It's the Sachsenring all over again. Or almost: when the MotoGP bikes were here in July, air temperatures were in the low 30s, and track temperature was around 50°C. During FP1, the air temperature was just 9°, and track temperature was 14°C. "The temperature this morning was pretty extreme," Jorge Lorenzo said after practice was over. "Only a few times in my life have we been riding in such cold conditions."
Cold temperatures meant cold tire crashes, especially in the morning. The most obvious was Dani Pedrosa's crash, who fell at Turn 9 as he touched the front brake, the front folding as if the track were wet. The crash caused the session to be red-flagged, as Pedrosa's Honda ended up puncturing the air fence and landing on top of the tire barrier.
The crash seemed to be a warning of the excesses of tarmac run off, but Pedrosa was happy that there wasn't a gravel trap at the edge of the track. "I crashed in fifth gear, so I was going very fast," Pedrosa said. "From one point of view I think, most of the run-off area was asphalt so maybe the bike didn't decelerate enough. But on the other side I was very lucky it was only asphalt, because I crashed so fast that if I went into the gravel I would have tumbled over and over with a lot of speed." There are upsides to asphalt run off sometimes.
Smoother isn't always better
The cold temperatures gave something of a false picture of the state of play. Dani Pedrosa finished the day down in 19th, over 2.5 seconds off the pace of the Ducatis. Pedrosa's crash knocked his confidence, but his biggest problem was getting temperature into the tires. "I could feel that every lap I was out, I lose temperature in the tire, instead of gaining temperature." When he tried to push to generate heat, he crashed. Things were a little better in the afternoon, but not much.
It was a similar story for Jorge Lorenzo. "It was difficult, especially to enter the corner with confidence," Lorenzo said. "The rear tire didn't get to a good temperature and we all have temperature problems." The Movistar Yamaha rider's problems stem in part from his riding style. "In cold conditions, I am a smooth rider, on braking especially, more or less like Pedrosa," he said. "We have a little bit more problems to get the tires working with more temperature. We struggle a little bit more compared to the riders who are more aggressive on braking." Hence riders like Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow being further up the front.
Sometimes, colder is grippier
The cold temperatures weren't a disadvantage to everyone, however. Maverick Viñales was pleased with the cold, the Suzuki always suffering with rear grip in the heat. When temperatures are lower, the Suzuki creates drive out of corners, something which is a real benefit at the Red Bull Ring. When temperatures rise, the grip goes away, though this was less of an issue in Austria than at other tracks. "We were also competitive for grip, because the asphalt is quite good," Viñales said.
New winglets may also have helped. The GSX-RR sported larger winglets in Austria, helping to reduce wheelie and improve acceleration out of corners. "We improve at the end of second gear, third and fourth," Viñales told us. "Not so much wheelie and we can put a little bit more power. Still we are finding how exactly much power we can put, but today we can feel already that the bike is a little faster."
Winglets did not help Aleix Espargaro as much as he might have wanted. The Spaniard crashed heavily, hurting his hands. The Spaniard suffered a fracture of a metacarpal on this left hand, and sprained the thumb of his left hand. He is hoping to ride again on Saturday with some physiotherapy to help relieve the injuries.
Wings give drive, give speed
It was the factory Ducatis that benefited most from the winglets. Andrea Dovizioso ended the day as fastest, two tenths ahead of his teammate Andrea Iannone, and over eight tenths quicker than Maverick Viñales. How big is that advantage? The gap between Dovizioso in first and Viñales in third is the same as the gap between Viñales in third and Jack Miller in fourteenth. The Ducatis are going to be hard to beat in Austria.
Where are they gaining? For a start, both Dovizioso and Iannone are feeling very comfortable with the set up of their Desmosedicis. But above all, the difference for the Ducatis is in acceleration. "The Ducati have a lot of horsepower," Valentino Rossi explained, "but what they are able to do better compared to the Yamaha and Honda is less wheelie. For this reason, they are very fast in acceleration. Because it looks like the bike accelerates more with less wheelie on the front."
Having less wheelie gave the Ducatis an advantage everywhere, Jorge Lorenzo added. "Our bike, and also the Honda have more wheelie than the Ducati, so the combination of more power and less wheelie and more top speed creates a big difference in these kinds of long straights coming from slow corners," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. Horsepower is important in Austria. "As you can see, the difference between Moto2 and MotoGP is bigger than normal, and from Moto2 to Moto3 is bigger than normal. That means that the engine is very important here."
More power, less wheelie
The winglets really do help the Ducati accelerate, which is why they fought so hard against them being banned. Winglets help keep the front of the bike down, even from a relatively low speed. A source familiar with the Ducati had seen the data for identical bikes both with and without the winglets, and the difference in acceleration was clearly visible. Less wheelie means Ducati can use more horsepower, and translate that horsepower into drive onto the straights. At tracks where bikes are exiting in third or fourth gear onto the straights, the Yamahas and Hondas are at less of a disadvantage, as wheelie is less of an issue out of fast corners. But corners like Turn 1 or Turn 3, where the bikes are back to first or second gear, wheelie becomes a major issue. If you don't have to cut power to reduce the wheelie, you simply end up losing out.
Fat lady yet to sing
What can Yamaha or Honda do about it? Not much, is the short answer. "We have to just give the maximum, try to fix all the small details to go a bit faster on the straight, but you know, is very difficult to go faster on the straight," Valentino Rossi said. "You can try to exit faster from the corner, but on the straight, the level is what it is." That doesn't mean he was just going to roll over and accept it, however. "I don't want to start just for third place," Rossi said. "It's just Friday, we have Saturday, and especially the race is always different." If he can stay in the draft of the Ducatis, then he would be in with a chance, Rossi felt. Tire degradation could end up being a factor in a race over 28 laps. It was a long race, and much could still happen.
Dovizioso, too, was keen to ensure that not too much was read into the lap times. "I always say, everybody looks at the lap time or pace in practice and says 'it is like this'. It is not. There is a way to do the lap time, a way to set up the bike and a way to use the power," Dovizioso explained. "In different tracks, some riders are fast in practice but not in the race. Because some riders are fast in practice, but maybe in the race, without full power and on used tires, they are not at the front. That why I say, OK, we have a margin, but we have to keep working for the 28 laps."
Which of the Ducatis might win? Andrea Dovizioso is the most likely candidate, not only because he was fastest on Friday, but also because Andrea Iannone injured a rib in a motocross training crash during the summer break. Friday was the first time Iannone had been back on a bike, and the rib injury was causing him more problems than he had hoped. Acceleration was a real problem, hanging on to the Desmosedici proving to be more difficult than he expected. Doing 28 laps in excruciating pain from your ribs is a tough ask.
The Yamaha riders may not be starting for third place, but realistically, risking it all to stay with the Ducatis may not be the best course of action. Neither factory Ducati is in the title chase, while Rossi and Lorenzo are busy trying to recover points from Marc Márquez. "For me, for sure is more important Lorenzo and Márquez than the Ducati," Rossi said. "A good goal would be finishing in front of Márquez if it's possible," Lorenzo agreed.
R U RLLY FSTR?
If the weather in Austria brought back memories of the Sachsenring, so did proposals to allow some minimal communication between the teams and the riders. The proposal is very modest indeed – very short messages, passed with the transponder signal at each timing loop, which is four times a lap – and a very far cry from the calls for the introduction of ship-to-shore radios which came after the flag-to-flag race in Germany.
That does not mean that the proposals are not dangerous. At the moment, riders are left to race for themselves, and either make up strategy as they go along or work to plans set out before the start of the race. Communicating via pit boards is very limited, especially given the very brief amount of space present, and the tendency of the riders to either miss their pit board, or ignore it when they do see it.
If the teams have greater freedom to communicate with the riders, they will try to impose greater control on them. The more information they can pass along, the more the teams can steer the rider in a particular direction. With a pit board, teams have to choose what they tell the rider, and which information to pass on. If communication via transponder is allowed, the teams will be able to send four times as much information to the rider, plus still use the pit board once a lap.
How important is strategy?
An example of how this may work out came in the excellent documentary, produced by Dorna, on Jorge Lorenzo's championship year, "Jorge Lorenzo Guerrero". There is a scene towards the end of the documentary, shot in Lorenzo's motorhome, where he, his pit board man, his advisors, and team manager Wilco Zeelenberg are discussing the options for putting information on the pit board. With just three lines available, they had to figure out what was important. Lorenzo needed to win or come second, if Rossi came fourth, but the Spaniard also needed to know where the two Repsol Hondas were, and how fast they were going.
The discussion went back and forth, over all the scenarios. Should Rossi's position be on the pit board? Did Lorenzo want the gap to second on the pit board? What if Pedrosa got a slow start, but was closing rapidly? What if Márquez was getting closer, but Rossi was on the move? There was no way Lorenzo could see all of this information, and so in the end, he had to make choices, and try to win the race.
If the proposal currently under discussion had been allowed, Lorenzo would not have had to make any choices. The positions and gaps could have been displayed every lap, changing as his bike passed over the timing loops. If Pedrosa started closing rapidly, Lorenzo could have known. If the gap between himself and Márquez became too small, Lorenzo could have been told. If Rossi came through the field fast enough to latch on to the leaders, Lorenzo's team could have told him.
Flag-to-flag races would be similar. At the moment, the teams can only display the gaps to others, the number of laps to go, and a lap time. If they could send information to the dashboard, the team could inform their rider of the current fastest lap time, and if that rider was on slicks or wets. Instead of riders making decisions, the team would send more forceful messages telling them when to pit.
Racers should race
This is the real danger. Riders come and go, but teams stay in MotoGP for a very long time indeed. In the long run, the interests of the team are far greater than the interests of an individual rider. The more control a team has, the more they will try to impose their will on their rider, and manage the rider's race from pit lane. Give the teams an inch, and they will take a country mile.
Sure, the current proposal is very limited indeed. But even with just a few characters four times a lap, teams will do their best to start managing the race for their riders. The fleeting messages between team and rider may help spice up TV coverage (which is the main reason Dorna like the proposal), but they will eventually help kill the racing. Let the rider ride, and let the team watch from pit lane. When the flag drops, the bovine fecal matter stops. What MotoGP does not need is to hand teams another method of flinging yet more bovine fecal matter at the riders during the race.
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