Racing in Austria has always been about speed. When Grand Prix motorcycles first raced in Austria, they went to the Salzburgring, a hairy, narrow track that snakes along one section of the mountain east of Salzburg, then down a bit, and then all the way back again. It was fast, and it was terrifying, and by the time Grand Prix left the track, the average speed of a lap was over 194 km/h. But it was also incredibly dangerous, with no runoff in sections, and steel barriers along large parts of the track.
After abandoning the Salzburgring, Grand Prix moved to the A1 Ring, the predecessor of the modern Red Bull Ring. The A1 Ring was a shortened and neutered version of the original Österreichring, a terrifyingly quick circuit which rolled over the hill which overlooks the little town of Spielberg, where the F1 cars reached average speeds of over 255 km/h. The original circuit is still there, at least in outline, visible from the satellite view of Google Maps.
Shortened and neutered it may have been, but speeds were still high. In 1997, Mick Doohan took pole for the race at an average speed of 175 km/h, faster than the 171 km/h average speed for pole at Phillip Island, a notoriously quick track. When MotoGP returned to Austria after an absence of 20 years, speeds were still high: Andrea Iannone's pole lap was set with an average speed of nearly 187 km/h, making it the fastest track on the calendar.
And yet the track is not fast in the traditional sense. It is not fast and flowing like Phillip Island, Mugello, Assen, Termas de Rio Hondo. Nor it is a track where the bikes explore the limits of outright top speed: at the Red Bull Ring, the highest recorded speed is 316.5km/h on the climb up the hill, 40 km/h slower than the front straight at Mugello, where they have clocked 356.7 km/h.
Where is the speed?
So where does the track get its speed from? From the fact that it basically has very few corners. A triangle of straights – hairy, narrow straights, two of which have a serious and challenging kink in – have been forced open and an Omega inserted. The bikes are full throttle for a lot of the lap, though accelerating from low speed. Viewed in two dimensions, the track is rather dull and featureless.
The landscape adds an element of interest. The track climbs up the hill at the end of the straight, before braking hard for the sharp right into Turn 1. It then snakes up the hill even further to flick through Turn 2 (a corner which doesn't even count as a corner for the F1 cars), before another hard right turn to skirt the hillside, threading the needle between steel crash barriers on either side of the track. At the end, yet another near hairpin, once again a tight right hander.
It is only at this point that the track turns interesting. After the hairpin of Turn 4, the circuit bends right before the two long left handers on the inside of the Omega before we start turning right again. The slight left of Turn 8, before the two final right handers which then lead back onto the straight.
Those two last corners have been the scene of much drama, and are probably the most exciting part of the course. All three editions have been decided in Turns 9 and 10. Those two corners were where Andrea Iannone put a move on Andrea Dovizioso to take the lead with eight laps to go the first time MotoGP returned to the track in 2016. They were even more decisive in 2017 and 2018, Marc Márquez diving up the inside of Andrea Dovizioso but running wide two years ago, and then chasing Jorge Lorenzo but never close enough to dive past last year.
End of the streak?
Three years, and three Ducati wins, but can the Italian factory maintain its dominance? The track seems perfectly suited to the Desmosedici. It needs hard acceleration, rewarding a bike which has good mechanical grip. It benefits bikes which pull hard in high gear, so the more horsepower on tap, the better the results. And it rewards bikes which are stable in braking, as the riders haul up their bikes at the end of the straights, shedding speed for the tight right handers of Turns 1, 3, and 4. It is one of the toughest tracks for braking on the calendar, up there with Motegi, Barcelona, and Sepang, the bikes spending a third of the lap on the brakes.
Yet there is reason for Andrea Dovizioso, Danilo Petrucci, and Jack Miller to be concerned. The Honda RC213V has made a big step in power and acceleration this year, and his has allowed Marc Márquez to be more competitive at high horsepower tracks. Márquez missed out on victory by 0.176 in 2017, and 0.130 in 2018, and that was on a bike which was no match for the Desmosedici's top speed.
This year could be very different. Marc Márquez is winning at tracks he struggled at in previous years, and when he isn't winning, he is much closer than in the past. The Repsol Honda rider is on a roll, and it is hard to see how anyone can stop him. He is also able to ride differently, make a break at the start, and try to push from the beginning, where in the past he had to bide his time until the final laps. If the Honda can match the speed of the Ducati, then Márquez may have the race won in the first few laps. The Red Bull Ring is now the only circuit where Marc Márquez has not won a race, and he looks like ending that anomaly this weekend.
That is perhaps why the whole saga of Jorge Lorenzo possibly going to Pramac Ducati kicked off in Austria. For the full background to the rumors, read my story from earlier on Thursday, detailing what we know so far. But it boils down to the fact that Jorge Lorenzo has approached Ducati about a return, and Jack Miller is the only Ducati rider who hasn't signed a contract for 2020. Some inside Ducati – particularly Gigi Dall'Igna, if rumor is correct – believe that Lorenzo is their best chance of beating Marc Márquez, and Lorenzo is rumored to be tired of battling an unwilling Honda RC213V, and being thrown from the bike when he loses that battle.
But a lot of things have to happen before Lorenzo could take Miller's place at Ducati. HRC would have to release the Spaniard from his Repsol Honda contract. Ducati would have to sign a new deal with Lorenzo. Ducati would have to find the funds to give Lorenzo a full factory GP20 in the Pramac garage, with factory-level support (a sure demand of the Spaniard). Ducati would also have to be willing to accept the risk of letting Jack Miller head to Repsol Honda, whether that would happen or not. Much is up in the air, and it has all come to a head in Austria.
That won't make any difference come this Sunday, though, albeit it may push Jack Miller to greater heights in the race. On Sunday, Jorge Lorenzo will be absent, and the race will be decided between those present.
Bad memories for Yamaha
Though the race will likely be fought out between the Honda of Marc Márquez and the three Ducatis, there will be plenty of attention paid to the Yamaha garage. The 2018 event was such a disaster that the then Yamaha MotoGP project engineer Kouji Tsuya offered a public apology at the rider debrief after qualifying, before stepping down at the end of the year. In the race, Valentino Rossi finished a commendable sixth, though he was 14 seconds behind the winner, Jorge Lorenzo. Maverick Viñales was a miserable twelfth.
This year, they should not be so bad, at least in theory. The bike doesn't eat tires at the end of the race, as it did in 2018, which should allow the Monster Energy Yamaha riders to maintain their pace for longer. The major fear will be the lack of acceleration, however, as that is the area where the M1 has struggled this season. The three long straights out of slow corners could be very difficult indeed. The 2019 Yamaha M1 has a very different balance in the components of its performance package. We will see if that can make a difference.
The comparison will be made the Suzuki GSX-RR, as both the Suzuki and the Yamaha are built around the same concept: taking a sweet-handling bike and adding horsepower, rather than the Honda and Ducati way of taking a fast and powerful bike and trying to get it round corners.
But Suzuki are handicapped by the loss of Joan Mir at the Red Bull Ring, the Spanish rookie having bruised a lung in a huge crash during testing at Brno. That will leave Alex Rins to contest the Austrian round of MotoGP on his own, and with just one rider on the track, it is easy to head down a rabbit hole of your own data.
The GSX-RR should at least be relatively competitive. The Suzuki has some of the horsepower the Yamaha lacks, and it has traction to go with that horsepower. If Rins can get a good start, he could pose something of a headache for the front runners.
The Red Bull Ring is of course also the home race of KTM, and the pressure on the entire KTM organization is enormous. Not only is the race in the manufacturer's home country, but the circuit it is held at is owned by the team's title sponsor.
Pol Espargaro will relish the pressure that brings, just as he relishes bullying the bike around the Austrian circuit. The Spaniard's results have been mixed, but he has shown the bike has plenty of potential at some tracks. The KTM RC16 is fast, and its weaknesses can be managed around the Red Bull Ring.
Espargaro's Red Bull KTM teammate may not relish the pressure of the weekend quite as much. Johann Zarco has had a miserable first half of the season at KTM, failing utterly to adapt to the bike. Though he got on the front row of the grid at Brno, that was entirely down to conditions, something which he himself acknowledged. The weather in Austria seems less likely to oblige, and it will be of no help at all come Sunday. KTM may have to hope that Tech3 rider Miguel Oliveira can step up and take the load off the shoulders of the Frenchman.
Unpredictable mountain air
The weather should be stable for the weekend, at least, though mountain valleys in the summer are far from predictable. The forecast for the weekend is for good, sunny weather, but they predicted the same for Thursday. And it would have been of little comfort to the campers who got caught in the pouring rain at the campsites which flank the Red Bull Ring that the forecast was wrong, as they wrung out their drenched clothing.
The weather may be the most unpredictable part of the Austrian MotoGP weekend. Let's hope that some of that unpredictability rubs off in the race.
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