We nearly got away with it. The clouds hung heavy over the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg for much of the morning, but it stayed dry for all three classes, and the Red Bull Rookies practice as well – I will leave it to the imagination of the reader as to why the Red Bull Rookies are racing in Spielberg this weekend. But halfway through FP2 for the Moto3 class, at the beginning of the afternoon, the heavens parted and the deluge began.
The weird thing about the rain is that it was so incredibly localized. The Red Bull Ring is a relatively compact circuit, not elongated like Assen, or spread out over a vast territory like Silverstone, so to have a downpour in Turn 3, the track completely soaked and water running across the track, while a few hundred meters downhill, along the front straight and at Turn 1, the track was completely dry, made for impossible conditions. A few Moto3 riders nearly got caught out as they hammered up the hill toward Turn 3, then found themselves unable to brake for the corner and forced to run wide.
And so MotoGP lost out on FP2 almost completely. The track was neither one thing nor the other, soaking wet at the top half, between Turns 3 and 4, and desert dry down the bottom near the pits. It was way too dangerous to go out on slicks, and a waste of time to go out on rain tires and burn up the limited sets they have. The wet parts of the track were wet enough for the soft wets, the dry parts of the track were capable of destroying even the medium wet within a few laps.
Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider Miguel Oliveira summed the afternoon up quite succinctly. "The conditions were useless," the Portuguese rider told us. "A bit tough, because some parts of the track are full wet, the parts that were a little bit further away from the paddock, they were quite wet. But the rest was bone dry, so it was quite tough to understand. For sure it's much more safe to go out with the rain tires, to avoid the crash in the wet, but I don't know if they could last so long. I said it before, if it's like this for the race, I hope that Race Direction will then wait a little bit for the race to start, at least wait for it to dry or get wet completely."
Cal Crutchlow agreed with the KTM rider. "It's pointless to go out in those conditions," the LCR Honda told us. "I was always the guy who loved the intermediate, because you could go out in those conditions with an intermediate with a lot safer margin, a lot more leeway. Obviously, we only have a certain amount of rain tires for the weekend, and we don't know what tomorrow is going to do. We think the medium rain tire is normally – depending on the amount of water, so we have a limited amount of rain tires, so there is no point to go and burn a set now. Yes, you could scrub them in and do a lap, but it's completely pointless."
At the end of the session, the track dried enough for riders to venture out on slicks again, but the times set were pretty meaningless. Pramac Ducati's Jack Miller ended the session as fastest, over 2 seconds slower than the best time set by Pol Espargaro during FP1. "This afternoon it was one of those things," the Australian said. "You sit there all session and then we tried to slicks for a couple of laps for a bit of fun." A bit of fun was about as much use as anyone was going to get out of FP2.
Vengeance is mine
That left Pol Espargaro as quickest after the first day of practice. That should not come as a surprise, given how fired up the Spaniard was after crashing out of the Brno race and then watching his rookie Red Bull KTM Factory Racing teammate go on to score the Austrian manufacturer's first victory. An honor Espargaro had quite rightly expected would fall to him. He was angry, frustrated, and as highly motivated as it is possible to be.
"I just wanted to perform well, and I couldn’t in the last race," Espargaro said. "After so much in this project and to be so close to achieve something and not be able is painful ,and that is why I am trying to make it now. I’m just trying. I had this angry feeling because I felt I had the speed to be where Brad was in the Czech Republic and I couldn’t show it. The worst thing that can happen to a rider is to crash at the beginning of the race because then you cannot show to yourself what you have done. At least if you lose in a fight at the end of a race, you can be angry but at least you could show your full performance. To not be able to show anything is super-super painful and for me it is the worst that can happen in a race…especially how it was."
Though it is hard to draw conclusions from just a single session of practice held under the constant threat of rain, a few riders stuck out in terms of both speed and pace. It was a very tight field, 18 riders within a single second in FP1. That would complicate things even further, Valentino Rossi explained. "All four Yamahas are close, but it looks like it will be difficult because everybody is very fast," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "But it's also true that we are very close with a lot of riders. Looks like today Dovi but also Pol Espargaro and the two Suzukis are very strong. With the others we are there, but very balanced."
Power and traction
If at Brno Aleix Espargaro had claimed that the KTM was the most powerful bike on the grid, the orange bikes looked outgunned by the Ducatis again at Spielberg. Even then, it was close: Andrea Dovizioso was 2 km/h quicker than Pol Espargaro through the speed traps on the run up the hill towards Turn 3. Espargaro insisted that the Ducati had a major advantage in terms of speed. "For sure we are not at Ducati’s level," the factory KTM rider said. I was behind Dovi in FP1 and he is flying on the straight. It is crazy how fast they are, especially how they have traction and pull the bike out of the corners and generate this speed going up. It is amazing."
It wasn't just speed, however, it was also traction, according to Espargaro. "In the end in this track we are talking a lot about power and also traction because they work well exiting from the corners. They are catching the grip very good and they manage the anti-wheelie with electronics to accelerate from these narrow and tough corners that are very close. This is something that maybe we are missing; this acceleration."
Johann Zarco, fresh from a podium on the Avintia Ducati at Brno, was more impressed by the outright power of the Desmosedici. "It’s the power of the bike," he said. "I think the power of the bike was a bigger difference with the other bikes last year. Last year already the Honda with Marc did a big improvement with the engine but still Dovi had an advantage. This year it seems we still have an advantage with the power and the comfort of the power for 25 laps in a row. But we see the KTM is also fast and they did a big improvement in engine. Now Honda, KTM and Ducati they are all three going fast. There is still the Yamaha and the Suzuki with the in-line engine that is still struggling. It’s why the Ducati is so strong because most of the time we are full gas."
Andrea Dovizioso felt that the improvement he had made with the Ducati came not from the power, but from the braking. The factory Ducati rider had struggled in Jerez and Brno, but on a smoother track with more grip, and the heat-resistant tire Michelin have brought, things were a little easier. But they were also easier because he and his engineers had taken a long, hard look at the data of Johann Zarco and Pecco Bagnaia to figure out what they were doing better.
"I think the track help us to be a bit faster because it’s good for our bike," Dovizioso said. "But yesterday I explained we study a lot after Brno. We changed small things in the set-up, especially my way to brake had to change. That helped me come back to a good feeling in the braking. That was the point. I’m happy to feel that. For sure the track helped me because it’s straight braking and more or less everywhere is like that. I was able to be consistent and not just about having good speed."
Dovizioso's future also came up at the Red Bull Ring, as rumors generated by Spanish television linking Jorge Lorenzo to a return to Ducati were diplomatically batted away by Ducati's Davide Tardozzi. "Jorge is an important rider," Tardozzi told DAZN. "He is a rider who has won for Ducati. He has a special place in our hearts."
That naturally led to questions about Andrea Dovizioso. "We will take a decision about Dovizioso after the two races in Austria," Tardozzi said. The official MotoGP feed showed a graphic with that information just as Dovizioso was sitting in his garage, and he laughed about it. Asked about it later, he told us "I was laughing because it looks like Tardozzi is the person who will decide my future but it’s not like that." The person who will decide his future is Gigi Dall'Igna, he told the Italian media.
Given the strained relations between the two, that doesn't bode well for the future. Dovizioso's manager Simone Battistella is due to have a meeting with Ducati on Saturday, he told Italian broadcaster Sky. Dovizioso's future should become a little clearer after that.
While Pol Espargaro topped the timesheets, his race-winning teammate languished much further down the order. Brad Binder had his work cut out getting used to riding a MotoGP bike at the Red Bull Ring. Everything happened faster, and braking points needed completely recalibrating he explained. "This track is so different on the MotoGP bike," the South African said. "The line choice is completely different. It took me a long time to try and find my feet at this track. Also the braking zones, to try and find a good point where to start braking was difficult. I didn’t really do many good laps this morning and I was looking forward to more in the afternoon but unfortunately the weather was shocking."
Despite being eight tenths behind his teammate, Binder was not overly concerned. "I knew today was going to be tough and I knew if I had FP2 session it would have been a different story because I didn’t get a lap in the morning. I was losing 0.5 to 0.7 in one sector." Sector 2, which runs from just before Turn 3 along the top straight and around Turn 4, was where he was struggling, Binder explained. "If I fix that straightaway then I am really in the mix, I’m quite happy. Today was quite cool. It’s strange: you have to brake deep and not really prepare the exit as much as you do on a Moto2 bike and I expected the opposite. It is important now to check through all the data and reset and try again tomorrow."
Maverick Viñales, who had had a miserable race at Brno, gave some clarity as to where the problems lay in Brno, problems which were continuing in Austria."Right now it is mid-corner where I have the most problem, because I don’t have grip on banking and because of that I am losing in acceleration," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider explained. With no grip while the bike was leaned over, it made it hard to carry corner speed and drive out of corners. "We don’t have acceleration or rear grip on the banking, so compared to Jerez it seems like we not turning at all. So we need to understand how to improve that turning first of all then see how we can improve the rest. Tomorrow I want to improve the turning but then also the front feeling is not good. There are a lot of things that can affect our performance."
Chief performance concern of the Yamahas is the fact that they are in trouble with their engines, after three blowups in the first two rounds at Jerez. Yamaha believe they have located the problem, and believe they can fix it, but it requires the engines to be unsealed and then sealed again. That is not permitted without the express permission of the MSMA, the manufacturers association, who most vote unanimously to allow it.
The rules state that such changes may only be made "for sealed parts that are solely associated with safety issues and which have no performance benefit," according to the FIM regulations. Yamaha have to present documentation explaining why this is a safety issue, and how the change will not allow a performance gain.
Above all, they have to persuade the other MSMA members to allow them to make the change. That can be tricky: Yamaha riders occupy the top three places in the MotoGP championship, Yamaha leads the manufacturers championship, and the two Yamaha teams lead the teams championship.
The other factories need be in no hurry to make a decision, as until Yamaha get permission to unseal their engines, they have had to reduce the revs of the M1 motor, to help with engine life. Fabio Quartararo issued an unconvincing denial when asked about the lower revs. "Actually I have no idea about this," he stammered. "But actually I have no idea. Actually I hope to have more power but I have no idea about the revs, so that's more a question to ask to our team members."
Valentino Rossi was a little more forthcoming. "A little bit, yes," he replied when asked about having fewer revs to play with. "But the top speed for us is always a weak point, from a long time. And on paper this track is difficult because all the straights are very long. In all the top speed sheets we are in a very low position! So it looks like our bike has other strong points but we suffer in top speed."
The fact that Yamaha are doubly handicapped in Austria may persuade Honda, for example, to delay making a decision and ask for more data until after the next two rounds. The fewer points Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales score at the Red Bull Ring, the greater the chances of Marc Márquez having a distant shot at defending his MotoGP title once he returns, most probably at Misano. Eventually, the MSMA are likely to comply – they know that one day, the shoe could be on the other foot, and they could be coming cap in hand after making a minor but costly miscalculation. But that doesn't mean they have to be in any hurry to help the factory which is threatening to clean up in 2020.
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