We were promised a storm on Friday, and we got one. But it was a media storm, rather than a thunderstorm, with riders finally free to speak about the situation at Aprilia. That's not to say the weather wasn't an issue: rain fell during Moto2, wreaking havoc on the field. That would have as many repercussions as the fallout from Aprilia's decision to dump Sam Lowes. It was an eventful day indeed.
First, to get the Aprilia story out of the way. Last night, it emerged that Aprilia had finally made a decision on Sam Lowes. The Italian factory had decided to drop the Englishman after just a single season, rather than keeping him for the full two years of his contract. It was a move which had been telegraphed at the Barcelona test, when Aprilia Corse boss Romano Albesiano admitted that dropping Lowes was a possibility they were considering. So for it to be announced in Austria was hardly a surprise. In part because Lowes' contract stated that Aprilia had until 15th August to make up their minds.
There was little surprise at Aprilia's move. Sam Lowes and Alex Rins have been vastly outclassed in their rookie years by Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger. Rins has had an excuse, having spent so much of his first year in MotoGP being injured. But viewed from the outside, Lowes has no such excuses. He is on a factory team, and his teammate is showing him up badly. Aleix Espargaro is regularly in Q2, and has shown pace to challenge for the top 5 on occasion. Lowes has been in Q2 only once, and has just two points to his name.
More than meets the eye
That is not the entire story, of course. For most of the season, Lowes has been several steps behind his teammate in terms of equipment, missing out on major upgrades such as frames and engines. Reliability has been an issue, with problems keeping Lowes in the garage during practice, and taking him out of races. This has not been restricted to Lowes: Aleix Espargaro has suffered a string of engine failures due to a design flaw with the Aprilia RS-GP engine, which have robbed him of a good result on more than one occasion.
But it is also true that Lowes has not adapted as quickly as he should have, being slow to change his riding style to suit a MotoGP bike. It took him several races to learn to pick up the bike early out of corners and get on the gas, rather than hold on to lean angle and carry corner speed. Braking has been another major hurdle, with Lowes still hesitating between rolling off the throttle and braking, a habit he was forced into by Moto2, and the Honda engine's lack of sophisticated engine braking electronics. Lowes made a big step forward in that respect at Brno, during the race but especially during the test. It was his main focus coming into Austria as well.
Once news broke last night that Aprilia is to drop Lowes at the end of the year, it allowed Lowes and other riders to speak out about the situation, at last. And hearing Lowes' side of the story – and supporting evidence from Lowes' friend and fellow racer Cal Crutchlow – shifted perception once again. The full text of what Lowes and Crutchlow said is available on Crash.net, but the salient point was that the situation at Aprilia has been bad for a long time.
Three races in
"It started after about three races," Lowes said. "All winter I was on the old bike, until Qatar." Updates have come slowly, with Lowes only now starting to reach parity with his teammate, who has been supportive throughout. But Aprilia have long been looking for riders to replace Lowes. Scott Redding – who, despite his denials today, is set to replace Lowes – spoke to Aprilia at the Sachsenring in July. Before that, they had been speaking with Alvaro Bautista, with Cal Crutchlow, and there are unconfirmed rumors that they had even spoken to Andrea Iannone.
"They were speaking to me before June, sure," Cal Crutchlow told us. "But I didn't know who it was for, I didn't know who was going to be riding and who was not going to be riding, I didn't know if they had another plan for Sam, and I had a job. And I wasn't going to be taking his job, that is sure."
Crutchlow was extremely critical of Aprilia's handling of the situation. "I think it's a disgrace," the LCR Honda rider said. "At the end of the day, there's no other way to put it. What did they expect him to do in his first year in MotoGP on a package that's not, like, a Yamaha? Give him time, and he's going to go a lot better next year. It's his first time at most of the tracks on a MotoGP bike, and if I look at my first year on a MotoGP bike compared to that, mine was probably even worse." Crutchlow also came close to being sacked in his first year in MotoGP with Tech 3. "I told Hervé, if I were you, I would sack me," he said of that period.
Doomed before the start
There is some evidence that Aprilia wanted to be rid of Lowes even earlier than that. Informed rumor suggests that at the Jerez test in November last year, Aprilia were canvassing other riders to take the place of Lowes, who they wanted to switch to WorldSBK. It seems that Lowes was given some two or three test days to prove himself before Aprilia decided to pull the plug.
That seems insanely early to be giving up on a MotoGP rookie. Sure, there have been rookies who have adapted faster, but they are few and far between. "[Sam]'s fast, he just doesn't understand everything in the moment," Crutchlow said. "But there's only been two or three guys in the whole world who jumped into MotoGP and suddenly understood it."
The issue seems to be related to the situation within Aprilia. Romano Albesiano has a lot to prove as boss of the racing department, and has big shoes to fill in replacing Gigi Dall'Igna, who left for Ducati. Piaggio boss Roberto Colaninno is an impatient man, and stated extremely ambitious goals when he launched Aprilia's MotoGP challenge at the beginning of the 2015 season. This is the third season of that project, with solid but not spectacular results to show from it. Albesiano may have been forced into acting to protect his own job.
Communication is everything
Lowes hinted at just how difficult the relationship had been with Albesiano. "Honestly, the communication between him and myself and my management is so lackluster and not professional," Lowes said. "It’s very difficult – difficult to work with. It’s been difficult to know what position you’re in." The same was true in the garage, where some members of the team showed Lowes nothing but disdain. "There are people in that garage that don’t believe in me. They didn’t believe in me from the start, anyway. So you’re fighting a losing battle."
The official reason Romano Albesiano gave was "We need to go with a less risky option," Lowes said. Lowes' response was typically acerbic. "If you’re racing to be less risky, you should all probably leave." Yet the name being linked with replacing Lowes is Scott Redding. It is hard to see how Redding is a less risky option than Lowes. Though he has had a podium and the odd strong result, Redding appears to have hit a plateau in his results.
Even Redding was arrived at once everyone else had been turned down, apparently. "Obviously they asked every rider in the world to come here, and no one did," Lowes said. "If you’ve got a girlfriend and you’re asking all your mates to go out with them, it’s probably not a great situation. That’s the way it is. He was very open to say they asked a lot of people. If it was Cal or someone on the bike I could maybe accept it a bit more."
Will Redding outperform Lowes? You would hope so, if only for Albesiano's sake. Next year will be Redding's fifth season in MotoGP, and having ridden both the Honda and the Ducati, he has plenty of experience. If he doesn't deliver, then it is Albesiano's neck which ends up on the chopping block.
Where does this leave Sam Lowes? Out on his ear and looking for a ride. There is an open seat in the Marc VDS team, which is his best hope of redemption for next year. But competition for that seat is fierce, with Tom Luthi and Mika Kallio also on a list of potential riders to fill that spot.
There was plenty of action on track too, much to our surprise. We had been expecting a day lost completely to rain, but for once, the weather gods smiled on the MotoGP paddock. They didn't let the series off completely, however, with heavy rain falling after Moto2 FP1 had started. That triggered a veritable avalanche of fallers, with 11 riders going down in very strange places.
Riders were falling braking for Turn 1, Turn 3, and Turn 4, the front going away from them as they braked in a straight line. Though it did not draw a red flag, it was clearly a cause for concern, many riders telling the media they would raise the issue in the Safety Commission which meets on Friday night. They clearly came to a decision, as late on Friday evening, FIM Safety Officer Franco Uncini was out with his clean up crew, trying to take some of the rubber laid down by F1 off the track. Whether this was causing the crashes or not is far from certain. But it certainly can't help to remove it.
The MotoGP class had the best of the conditions, with a cold and dry FP1, and then a warmer FP2 which saw a damp track for only the first ten minutes of practice. After that, riders could push – carefully, but push nonetheless – and chase a lap time for Q2, just in case the weather deteriorates on Saturday. (It shouldn't: the worst of the weekend weather is supposed to be behind us. But you never know.)
Andrea Dovizioso was fastest in both sessions, though he had his fastest lap scrapped in FP1 for exceeding track limits, handing top spot on the timesheets to Hector Barbera. Dovizioso got his revenge in the afternoon, taking over six tenths off his best time, and putting the Ducati ahead of the pack. It was where he had been expected to be sitting at the end of the first day, but his advantage was much smaller than expected.
All much closer
It was in fact quite a motley crew which impressed on Friday. A Ducati led in the hands of Dovizioso, but a Yamaha followed, with a Honda rider, satellite Yamaha rider, factory Ducati rider, satellite Ducati, and Repsol Honda rider all behind them. The playing field has been leveled, all of the protagonists felt. Yamaha had worked on its acceleration and electronics, Maverick Viñales getting more and more comfortable with the bike. Honda have fixed one or two issues with rear grip, gaining acceleration out of corners. With acceleration improved, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow are not far off either.
Valentino Rossi was the big name missing, but the Italian revealed he had been suffering with the 'flu for the past week, and that had prevented him from going flat out. Rossi hoped that his physical condition would improve, so that he would have a chance to fight for Q2 on Saturday morning.
At the moment, everything is open at Austria, though Dovizioso has the upper hand. We will know more after qualifying, if we get the full day of dry sunshine we expect on Saturday. On Sunday, the weather could be even better still. But there's still a long way to go until Sunday.
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