, it should make for quite the race.
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