A short hop over the Alps – or rather, a short drive south, and then west between the Alps, to avoid the slow but spectacular progress over the mountain passes to the north of Spielberg – and the MotoGP paddock reassembles at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. From one of the best tracks on the calendar, plagued by financial problems, to one of the best-funded tracks on the calendar, plagued by the fact that, well, frankly, it's not a very good circuit for motorcycle racing.
The setting is spectacular, nestled at the foot of the hills rising from the valley of the river Mur and heading up to snow-capped peaks a couple of kilometers skywards. The circuit sits on a slope at the bottom of those hills, making for a surprisingly steep climb up to Turn 1, then up the hill to Turn 3, along the hillside to Turn 4, before rolling down through a huge Omega right-left-right combination to get back to the bottom of the hill, and the straight which runs along it.
But the circuit belies its heritage, as a spectacular but treacherous mountain circuit crossing hills and woods. And like many mountain circuits, there is little room for mistakes, with runoff limited at Turn 1, Turn 3, between the barriers from Turn 3 to Turn 4, and at the bottom of the hill into the final corner. In the dry, it is all just about manageable. But in the wet, it can be a terrifying place.
Hard rain is going to fall
Especially because when it is wet, it not due to drizzle like you might find at Silverstone or Assen. This is a track wedged in a valley between two rows of mountains, and summer in the Alps means rapidly changing weather. Sunshine can turn to soaring cumulonimbus clouds, where the warm air rising from the sun-soaked valley floor hits the cold mountain air above, the moisture it carries condenses into big fat droplets. Once these reach a critical mass, they all head back earthward, dumping a mass of water onto the valley – and in this case, the valley containing the Red Bull Ring – in a very short space of time, usually to the accompaniment of a mass of thunder and lightning as the static electricity generated by this movement of air and moisture in multiple directions is discharged.
In other words, it never rains at the Red Bull Ring, but it pours. And when it pours, it leaves the circuit with rivers of water many centimeters deep. That makes riding pretty much impossible, no matter how good the rain tires are brought by Michelin and Dunlop.
Thankfully the track dries relatively quickly, but even in the damp the track can be treacherous. Heavily used by cars, especially F1 – the pinnacle of four-wheeled racing held two rounds here back in July, when it kicked off its own restarted 2020 season – the four fat tires of racing cars smear a lot of rubber over the track in the many heavy-braking sections which litter the circuit. In the past, the circuit has undertaken action to sandblast the rubber accumulation from the track. Without that action, the Red Bull Ring is like ice in the wet, and thoroughly unsafe.
We have already seen the action halted in the past, as in 2018 when the rain fell so heavily that riding became impossible. Could that happen this year? It seems a racing certainty, looking at the weather forecast for the coming weekend. The weather in Spielberg is often unstable, and rain is predicted for some point during all three days of this weekend.
Cause for concern
The threat of rain does not fill the MotoGP riders with confidence, though most are diplomatic in their criticism of one of the biggest sponsors of teams, riders, and the MotoGP series itself. Cal Crutchlow – backed by rival caffeinated sugar solution producer Monster Energy – is one of the blunter critics of the track. "I don’t like riding here in the rain, honestly," the LCR Honda rider said. "Over the last couple of years I didn't like riding anywhere in the rain, but I mean this one is honestly like ice. And it's not as if there is a lot of run-off. We're all pretty concerned about that."
Crutchlow reeled off a list of the worst parts of the circuit. "Turn 1, Turn 3, Turn 4, Turn 8-9, the last corner!" he said, naming six of the ten corners the circuit has officially. Or six of the nine, if you regard calling the kink climbing up the hill Turn 2 an overstatement of what is not really a corner. " I'm not a rider that's scared, I don’t ride around thinking 'oh my god this is close' and stuff like that. But I just think with our bikes in the rain at this circuit, it's already dangerous enough in the dry, let alone the rain."
Standing water is the issue. "When I was here on Tuesday afternoon, it rained for a couple of hours and the water was ankle deep on the track. Because there's a lot of undulations here, it sits from turn 1 to turn 2, this kink, right at the bottom where we start to shut the throttle. There was a lot of standing water. I watched a van go around actually and the spray coming off it was incredible."
Riding on water
Jack Miller – long-term Red Bull athlete, but still not afraid to speak his mind – agreed with Crutchlow that the track was dangerous in the wet. "100%" was his assessment. "If I had an umbrella I’d be going outside now and taking a photo of the waterfall coming down the track toward Turn 1. It’s downhill so it’s an easy run for the water. You end up with water than deep running down the track and we have to ride in it at 300+ kph with aquaplaning and all that. The surface area of the tire is only this big at the best of times."
Miller made the comparison with Suzuka, removed from the MotoGP calendar back in 2004 after Daijiro Kato lost his life there the previous year. "For sure this track itself is not the safest on the calendar by far," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "And then to throw all the wet conditions into it, it’s not ideal. The braking at turn 3 is very similar to Suzuka in the last corner. The issue they had there and why they stopped going there is because you’re braking towards a wall. If you lose the front you’re going into a wall."
Crutchlow was clear that those walls needed to be dealt with. "It needs every single wall in the whole circuit pushed back by a long long way," he said. "It's not as if they are struggling for money to do it, is it? I think they have the money to push some walls back here. And it's the service road they would have to eat into and then they would have to eat into something else. Obviously, I don’t know the situation, but I'm sure they own the land! But we have asked and they did move a couple of things back a couple years ago, but it's still not enough that's for sure. But there's only so much you can do."
Things have improved
Not everyone was as negative as Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller, but all were acutely aware of the problems posed by the track. "I think that in the past, we had some problems in the braking for Turn 1 and Turn 3, because there were a lot of crashes, especially with the Moto2," Valentino Rossi told the press conference. "Maybe the problem was that there was a lot of rubber on the ground and it became very slippery with the water. But after that, I think that they cleaned the track deeply, and the situation became better. So we will see if it's safe enough. But I hope anyway for a dry race."
Johann Zarco made the point that the problem was more for the motorcycles themselves than for the riders. The bikes were sliding further in the wet than the riders, and hitting the walls, while the riders, being much lighter than the bikes, weren't as likely to reach the barriers. "We are speaking about the safety of the track, because it's not always that a bike crashes from straight, and overall the bike, when it crashes here, it is going so far, and that's why we were a bit surprised," the Avintia Ducati rider recalled. "But I think that for the rider it was not so bad, there was still space, enough space to slide. But I think with less rubber and different conditions, we can be safe. And if it's very heavy rain just before practice, the practice I guess will be a little bit delayed, to allow the rain to calm down. We can ride in the wet, but not in full rain. And Race Direction will always wait a little bit for this."
It will be up to Race Direction to make a call, because the riders themselves cannot be trusted to stick together for long enough, Cal Crutchlow warned. "The problem with this is somebody will leave the pit lane and it forces everybody to leave the pit lane," the LCR Honda rider said. "This is racing. It's like when you go testing and somebody is out on track, if forces somebody else to go on track. You don't want to a disadvantage against your competitors so you go out even if you're not feeling great or feeling happy. It’s like a rider coming back injured, the other rider has to come back as well!"
The issue is fundamental to the competitive nature of the sport, Crutchlow explained. "It's an ever repeating circle that you will have one, two or five guys that are willing to risk it, so the rest have to go out because they can't lose that information. And their teams will force them to go out and everyone will say it's okay to go out. But I don’t believe this place is particularly safe in the rain and I'm a guy that's had some great results in the rain."
For everyone concerned, they can put their hope in the fact that rain is far from a certainty. TThe weather in the mountains is unpredictable. "I mean it looks thunderstormy," Crutchlow said. "Yesterday we only had a spit of rain and it was supposed to rain all day. So it's difficult to say whether it will rain or not."
The unpredictability of the weather makes predictions about who might be fast at the Red Bull Ring extremely difficult. The chances of dry practice time for a dry race look limited at best. And mixed conditions during practice can cause havoc for qualifying, which could make the race an unpredictable affair. So your guess as to who will benefit is as good as anyone's.
The one factory who have had testing time at the Red Bull Ring is KTM. That, though, was six weeks ago, just after the lockdown ended and preparations began for the restarted 2020 season. Even then, Brad Binder – winner last time out at Brno – did not get a chance to ride, as he was still in isolation after just arriving from South Africa. The value of that test will likely be limited.
But if there is one thing the Brno MotoGP race taught us, it is that the KTM has arrived as a competitive motorcycle. Binder may have proved it by winning the race, but that performance was backed up by the fact that Pol Espargaro was on track for a podium until his collision with Johann Zarco, and Miguel Oliveira fought his way forward to cross the line in sixth after starting thirteenth.
"I saw that the strongest guys in the field in Brno were three KTMs. This make me very disappointed," Aleix Espargaro said. The Spaniard had hoped that Aprilia would have made the step to being competitive before the Austrian factory. "KTM arrived later than us. All we can do is applaud them because they’ve done a great job. With a completely different mentality to the rest of the brands with their own chassis system. The level they showed last year with Pol was already one really good step. This year with Pol, Binder and Oliveira they’re very, very strong. I’m trying, working super hard doing everything I have in this project with Aprilia."
Speed, power, drive
The strength of the RC16 was in its motor, Aleix Espargaro said. "Following them in electronics they made one big step forward. But for me the biggest difference is the pure power. It’s a rocket. It looks like for me when they put the bike straight it looks like to me the Ducati in the best times in Austria two years ago. It’s unbelievable the traction that they have with the power. It’s unbelievable. Overall the feeling I have with the Aprilia, I don’t think it’s a worse bike than the KTM. But the engine is the difference. They have a lot of power. So they are able to brake very, very late, not stress so much in corner speed and then make difference by accelerating."
Cal Crutchlow was most impressed by the way the KTMs were able to preserve their tires, he said. "I think the only people that know the way to go at this circuit at the moment is KTM, because they've tested. And they already have a great bike and a great rider and a big advantage from last weekend. So I expect them to be at the front in every session. And they were the only ones that were able to manage that tire last week as well, honestly speaking. If you look all weekend really, the pace from Brad and Pol, they've found a way to be able to manage this tire, this year, and it showed in the last race. So you have to worry about them for this weekend."
Bike AND rider
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider Pol Espargaro grew a little weary of being told that KTM was only succeeding because they had the best bike. "In the end what can I tell you? We were faster than the others," he told the media. But he felt that KTM were being judged more harshly than other race-winning manufacturers. "Yamaha, when they are winning are not complaining about the top speed. Ducati, when they are winning, are not complaining about rear grip."
The bike was good, Espargaro said, but the riders were pretty impressive too. "Our bike is amazing. It’s funny to hear all these things and it means we are doing the things very good. Maybe it is the riders also no? It means we are also doing a good job. If it was just the bike then Yamaha was winning not Quartararo, Ducati and Honda not Marquez. When someone wins it is because they are very good and very fast and when it is the KTM then the bike is very good! That’s funny," he said testily.
Ducati country, still?
Who can stop the KTMs? A Ducati has won every single race held here since MotoGP returned to the Red Bull Ring, but the advantage they used to have has diminished each year. Added to this, Ducati have lost their way, the more experienced Ducati riders struggling to get to grips with the new Michelin rear tire, while relative newcomers to the brand, Pecco Bagnaia and Johann Zarco, were much more competitive. The first order of business for Ducati is to figure out a way to get faster again, a task made a little easier by the fact that they will be racing a stiffer carcass rear tire brought to handle the loads of the fastest circuit on the calendar.
Ducati have had time to examine the data of the last couple of races, especially of Johann Zarco's podium-setting pace at Brno, ahead of the race this weekend. "For sure we’ve had some time to go over the data," Jack Miller said. "Ducati have done a lot of comparisons with Zarco, with the race from last year, all this information."
That didn't necessarily mean they have a solution, however. "The problem we have is we know where we were missing. To understand exactly why is another question. For the moment this is an issue we have," Miller said. "A lot of it we put it down to the lack of grip that we had in Czech with the track conditions of the asphalt. Because in other tracks like in Jerez where the grip is really good, or in Qatar, where we have normal asphalt conditions, the bike seems to work really, really well. That is the biggest issue it looks like at the moment. Back here now at Spielberg the asphalt seems to be in really good condition."
Good grip should help the Ducatis be more competitive, and take the fight to the KTMs. But the whole of the field is more competitive – the Brno MotoGP race was the sixth closest top fifteen in the 71-year history of Grand Prix racing, the top ten races all having taken place in the last four seasons – meaning that there should be more players at the front. The Yamaha may lack top speed, it still has plenty of drive grip and stronger acceleration in the past. On a smoother track with better grip than Brno, all four Yamaha M1s are likely to be a factor. Fabio Quartararo will want to consolidate his lead in the championship, while Maverick Viñales will want to make amends for a miserable Brno. Valentino Rossi and Franco Morbidelli, for their part, will want to build on strong races at Brno to challenge for the podium.
The Suzukis, too, could be a factor. Alex Rins had an outstanding race in the Czech Republic, coming home in fourth and just missing out on the podium. The Suzuki GSX-RR had the acceleration to stay with the faster bikes, Rins insisted. "I think so. We improve the bike. We improve the engine compared to last year. Also the aerodynamics. Let’s see if we are more close here in Austria. For sure compared to KTM, Honda, Ducati on the acceleration they will always be one step ahead of us because of the V4 engine. But we have to getting close. We know we have a good corner speed. Let’s see if we can also have good speed, good acceleration."
The track may be easier on Rins' shoulder as well, the Spaniard suffering more in the long corners at Brno. There are far fewer long corners at the Red Bull Ring, and the really long corner there are left handers. Rins is in with a chance in Austria, though he will need above all to be careful not to fall off and crash. A big crash on his right shoulder could end his season completely.
This weekend, of course, is also a dress rehearsal. If anyone gets it wrong in the next couple of days, they need merely be patient, and study where they went wrong. They get another chance at the circuit in a week's time.
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