We know that the weather in the mountains is changeable, but Friday at the Red Bull Ring took the cake. A bright, sunny morning, with ideal conditions for riding – so ideal that Johann Zarco sliced another tenth of a second off the outright lap record in FP1 – and in the last ten minutes or so of FP2 for the Moto3 class, a few drops of rain, and then lightning, and a hailstorm in 30°C heat. The MotoGP riders went out on a soaking track, but by the time the session finished, it was almost dry.
Iker Lecuona seized his opportunity. The Tech3 KTM rider had been quick enough on wets, but at the end of FP2, he swapped to slicks, and banged in a time nearly 3.4 seconds faster than anyone else had managed. Jack Miller was the only other rider to stick a set of slicks in at the end, though he was not chasing a time, but trying to understand how the medium slicks would work on a track which was still quite wet.
"I just went out on the mediums to understand how they work in quite a lot of water on the track," Miller explained. "Because it's quite stop-start here, you're putting a lot of weight on both the front and the rear tyre, and the medium definitely feels better. So I just wanted to understand how quickly I could get them up to temperature and working, and they worked pretty good."
The weather caught a lot of riders and teams off guard. The day had not looked like rain until the dark clouds gathered above the Spielberg circuit. While the weather forecast had predicted rain, the paddock was taking the stopped clock approach to reading the meteorologists' predictions. "You can't be surprised here, because it says in the forecast every day that it's going to rain, so you've got to assume one day that they're going to get it right," Jack Miller said.
The Australian had seen the rain coming from the beginning of Moto3 FP2, he told us. "I saw already when Moto3 were going out right before they were about to start the session, they do those big long shots of the circuit, and I said 'looks pretty dark over the back there, and [Ducati team boss] Tardozzi, who thinks he's a weather man said to me, 'no, no, it's not going to rain'. He was wrong. And we've worked out that we can no longer listen to Davide when it comes to weather forecasts, because it's not the first time he's been wrong."
The rain meant the teams had to rip up the plans they had had for the second session of practice. Nearly two thirds of the grid hadn't used a soft tire at the end of FP1, saving their preliminary runs at Q2 for the afternoon. That rendered the timesheets much more difficult to interpret, as some riders ran long runs on a single set of tires, while others stuck a new set of tires (or at least a new rear) at the end of the session in pursuit of direct passage to Q2.
Riders had no real regrets at a lost opportunity in the morning, however. "My tactic was my tactic," Jack Miller told us. "I needed to go out and do these laps this morning and try a couple of things to understand. So my tyre didn't feel mega, the first one this morning, but I haven't checked whether it was a preheated or not, but the performance outright just didn't feel fantastic from the get go. But I was just able to keep consistent lap time close to my best, I think I did one tenth or not even a tenth off my best on 20 laps on the tyre or something."
The morning plan had been made with an eye to managing the tire allocation over the entire weekend the Factory Ducati rider explained. "That was my plan, to do it like that, because I needed to try a couple of things and also I needed to work a little bit more on the race pace." The upside of lost time in the wet was more tires for FP3 and qualifying. "We have plenty of softs left for tomorrow, so we'll throw a few at it and see what we can do."
Brad Binder's tire conservation strategy was also a victim of the rained-out second session. "This morning we put a lot of focus onto saving tyres, we didn't put a new set in," the Red Bull KTM Factory rider told us. "We planned to have an extra set, and when the rain started to fall 10 minutes before FP2, that became a little bit pointless."
For Binder, like many riders, the loss of FP2 was above all a loss of valuable setup time. "In FP1 we struggled a lot with rear grip, and I really wanted to try two different setups on the bike," the South African said. "So that was the goal for FP2, to see exactly which bike is better going into tomorrow. But that was pushed back with the rain. So FP3 is going to be a busy one."
Hot and cold
Unlike Jack Miller, Binder hadn't put slicks on at the end of FP2, despite them being a far better choice than the wets by that point in time. "It would have just been a waste," the South African said. "It would definitely have been a much better plan than just rolling around on the wets, because it was practically bone dry. But the goal for this morning was to save tyres and to have an extra set this afternoon, whereas now, for tomorrow, we have whatever tyre options we want in each different compound. So to go out on the last two or three laps with new tyres would just take the best off of them, and we would lose a set for tomorrow. So the plan was, I was just doing one lap fast, one lap circulating to try and get the tyres to cool off a little bit, and then try and give it another go."
Binder had been able to try the new symmetric hard tire on Friday morning. It had shown potential, but it had been hard to manage in the cooler morning temperatures. "Well, we did put in the new hard front at the end, and it was a little bit tricky," Binder told us. "The feeling was that it had a little bit of chatter on the front, a little bit like that cold feeling, or when the rubber's a little bit too hard. So I think it's a bit on the limit."
They would have to try it again on Saturday, Binder said. "We're going to have to give it another go throughout the weekend, and maybe try and change some setup things to make it work." Warmer temperatures in the afternoon might give a better idea of how it would cope during the race. "I'd imagine more temperature would help. But at the moment, it's a little bit touch and go, but we'll see tomorrow."
No to half and half
The wet weather had further exposed the problems Fabio Quartararo faced with the Yamaha. The championship leader had struggled in the afternoon with a lack of rear grip, he said. "Today was not the best, because my feeling in the morning was great in the dry conditions, but still in the wet, I have no confidence," Quartararo told us. "We have a problem that we can't fix, and we will try something really really different to try to find if there is an improvement. In the wet I don't feel good, and then at the end. I could make something to go into eighth position at the end but the feeling is not great. So I will try my best to try to improve that that feeling."
The problem came for Quartararo when he tipped the bike onto its side to get into the corner. "It's rear feeling," the Frenchman complained. "I have no grip going into the corner, no confidence to make corner speed and we know that in the wet, the corner speed is so important. From straight upright to the lean angle is a horrible feeling. So we need to improve that, to be faster in the wet."
Quartararo's concerns appear only once the track starts to dry. In the full wet, the Yamaha M1 is still fast, the Frenchman told us. "I tried it in Japan 2019, when it was really really wet, and I liked it. When it's full wet I prefer it than if it is strange conditions, when it's drying up. If it needs to rain, I like to race when it's full rain. I think it's much more fun. It depends on the condition of the track of course, because we know Turn 2 is quite a dangerous place. But to have the race in the full rain and in wet track condition is not a problem and I prefer that to half and half condition."
Tough on shoulders
For Marc Marquez, the rain had also come as a blessing. The Repsol Honda rider is still having problems with his right shoulder, the one which was operated on at the end of 2019, and the arm which he broke at Jerez in 2020. "I'm struggling," Marquez told us. "It's one of the circuits where I'm struggling more. Maybe because of the hard brake points."
Even when you are fully fit, the circuit is tough on the shoulders, Marquez told us. "Some riders are completely fit and they are also in the Clinica Mobile because the right shoulder is demanding on this circuit," the Repsol Honda rider said. "And last Friday, last weekend I struggled a lot, and today in FP1 I struggled a lot. I started fresh, and immediately I was fast, but as soon as my strength started to drop and the pain arrives, then I don't ride the bike well, and everything becomes worse, even the setup. But OK, today just I didn't push a lot, just concentrated on trying the things, and of course wet practice this afternoon helps me to survive in a better way during the weekend."
Marquez had the added the adhesive grip sections to a large part of the fuel tank of his Honda RC213V (see photo above). Most riders only have a section of the sticky plastic around the knee section of the tank, to provide better grip in braking. Marquez has extended that to cover a much larger part of the tank. "All of these patches are to stop putting so much stress on the arm," Marquez told Spanish media. "It's just a patch which is a bit wider so that I can put a bit more force with my legs in braking, and make it easier on the arm. We are working a lot with the team to find something which can help in this aspect. It won't change our lives, but if it can give us a second at the end of the race, that would be a lot."
A verbose silence
That wasn't the only new part which Marc Marquez was testing, though the Spaniard managed to remain comically vague on exactly what he was testing. In response to a question about who put together the plans for the weekend, whether it was HRC telling him what to test or his team organizing what he would need to try to prepare him for the race on Sunday, Marquez produced a remarkable piece of obfuscatory verbiage.
"It's true that for example today ideas come more from my staff and the Japanese staff, because it was more we try a few things, but I was riding with the same chassis that I raced last Sunday," the Spaniard related to us. "And we tried other things, but we found some positives and some negatives and tomorrow I will keep riding with that and other things. But maybe if the weather is OK, I will try some other things. So I cannot say this or this. But it's true that today's plan HRC decided more, and for tomorrow's plan, me and my team decide more. Because we are looking for being faster tomorrow, today we are looking more to try a concept."
To summarize: HRC had brought some things. Marquez had tried some things on Friday. He will keep using those things, unless the weather improves, in which case he will test some different things. His final sentence is the closest Marquez comes to an explanation, though he remains remarkably obtuse: on Friday, he was testing HRC parts as part of a general development direction; on Saturday, he will be trying parts which might help him be faster this Sunday.
The big story off track is the absence of Maverick Viñales. The Spaniard was suspended by his team on Thursday, after it became clear he had been abusing his engine on the last four laps of last week's race, presumably out of frustration with electronics issues which appeared as a result of starting from pit lane. Viñales' side of the Monster Energy Yamaha Team garage remains empty this weekend, his crew having already been sent home.
But we did register mild surprise when Viñales turned up at the circuit on Friday, in team gear. To an extent, this makes sense: he has been suspended from participating in this race, not necessarily from being present at the track. He is free to turn up to the track, though if he does so, then by the terms of his contract, he must wear team gear, like every MotoGP rider. (MotoGP contracts have a number of clauses defining exactly what a rider must wear when they are in the paddock, or at official events, and on what days, with hefty fines attached for noncompliance.)
What Viñales is almost certainly banned from doing is speaking to the media independently. The possibility of a press conference on Viñales – it was never entirely clear whether it would be Viñales who would speak to us, or Yamaha management on the subject – floated around the paddock, the likelihood of actually happening waxing and waning. In the end, we were left without a chance to speak to Viñales on Friday. Perhaps that will happen on Saturday. Or perhaps we will have to wait until he is released from his contract, whether that be some time next week or at the end of the year.
A lot hangs on whether Maverick Viñales has ridden his last race for Yamaha. If the break is irreconcilable, then the Monster Energy Yamaha Team will need a replacement rider for the rest of the season. If the breach can be mended somehow, then all will be fine.
If Viñales is released from his contract, then Cal Crutchlow would be the obvious candidate to replace him for the rest of the season. In his media debrief, however, the Englishman spent 10 minutes finding ways of dancing around the question without providing a definitive answer, despite journalists asking three different ways to phrase the same basic question. Much to the annoyance of the Petronas SRT Yamaha press officer, who issued a stern warning to stop asking questions about replacing Maverick Viñales and please ask about something else.
Instead of repeating Crutchlow's extensive answers, a brief summary of what he said should suffice. It was not as simple as stepping into Viñales garage and taking over his bikes, Crutchlow said. He had signed up as a test rider, and still had testing duties left to complete. He would have to talk to Yamaha about how to reconcile testing with racing, and whether that would be possible.
He would also have to think long and hard whether he actually wanted to race or not, Crutchlow insisted. He had signed on as a test rider, precisely because he had been ready to retire. "I didn’t sign a contract to race the rest of the year," the Englishman told us. "As we know, I had something [in my contract] about replacing Yamaha riders, but replacing for the rest of the year is another story. As I said I've got a good working relationship with Yamaha, we'll discuss it, and I think we'll choose the right thing."
Rinse and repeat
As I wrote yesterday, it also seems that Petronas has decided to end its sponsorship of the Petronas SRT team at the end of 2021. When interviewed by MotoGP.com's Simon Crafar, team manager Johan Stigefelt would only say that they hope to make an announcement at Silverstone. But it looks like Darryn Binder will be taking at least one of the Yamaha bikes in the SRT garage in 2022.
That was something which his brother, Brad, was keen to see. "I've also heard the rumors, but I'd really love to have my brother on track with me, that's for sure," the South African said. "And if that could become a reality, that would become super super cool for us. I think it's quite a step, for sure, but I believe that he'll do a good job anyway."
If Darryn Binder does step up to MotoGP directly from Moto3, he will be following in the footsteps of Jack Miller. The Australian went from Moto3 in 2014 directly to MotoGP in 2015, riding an Open Class Honda (a separate category of bike with less electronics and more fuel, the successor to the CRT bikes which ended up saving MotoGP from 2012 onward) with the LCR Honda team.
"Not a fan. Don't want anyone stealing my thunder!" Miller joked when asked about the possibility of Binder moving up to MotoGP. "Sure, someone like Darryn Binder, if he's got the opportunity, why not. I think he's got balls, that's for certain. He's got skill, that's for certain. So sure. And if you've got the opportunity, if it comes knocking, as I've said multiple times, you can't turn it away, because that train only comes once or twice, some people don't even get it. If you do have the chance, you've got to take it."
Darryn Binder's situation in 2021/2022 is completely different to his own back in 2014/2015, Miller pointed out. "I think Darryn – it's completely different to what I did, because when I stepped up, I stepped onto the Open Honda, and had to build my way up like that. Whereas nowadays you can come in and to be honest, you're getting on a pretty decent machine straight up, which is half the battle. So I think all power to him if it's going to happen."
Nothing is yet settled. This saga probably still has some way to run.
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